If you’ve always dreamed of going to Italy for a semester (or for much longer), then you should follow your heart and go. Italy is a beautiful country with an enviable landscape, wonderful food, and a fascinating history. You can experience all of this and so much more. And it’s the “so much more” that I wasn’t quite prepared for. So, before you head over to the big boot, try to remove any misconceptions you might have before you get here. It will make your transition that much easier.
To get you started, here are 5 areas of Italian culture that threw me for a loop.
When my Italian boyfriend asked me to join him in Italy, I said, “Sure! Of course!” I’d already spent a year in Germany completing my bachelor’s degree, so I figured: Germany? Italy? I’ve got this.
Boy, was I wrong. Germany and Italy have one thing in common: Europe. After that, you’re in two different worlds. Germany is incredibly organized, methodical, and punctual — all of which I really value, and none of which I’ve found (to date) here in Italy. So, if you’re looking for timeliness, structure, and systematization, stop! Instead, learn to enjoy the chaos and the humor that comes with it.
For example, I had to ship a package and I ended up visiting three separate post offices. Each one gave me a different price. Obviously, I went with the lowest price.
In general, the public offices aren’t efficient. If you have an appointment at 11 AM, so do 40 other people, and there is no recourse but to wait. I’ve learned to schedule lots of time for what should be a 20-minute gig and pack a good book — I’ll probably be able to finish it.
If I had to choose the worst expat experiences yet, it would be at the Italian consulates in the United States. And unfortunately, the arbitrary and utter mayhem that defines “consulate” exists in both countries. Incorrect forms and information, tardy replies (if any), unreachable employees, or insolent employees when you do reach them. Truly a nightmare from start to finish. Please prepare yourself for what will be the most mind-boggling display of human behavior that you may ever witness.
2. Customer Service
Essentially, there is none. Now, if you visit a privately owned shop or talk with a real artisan or chef, they’ll be more than happy to share their stories, laughs, and little secrets with you. But if you contact your phone company because they overcharged you for a service you haven’t had in two months, you’ll get nowhere except crazy town.
During our internet famine, we contacted “customer service” twice every day, only to be told something different by each and every representative. All we could do was wait and overdose on chill pills.
“Office Hours” are also a hit or miss, and this can take some getting used to. Open two hours one day, three hours on another, sometimes afternoon, sometimes morning. Nothing like American offices, but with time you start to adjust.
3. What Rules?
At the University of Siena, the professor allowed me (as most professors do) to take an exam immediately after the course ended. I didn’t realize that this is actually against university policy and a big no-no — everyone does it. If you walk down the halls, you’ll see crowds of nervous students, all waiting to take their illegal exam, just as I had done. The student office laid into me for doing this and I felt blindsided. Of course, they knew that everyone does it, but I had been the naïve one, waltzing into the Student Office and actually admitting it.
Rules do exist, but there’s a very subjective and loose interpretation of them. That goes for things like parking, apartment leases, working in the black, and overstaying your visa. It just depends on who you happen to interact with. Sometimes you get lucky, but as a foreigner, without the insider’s advantage, be careful!
The only thing that is not subjective here is food. On the contrary, it’s sacrosanct. When it comes to food, there is something like order, service, and rules. And while I can appreciate this no-nonsense approach, stemming from age-old tradition, there are times when I miss the ability to eat an easy dinner at 6 PM and not be considered odd if I eat eggs and veggies for breakfast. Of course, you can eat whatever you want, but because the expectations are set in stone, it might be difficult to honor your own individual preferences without looking, well, foreign.
Lastly, time is a general reference point — a ball park figure. If someone says “10 minutes,” it’s roughly the same thing as 40 minutes — give or take a few. Again, the only time when time matters is when we’re talking about food.
Slowly, you begin to ease into the Italian mentality, and while this article might seem like a long bash on Italy, I hope you’ll realize, as I did, that it’s a country full of fascinating (albeit confounding) characters who live a certain way. It’s not the way I was accustomed to, so at first it seemed “bad.” Now, it just seems “Italian.”
Featured photo credit: MorgueFile via mrg.bz