Italians often make fun of tourists because they say they can spot a non-Italian a mile off, whether it be for their lack of style or their tendency to fall for tourist traps as opposed to living and eating like a local. Whether you’re keen to blend in aesthetically from a fashion perspective, to be culturally sensitive (so as to interact with the Italians and get invited to someone’s home for mamma’s cooking) or just to avoid being charged double the price for a piece of pizza, these tips could be helpful…
1. Flesh is not in fashion
The absolute fastest way to spot a tourist is by the lack of clothing – from women in miniskirts to men in shorts and singlet tops. This might be the land of passion and amore, but the Italians believe that short hemlines, open shoes (we’ll get to that later) and sleeveless shirts leave little to the imagination and prefer a look that is more elegante. Many people come to Italy and assume cleavage or overtly sexy dresses will fit right in, however, it elicits the opposite reaction among the locals. Italian men love the female body, but they shudder at foreigners who treat the city as though it were the beach. And vice versa. At night, a male will almost always don long pants, even in a casual setting or on a steamy summer evening.
2. Flip-flops, thongs, Birkenstocks are not for the city
Again, there is a clear distinction between the somewhat reserved dress code in the city and the carefree style you’ll find at the beach. Girls and women of all ages will run around in Brazilian bikinis by the water’s edge with complete abandon; conversely, in any kind of city or town, a closed ballet flat for women and a men’s loafer is always preferable to flip-flops, even in the peak of summer. Plus from a practical perspective, if you traipse around Rome in open shoes you’ll probably find your feet will be very dirty by the end of the day.
3. Tables are for tourists
Italians will hardly ever sit down when they order coffee or a pastry in a cafe. Head straight for the counter and take your caffé standing up with the locals. It may seem more relaxing to rest your feet, but you’ll only be surrounded by other tourists, you’ll miss out on all the local gossiping and flirting among the Italians at the bar, and you’ll generally be charged double the price for table service.
4. Timing is everything
You only order a cappuccino in the morning – ask for one in the afternoon and they’ll roll their eyes and say, “You are Americano, no?” After lunch or dinner, coffee (we’re talking black espresso) is ordered and brought to the table only after the desserts are finished, never at the same time. You’ll actually find that hot milk after a big meal is really bad for digestion and the bitterness of an espresso becomes such a perfect way to cleanse the palate after rich flavours that now I cannot end a meal without a little shot.
And no-one goes to dinner at 7.30 or 8pm. You’ll find restaurants open, but crammed with only weary bumbag-belted day-trippers, and not an Italian in sight. They’ll all be doing aperitivo, the equivalent of happy hour that is the national pastime almost every night of the week. In practically all bars and restaurants, and even many hotels, you order a drink around sunset and there will be a range of delicious complimentary snacks such as couscous with vegetables (this North African influence is quite common in Italian cuisine), little pizzas, bruschetta, bean salads, frittata and cold meats such as prosciutto and salami. Only after they’ve whet their appetite and stood around socialising for a few hours with an Aperol Spritz or a Prosecco in hand, will Italians consider making their way con calma (without rushing) to dinner at around 10.30pm.
Don’t even think about swimming until at least three hours have passed since your last meal. Everyone knows it’s best not to swim on a full stomach, but the Italians have a veritable fear of even wetting their feet if that full waiting period has not yet elapsed.
5. Your two most useful words are…
When you get into a taxi, enter a store, first encounter your waiter or need to ask information in the street, be aware that until midday it’s polite to greet friends and strangers with buon giorno, but after the clock strikes 12, move straight to saying buona sera (good evening). Although ‘good afternoon’ would translate literally as ‘buon pomeriggio’ – it is hardly ever used. When you’re leaving somewhere you may hear them say to you ‘buon proseguimento’, which means ‘enjoy the rest of your journey’, even if that ‘journey’ involves walking across the street to stuff your face with a gelato (we’re not talking epic journeys here it’s more about wishing you a pleasant day). While you may be familiar with the greeting ‘Ciao’, it’s a very colloquial way to greet friends and the more polite greeting to anyone is either ‘buon giorno’ or ‘buona sera’. I find I use this on the telephone, when speaking with either a young teenage waiter, an angry policeman or an elderly nun. These two greetings are really so useful as they can be used with anyone in any setting. Even ‘arriverderci’ is questionable as it’s the informal greeting and technically shouldn’t be used with people you’ve just met.
6. Seduce an Italian with small change
Wherever you are paying, whether in a bar, clothing store or market, you will inevitably hear the pleading or gruff question, “spiccioli?” – a request for coins. Pay an Italian with the exact change down to the cent and they will love you for life; hand them a €10 note, even for something that costs €7.50, and they’ll theatrically throw their hands up at the tragedia of it all.