Don’t forget to read Part 2.
“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.”
IT’S ALL AN ILLUSION
Welcome to picturesque Italy with its charming villages and rich, culinary palette and clothes hanging on lines above the street. We can thank Hollywood for this romantic illusion. Italians feel it is a waste of energy and money to use a dryer to dry their clothes, hence the window-to-window clotheslines. Here in Florence, however, it is against the law to dry clothes outside of one’s window. This requires either a quick trip to the laundromat to dry your slacks (for quite the pretty penny) or hang them on a rack inside for a few hours. For things like towels or heavy sweaters, try laying them on top of the radiator to speed up the process.
PRO TIP: the water can be harsh and the washer even harsher. Invest in some fabric softener to keep your clothes from getting stiff while drying.
USCIRE: TO GO OUT
From vegan Italian to 20th century, American-style diners, Florence has a little something for everyone. But Italian restaurants tend to differ a bit compared to their American counterparts.
Tipping is a considerate imperative when going out to eat in America; this isn’t the case here. Italian waiters get paid a living wage and tipping is neither normal nor expected (but of course, is always appreciated).
Italian restaurants, and some cafes, will often charge a service fee of one to two euro per person for sitting at the table, but in paying that fee, the table is yours for the evening. The waiter will not bring over the check unless you ask him to, as this is considered rude behavior, as though the restaurant is telling you to leave by bringing you the check as soon as you are finished eating.
Here’s a few more restaurant facts to keep in mind:
- If a waiter is standing outside the restaurant and trying to coax you in, don’t do it. It’s probably a tourist trap.
- If the waiter brings you a dish of Parmesan cheese to sprinkle on your pasta, it’s probably a tourist trap. This is not customary of Italians. When your food is brought to you, it means the chef has prepared your meal perfectly and nothing else needs to be added to it. Heaping spoonfuls of shredded cheese butchers this plate of perfection.
- Water is not free. It comes in a large, liter-sized bottle that is shared between all the glasses at the table. You have the choice of normal (acqua naturale) or sparkling (acqua frizzante).
- Aperitivo: one drink, all-you-can-eat buffet, occasional live music on the weekends, usually between 8-12 euros (depending on where you go). It’s a must for anyone living in Italy. Try aperitivo at Nabucco restaurant; it’s right around the corner from the San Gallo campus.
- Missing the taste of home? Just walk down the street from the Main Campus to the American Diner. Look for Marilyn Monroe.
- Pictured above is Sandwichic: every study abroad student’s obsession. They have a specially priced menu just for college kids, meaning you can get a sandwich and a bottle of water, espresso, or glass of wine for just 4.50 euro. The staff are incredibly sweet and always greet me by name and give me tips on speaking Italian. The best part? It’s only a block away from San Gallo campus.
STARE DENTRO: TO STAY IN
Things you’re unlikely to find in a Florentine grocery store: Doritos, boxed mac & cheese, and high-fructose corn syrup. Many of the food choices that you find in the States are not available in Italy. You can, however, find peanut butter at most grocery stores, but there is usually only one brand (Skippy) and it costs about five euro for a small container. Most Italians don’t eat peanut butter and consequently have never had a Reese’s cup before. I know, scary thought.
Another thing to keep in mind while living in the heart of Florence is that while the legal drinking age is 16, it is illegal to buy alcohol (such as from a liquor store) after 9pm.
PRO TIP: Pack some comfort food. Whether that be a family sized box of Stover’s Stuffing or a package of Reese’s, familiar foods come in handy when you’re acclimating to a new country or just stressed about midterms.
OTHER PRO TIP: Never fear. They sell Cheeto style cheese balls at the Carrefour market.
SRISA TIP: Take advantage of all the fresh produce at the markets, especially Vivi Market, a decently stocked international grocery store.
CAN YOU HEAR ME NOW?
As someone who is uses her cell phone for everything from a flashlight to facetime, finding a cell phone plan in Italy was a huge deal for me. After checking around at the different providers before arriving and talking to other students who had studied in Florence, I found that TIM cellular gave me the most bang for my buck. Ten gigabytes of data for fifteen euros a month. The activation fee, which includes the sim card that you put in your phone, costs twenty-five euros. There is no long-term contract and it should not affect your American cell phone plan (though be sure to call your cell provider and suspend your service while you are gone and make sure your phone is “unlocked,” meaning that you can take out the sim card they have provided and insert a different sim card.*). This sim card from TIM should provide coverage throughout Europe. There are plenty of TIM stores here in Florence (one is a five minute walk from the main campus) and Seba, our resident Technology Specialist, is always available to help should you have any problems.
Now having a cell phone plan that allows for data may not seem like a big deal to some, as there is wifi access at all of the campuses. The thing to keep in mind is that unless you plan to sit in your apartment, hermit-style, every day, you’re going to want to go out and explore Florence and the surrounding areas. This can be very difficult, not to mention potentially dangerous, if you don’t know where you’re going. Being able to use Google maps to navigate is an invaluable service and I highly recommend making this small investment.
PRO TIP: rather than paying an exuberant amount of money to make out-of-the-country calls, teach your parents how to use WhatsApp and Facebook messenger for calling, texting, and video messaging. In addition, download Google translate so you can understand what stores sell what and what exactly you’re buying at the grocery store. There is nothing more disappointing than getting home and realizing you bought tomato paste instead of pasta sauce.
*as of February 2018, when this blog post was written, all Verizon phones are automatically unlocked, but it is still best to contact your service provider and verify this so you don’t encounter any issues once you arrive in Italy.
IT’S THE LITTLE THINGS
Homesickness is part of the study abroad experience, no matter how independent and self-sustaining you may be. Whether you miss your family or your family size bag of nacho cheese Doritos, it is always worth the space in your suitcase for a few homely comforts. Grab a few candy bars, a fuzzy blanket, and your favorite, cozy sweatshirt. Trust me, you’ll be glad you did.
Danielle Dirks is studying Visual and Communication Design at @smol_stuf and blogs at elmwoodandmaple.blogspot.com.