So, you’re sitting in your home, done with the day’s Zoom calls and remote work, no doubt in your pajamas, debating if you should watch Netflix or just scroll Twitter for that evening’s entertainment. But right now, neither of these activities really excite you, and you’d rather dream of something else to do once quarantine is over. So instead, you begin to brainstorm places to visit with all the money you’re saving on gas and trips to Starbucks. If your daydreaming brings you to think of Italy—well, I have some tips for you.
Welcome back to #WednesdayswithaView, where for the next week or two I’ll be sharing some thoughts on what to expect if/when you step off your plane onto Italian soil. Six weeks in a foreign country gave me a fair dose of culture shock, and I thought it would be fun to share some of the things I learned. Italy is full of tradition and culture, and knowledge of some local customs will certainly enrich your experience whether you visit for a study abroad or just for a brief vacation.
For visitors, it’s especially important to know about the riposo, or pisolino as it is called in the south. Similar to a siesta, the riposo is a time in the afternoon where restaurants, tourist shops, and sometimes even churches and museums close for lunch and usually a long nap. Though the time varies, it could last anywhere from noon until 4:00 PM. The riposo is less common in the larger tourist centers but is certainly a big consideration in the smaller towns; we rarely had to plan our days around it in Florence, but in Assisi just about everything shut down from 1:00 to 4:00 PM. The riposo may sound like a nuisance to your tourist plans, but it is a beautiful part of Italian family and meal culture. Just be sure to research operating hours ahead of time and plan your days accordingly!
Food and mealtimes are also very different in Italy. Many Italians consider lunch to be their main meal of the day and often take hours to enjoy the food in the company of others (hence the riposo). When they eventually get to dinner, it is late by most American standards—often after 8 or 9 PM. Though you are free to eat any time you wish, I advise you to try to eat later since most of the authentic local restaurants do not open until the late evening.
If your stomach starts rumbling earlier than that, feel free to find a place offering aperitivo. Loosely resembling a happy hour, aperitivo takes place around 6 or 7 PM and is thought of as a pre-dinner way of socializing and stimulating your appetite. Most places will offer it buffet-style; one price, usually between 8 and 10 euro, gives you a drink, a seat, and access to a buffet of food to munch on while you sip your Aperol Spritz. Aperitivo is a social activity and a good chance to taste some Italian cocktails, so give it a try!
The biggest culture mistake I made upon arriving was breaking the rules of coffee. Generally speaking, most Italians do not sit and drink their coffee at tables the way we think of “coffee shops” as operating. Some places, it is true, are designed more for sitting and reading or chatting, but most places expect you to drink your coffee the way the locals do: standing at the bar. After ordering your espresso or cappuccino, the barista will bring your order to the countertop bar. You’ll observe locals as they stand and down the drink in a few sips before sliding the cup back with a “Grazie” to the barista and taking their leave. This practice also explains why coffee “to go” is not a thing in Italy; a shot of espresso that takes less than a minute to order and drink eliminates the need for it. Though there are many places that function more like our idea of a coffee shop, most coffee “bars” or cafes will function the way described above and will charge extra if you’d like to stay and sit. It’s a good idea to take a moment to read the vibe of a coffee shop and see what’s expected in that particular place.
Also, never, ever order a cappuccino after 11:00 AM. This cardinal sin of coffee culture will earn you a barista’s exasperated sigh and likely cost you his or her respect. Cappuccinos are part of breakfast, and ordering one after breakfast time will instantly make you stand out as a tourist!
Lastly, learn a bit of Italian before going. Even just knowing the different greetings can go a long way in heightening your experience as it shows your interest in the culture and opens up more opportunities to speak with locals. It’s a beautiful language, and I have no doubt you’ll enjoy what you hear and speak.
Even with all the advice I could give, there’s so much more to be learned by visiting Italy, and I hope these insights have inspired you to add Italy to your bucket list! Next week I’ll continue with some more travel tips, so stay tuned. In the meantime, I hope you find some non-Netflix ways to fill your time and continue to stay healthy and safe!