Dear EKU students traveling for the first time to Florence, Italy:
To help you avoid a faux pas or other social awkwardness in Italy, I’ve prepared a listicle with ten ordinary behaviors you’ll most likely see in Florence that you haven’t experienced in the U.S., particularly not in Kentucky. Please note: once you’ve grown accustomed to these habits, you might yearn for them upon returning to the States.
1) Pedestrian culture. In Italian towns and cities, most residents walk or ride their bikes to work and to the market, but plenty of cars, trucks, and motorcycles pack the streets at peak times of day. Always cross streets at crosswalks, and look both ways before crossing–even if the traffic signal says “walk.”
2) Smaller is Better. Say a temporary goodbye to big-box stores and get used to the Italian way of shopping for a bag or so of fresh ingredients for one or two days’ meal planning.
3) Reduce, recycle, reuse. It varies by region, but for the most part, Italians take trash seriously, and nearly every street has large recycling bins for plastics, paper, glass, aluminum, and food/compostable waste. Also, to conserve water, electricity, and drying time, please use towels more than once.
4) “With Gas?” is a question you’ll hear when you order water in cafes. In Italy, the tap water is potable, but even the longtime residents drink bottled water, which comes in three varieties: naturale, minerale, and frizzante. Translated, these varieties mean flat water, mineral water, and sparkling water, respectively. Typically, casual cafes offer only naturale and frizzante (or “with gas”/carbonated), and higher-end restaurants provide a mineral water option, which comes with a hint of privileged status.
5) When in Rome, do as Romans…or Florence/Florentines. Italians, like most Europeans, do not view alcohol as a taboo; wine is legal for those who are 18 and older, and most folks have a glass with dinner. However, what is absolutely taboo is public drunkenness; in fact, it’s a sure way of identifying yourself as an American tourist/student if you imbibe to excess, which could potentially lead to an early invitation to return home.
6) Hanging out. A cultural difference in the school environment is Americans’ tendency to hang out, socialize with their peers, and catch up on text messaging in the hallways. However, with the abundance of cafes and parks in Italy, it’s far more courteous to socialize outside of the school building. In 100+-year-old buildings, hallway conversations tend to carry into the adjoining classrooms and offices, disturbing the attention of those within hearing.
7) No colpo d’aria! If an Italian comments that a room is “fresh,” it’s not a good thing; the comment is usually quickly followed by closing the windows or turning off the air conditioning. This behavior comes from the disdain for “colpo d’aria,” or a “burst of air,” which Italians believe is hazardous to one’s health, resulting in neck stiffness, headaches, upset stomachs, and allergy symptoms (it’s a carryover from historical beliefs that malaria and other life-threatening diseases were airborne). A 2014 study finds that 87% of Americans have in-home air conditioning, while only 30% of our Italian counterparts live with the artificial cooling feature.
Instead, Italians opt for screenless windows with shutters that can be opened to allow circulation of air or closed to block any incoming heat from sunshine. Note: complaining about heat does not make it miraculously cooler; let yourself acclimate to your smaller carbon footprint while you’re in Italy and don’t be that American. I suggest buying and bringing some Frogg towels with you. #notapaidsponsor
8) Public snacking/eating. The phenomenon of portable food and drinks is an American one. In Italy, food and drink are things to be savored, not gulped; eating and drinking are behaviors to do in specifically designated places. For example, Florence now has a law against sitting and eating on the steps of cathedrals, and schools typically post signs forbidding beverages of any kind. Italians prefer to drink their coffee “al bar,” or at the counter of cafes, and since Italian coffee is typically some variation of espresso, it means one or two gulps. Water bottles are okay when they can be stowed in a bag.
9) Smoking. While it might seem like more people smoke in Italy, it’s roughly on par with the rate of tobacco smoking in the U.S., but the Italians smoke less than Kentuckians. According to 2014 data, the U.S. ranks 24th in the world for smoking per capita, with Italy at the 34th spot. However, in Kentucky, the percentage of smokers is a whopping 28.6%, while Italy’s rate is at 27%. The perception of more smoking in Italy is perhaps due to smaller, more congested spaces. Unlike the U.S. Surgeon General’s text warnings on the side of cigarette packs, the anti-smoking messages on one-third of the front of Italian cigarettes along with rotating graphic images are much more alarming and direct—linking smoking to lung cancer, birth defects, early death, gangrene, impotence, blindness, facial wrinkles, and social stigma.
And, finally, I’ve saved the best for last:
10) Doggos and Puppers! They’re everywhere in Italy, especially Florence: not only on sidewalks but also in cafes and shops. They’re well-behaved, leashed, andgroomed, and in my visits to Italy, I have never seen a stray. If you’re missing your pooch from home and can’t resist a doggo, you may ask to pet the dog (“Posso accarezzare il tuo cane?”) or you may simply praise the dog (“Che bravo ragazzo!”) and walk on.