You’ve been accepted to a school in Italy. Congratulations! That was the easy part; going to a new country for longer than a week can be a bit of a challenge. Speaking from experience, culture shock is a frightening situation that can happen even to the best of us. The best way to combat culture shock is to remove the ‘shock’ from the situation by learning as much about the Italian way of life as you can so you know what to expect when you get here.
Here’s a list of some of some things to know as well as tips on packing, exploring, and making the most of your time here in Italy.
Everybody Talks, But Not Like Italians
Italians like to talk. We Americans will walk into a coffee shop, order a grande, caramel macchiato, and stare at our feet until our order is called. Italians don’t do that. “Ciao! Come stai!” From the barista to the customers, Italians are incredibly social people. They will start a conversation with you and ask how you are. Living in such a different culture gives students the perfect opportunity to practice Italian; there’s no better way to learn a language than to go out and speak it.
PRO TIP: find a nice cafe and frequent there often. Get to know the owner and the employees. You’d be amazed how friendly they can be and how willing they are to help you learn the language. Think of it as a barista-with-benefits: coffee, croissant, and Italian class.
Who Let The Dogs Out
Of course Italians love their dogs. They’re human; it’s in their contract. No, their love goes further than that. Almost every pup I have seen gracing the wonderful streets of Florence has donned a lovely, puffy coat. From rottweilers to shitzus, each and every one of them is bundled up for the winter, which is such a weird thing. Let me remind you, the average temperature of Florence in January is 45 degrees Fahrenheit; that’s not even cold enough to see your breath. This begs the question: do Italians put coats on their collies for the sake of safety and warmth or for the flare of fashion? The world may never know.
PRO TIP: while personal hygiene is a must, puppy hygiene doesn’t always follow suit. Watch where you walk, or you might find yourself stepping in a stinky situation.
Florence, Italy is this interesting mix of exactly the kind of old school, Italian town that you think it’s going to be with just a dash of eye-level, American consumerism. The exterior of the buildings look exactly like the photos you see on Google– red roofs, green shudders, a city rich in history– and then you get here and ‘Valentino’ and ‘Michael Kors’ have their names shining above the doorway. There are a lot of modern day shops toward the tourist center of the city; there’s even a Disney store. It creates an interesting conglomerate of a historic past meets an ever-changing future. You can walk the same cobblestone streets as Leonardo da Vinci while simultaneously eating a Big Mac.
The way that people navigate the city is also ever-changing. Florence can get pretty busy during tourist season but the city’s infrastructure hasn’t always been able to keep up.
Unlike in New York City, where pedestrians will wait in hoards on the street corner for the light to change so they can cross, here in Florence, crowds of people will walk in the streets themselves until taxis beep (well, toot really) them back to the sidewalk. In the more rural parts of town, some streets only have enough sidewalk space for a single person to walk.
PRO TIP: Italians have a very casual, slow paced culture where nothing is done today that could be done tomorrow. Florentine transportation clearly missed this memo. While drivers are always on the lookout for stray pedestrians, always look both ways before crossing the street.
Despite their strong fashion sense, Italians don’t seem to have any sense of personal space. That’s not to say that they are rude people who will get in your face for no reason; they just do not comprehend the idea of a ‘personal bubble’ the way that Americans do. For example, when standing in line at the grocery store, if you keep a comfortable distance between you and the customer in front of you, someone else might step right in front of you because they do not think you are in line. It’s almost an ‘aggressive’ culture; not in the nasty way, but it forces us self-conscious Americans to be more assertive. If you don’t speak up at the counter of the cafe, you will never get your order taken.
Don’t let this scare you. Italians are very nice people and most speak at least a little English. If you need help or something doesn’t feel right, just speak up.
Stay tuned for Part 2.
Danielle Dirks is studying Visual and Communication Design at @smol_stuf and blogs at elmwoodandmaple.blogspot.com.