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Tips and Tricks for Living Abroad in Italy

Visiting the Trevi Fountain in Italy

In our new series on Go Overseas, we’re helping to answer those cultural questions you may have before heading off on a new international adventure. Each week we’ll pick a new destination at random and lay out the most important steps you can take to be more culturally aware (unless you have one in particular you’d like to ask about-- send us your questions!).

We’ll begin with the inspiration for the saying, 'When in Rome', which means we’re talking about Italy, of course!

Proper Greetings in Italy

As with many countries in Europe, it's considered proper to say hello, or “Buon giorno!” when entering retail establishments, rather than the North American way of entering a store quietly, only speaking when a sales rep approaches.

If you're introduced to someone new, shake hands instead of waving. If in a group, shake each hand individually as a sign of interest and respect. And PLEASE, no limp, weak, dead-fish hand shakes. Nobody likes that.

Say "Ciao" to Your Personal Space

North Americans (myself included) have this thing about personal space. Guess what? Italians aren't as socially awkward, so props to them for that. Don't be surprised if people you're chatting with in Italy stand close to you.

Additionally, expect to keep eye contact. It doesn't mean anything romantic/creepy/invasive/whatever. In fact, if they continuously look away from you, it most likely means they're bored, and nobody likes to be boring, so take the attention as a positive.

USEFUL ITALIAN PHRASES:
  • Ciao — “Holler”
  • Come ti chiami? — What’s your name?
  • Non so guidare con le marce — I can’t drive a stick shift.
  • Aperitivo — Happy hour
  • Non capisco — I don’t understand.
  • Paga tutto lui — This gentleman will pay for it all.
  • Baciami — Kiss me.

Deal with the Cat Calls

Cat calls are part of Italy. While it may seem annoying and disrespectful to have men you don't know calling out at you, there’s really no way to avoid it, and getting angry only gives them a more entertaining reaction.

Besides, what’s so wrong with being called “bella” just for walking down the street? Really, it’s a self-esteem booster, and I like the minimal effort required in exchange for the compliment!

Connections are Key

If you're waiting in a queue and somebody who's clearly chummy with those running the establishment walks right up and cuts the line, just be cool. If someone does that in the States, we're all chomping at the bit to call out the line-jumper. How dare he?!?! It's not the same in Italy. Just calm the heck down. You're on holiday, after all.

Gestures to Avoid

Point, rub your chin with your fingertips, make devil horns with your hands and point them at somebody, slap your arm above the elbow, or thumb your nose, 'cause all of these things are akin to flipping the bird.

Dress Modestly

If you plan on visiting churches or the Vatican (and really, if you don't, you’d be missing out big time on one of the coolest parts of Italy, whether you’re religious or not), be prepared to cover up.

One’s shoulders and knees must be covered, and that goes for most religious establishments in Europe. Why? It’s considered a sign of disrespect to dress scantily in a house of worship. Some establishments will provide paper to cover up, and others won’t. Avoid missing out by bringing clothing with you that covers your knees, and a shawl to cover your shoulders; it’s compact, light, and can easily be taken on or off in the hot summer months.

The beautiful countryside of Tuscany

Be Vigilant

Sadly, there are pickpockets galore in Italy. You MUST be vigilant about your property. Do not wear backpacks, long purses, or let your belongings out of your sight at any time (times ten!).

Pickpockets are crafty in Italy. You may have no idea you are near one, or even talking to one, until it is too late. Common schemes include sending children to beg for money, then stealing the bag once you’ve opened it, distracting you so that you do not notice that you have been robbed, and grabbing belongings at mass transit stops, then hopping out of the car right as the doors are closing. Sadly, I have a lot of friends who were held at knifepoint after falling asleep on a train--or who found themselves alone late at night--and were forced to give up their belongings.

To avoid becoming a statistic, ladies, use a small purse with a short strap that you can hug directly under your arm or close to your body. Some people also choose to wear hidden packs around their torsos (be aware that pickpockets are onto this method). Boys, if you’re going to keep your belongings in your pockets, it would be best to wear pants or shorts with pockets that zip. Be especially vigilant on public transit and heavy tourist areas.

WHAT DO FORMER TRAVELERS THINK?

@NatForeignMag says: “Slow down (Italians literally walk slower), watch out for suspicious nightclub fees, beware of gypsies & eat lots of gelato!”

@SemBarista says:“[Italians] are not as punctual as you might think. Lots of thefts there so they are always on their toes. LOL!”

@Awanderingsole says: "The ticket to the Roman Colosseum is a combination ticket that also includes the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill. Therefore, don't spend a lengthy amount of time standing in line at the Colosseum. Start across the street and purchase your ticket at the other two sites; the line over there is generally much shorter. You can also purchase your ticket online and avoid the wait altogether."

What did we miss? Leave your tips in the comments section, and send us some of the countries you’re planning on visiting for future posts!

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Photo of Kristin Addis

Kristin Addis is a native Californian and former investment banker who quit her job and sold off all of her belongings in favor of becoming a nomad in Asia. Now she travels solo seeking off-the-beaten path adventures. There is almost nothing she won't try! She blogs at Be My Travel Muse. Follow her on Twitter @bemytravelmuse and Google+.