What I learned Whilst Living in Italy & My Advice For Your Italian Year AbroadSaturday, January 14, 2017
At the end of July 2016 my year abroad started. 5 months in Florence, Italy followed by 6 months in Paris, France (where I just moved!). It was honestly an amazing experience to move abroad by myself and I met so many wonderful people. I had already done it countless times with my parents, I actually left the UK when I was 2 and came back when I was 17, so the majority, if not all, of my upbringing was done abroad on two different continents which is why i'm so "culturally confused" - ha! Anyway, now that my time in Italy is over I wanted to share what I learned about Italians and Italy whilst living there and give you some advice and tips if you are moving to Italy soon, which I am very jealous about!
What I learned about Italians and Italy whilst living in Florence
1) Food is very importantFood is such an important thing for Italians, which isn't surprising considering they have one of the yummiest cuisines in the world... their coffee has to be good quality and a lot of the popular dishes appear to be very simple, yet delicious thanks to the beautiful fresh produce that they have.
I also noticed that a lot of Italians (and these are all generalisations of course) don't really like strong flavours such as onion or garlic as they overpower the subtle flavours of the simpler ingredients. One time we had a kind of Mexican themed dinner party at our flat and all of the Italian men commented on the onion in the guacamole hahaha.
Dinner is a long event which includes many dishes, and time is taken for both lunch and dinner - food needs to be enjoyed, whereas coffee is something which is normally consumed standing up and only lasts a few minutes (if that!)
There are many many different types of pasta in Italy, even more than I originally thought. Every sauce has a specific type of pasta that it goes with and non-authentic/touristy restaurants will mix these up. Also, bolognese sauce isn't a thing, it's called ragù alla bolognese or mostly just ragù. We call it bolognese because it comes from Bologna.
One of the women that I met in Florence told me about a time when she tried to order a scoop of lemon and a scoop of coffee ice cream together. The person serving her at the gelateria really wasn't too impressed and questioned her choice. When she told us about what had happened our teacher also declared her crazy and said that the combination was disgusting - "ma fa schifo!" She then went on to say that she would have probably refused to serve her if she had been working there as apparently you put lemon in your coffee when you want to be sick in the morning because you drank too much the night before!
Some examples of faux pas in Italy include:
- Ordering a cappuccino after lunch time... or even worse, with/after your lunch or dinner
- Drinking wine or proseco with pizza, you're supposed to drink beer but I always drank wine with mine (oops)
- Ordering a pizza with pineapple on it... they will think that you're crazy, definitely a tourist, and authentic Italian restaurants or pizzerias will not offer these kind of absurd toppings on their menus
- Breaking the spaghetti before you put it in the boiling water... one of my Italian teachers told me that the sound of the pasta breaking is the sound of all of the cuori di nonne (grandmas hearts) breaking.
2) Fashion is also very importantSweatpants: no, flip flops: definitely not. Once I wore flip flops to work (it was a very casual, friendly environment) because it was raining really hard and I didn't want my converse to stay soggy for the rest of the day. Only one person pointed them out and declared me insane, but I could see the look in some of my co-workers eyes, it made me laugh. Flip flops are for the beach or for American tourists to wear all year round, even in winter.
I have to say that Italians dress well... really well, especially the men - it was such a shock to see the difference between how your average British student dresses and how your average Italian student dresses. Maybe this was only in Florence, but it's not hard to see why when some of the major Italian fashion houses are based here. If you want to see the most extreme version of this then go to Florence during Pitti week (fashion week) which happens a couple of times per year, and is when you see the best dressed people ever. They all look the same though and I remember when it was Pitti Uomo all of the men looked identical. Talk about originality.
3) Italians definitely have a sweet toothYou're probably thinking about all of the delicious gelato that Italy has to offer, but it actually goes much further than that. Breakfast is definitely dominated by dolci and it's usually an espresso and a croissant, cornetto or brioche in Italian, or some breakfast cookies. Mulino Bianco (owned by Barilla) makes such good ones and you can buy them quite cheaply in your local supermarket - I miss them! Try these ones, they're called batticuori and are heart shaped and chocolate flavoured.
When we went to Trapani in Sicily we stayed in a bed and breakfast that had mostly Italian clients. Breakfast was an explosion of sugar: cornetti, cakes, cookies, nutella and ricotta filled pastries. I find such a sweet breakfast a little bit sickly - I'm all about avocado toast and almond butter banana toast in the morning but to each their own I suppose, I mean the pastries were really good.
4) Florentine people are a little bit grumpyI don't really blame them for being grumpy as you particularly notice it in the summer months when the city is visited, or should I say is invaded, by thousands of tourists. They are everywhere and you can barely make your way through the streets without getting hit by a selfie stick. Some (most) also make absolutely zero effort to speak Italian and that would get on my nerves. Apparently they're also quite hard to get to know at first, they're a little more distant. I don't really know how true this is as most people I met were absolutely lovely but maybe I just got lucky!
5) The weatherIt's not always sunny and it rains a lot. Not much more to say really other than bring an umbrella or buy one from one of the multiple street vendors to keep dry. I don't know why England has such a bad reputation for rain when Italy is quite bad too!?
6) Italian menIf you're feeling a little bit down about a boy or if your ego needs a little boost go to Italy. You will get so much attention in the streets whether it's a casual ciao bella or someone asking to marry you (which happened to one of my friends!) I have to say that at first I got slightly (very) irritated by the "hey blondie" comments but for the most part it's harmless and the Italian men are just donnaioli (womanisers).
From my friends who have dated Italian men I've also heard that they can be very, very romantic and insistent, so much so that it freaks the women, who are not Italian, out! Obviously all of these things are generalisations and it doesn't mean that every single Italian man is like this, although one of my friends warned me never to date an Italian as he told me about his co-worker who had different girlfriends in many different cities and none of them knew about each other, awkward.
7) PDAThe whole donnaioli thing brings me to my next point... PDA, public displays of affection, which are a big thing here in Italy. I have the impression that people don't realise that maybe everyone else in the restaurant/cafe/museum/street doesn't want to share their affection towards each other. Honestly I do think that England is a bit too far the other way and that even the smallest bit of affection in public can be seen as 'too much' but something in the middle would be nice - I don't particularly want to see the young drunk in love couple passionately kissing at the dinner table next to me. Save it for the bedroom you Latin lovers.
7) Italian is hardItalian is a difficult language to master, but once you have fully understood all of the different grammar structures, especially il congiuntivo (cry) it's much easier. Don't worry though, a lot of Italians even don't use it and when I was in Sicily a man said "vuoi che io parlo in inglese"... using the indicativo form even though "volere che" is one of the most obvious phrases that takes the congiuntivo. It's definitely wrong and the usage depends on the region but the Italian spoken in Florence is known to be very correct so if you're going to Florence then definitely use it if you know how to!
8) The postal service is a jokeSeriously. You know that stereotype that everything in Italy is slow? Well it's definitely true for the Italian postal service. Every time I've either sent or received something it's just taken ages to arrive. One time I ordered something online on amazon and it took so, so long to come. They kept saying that they couldn't find my address and then when it was finally delivered, after a few heated conversations with the amazon customer service team, they said that they had delivered it to a "Spagheti". I (obviously) thought that this was a joke and had a rant about how bad amazon was to my concierge until he finally told me that his family name, in fact, was Spagheti. How more Italian can you get? I mean really. Just be prepared to wait and perhaps never even receive your packages at all.
My advice and tips if you're moving to Italy on your year abroad (or just in general!)
1) Bring enough clothes for all seasonsNow of course this depends on when and especially where you're going in Italy, but Italy gets cold in the winter and I didn't realise just how cold. The thing that you really should know is that it's a very old country and the majority of the buildings, especially if you live in the historic centre like I did, aren't new or refurbished and are definitely not comfortable in winter. Houses are cold and heating is seen as very expensive. It's only legal to have it on after November although a lot of Italians put it on anyway beforehand.
If I were you I would definitely bring a soft fluffy dressing gown that you can curl up in when you're at home and if you have to, for emergencies and extreme situations, you can sleep in it. I would also really suggest bringing a hot water bottle because it doesn't take up any space in your luggage and will save you. I didn't have either of these and being in Florence from October until December was difficult, especially at night. A girl that I met said that when she studied abroad in Siena during the winter she went to sleep with gloves on. I even slept in one of my coats a couple of times towards the end. Everyone always thinks of the summers in Italy, which are painfully hot, but never of the winter. Obviously whether you're in the very south or the very north your experience will be different so just do your research and be prepared.
2) Be ready to try new thingsTry the different foods from the different regions and don't just stick to pizza and pasta, although if you're vegetarian it's a little more difficult. Try all of the different types of desserts and pastries, you won't regret it, which brings me onto my next point...
3) Don't worry about your waistlineYou're in Italy to enjoy yourself and to truly experience the country that you live in: indulge! That being said, try not to eat 5 nutella cornetti (croissants) for breakfast followed by 2 pizzas for lunch, getlato etc. every day. I always think that if you've put on a little bit of weight in Italy (within reason) then you have truly enjoyed your time here. Honestly though, you will probably do so much walking that you'll burn off all of the calories, at least that's what happened to me!
4) Visit the museums and monumentsItaly is absolutely beautiful and I'm sure that wherever you're living has some gems of its own. In Florence the Palazzo Pitti, the Palazzo Vecchio, the Uffizi Gallery and the Accademia are all must-sees. Even if you're not usually into art or museums I'm sure that you can appreciate the beauty that these places have to offer. Some of the worlds masterpieces are here - don't miss out!
5) Try to make Italian friendsIf you're studying abroad you may not make that many Italian friends that easily as many of them will already have their own friends and most will live at home. A lot of Erasmus students tend to stick together and although they usually always have a great time, they sometimes wish that they had met more locals. There are easy ways to do this, some of my friends met people by getting involved in the local community... joining the gym for example! I even met a girl on instagram* and she ended up being one of the nicest people ever and we're still in touch now. She even invited me to have dinner at her family home which was lovely and I got to meet her kitten which was tiny and literally the cutest thing I have ever laid my eyes on.
* Obviously always be careful about who you're meeting, only meet people from online if you feel comfortable and if it's in a public place - do not go to random people's houses before meeting them and stay safe.
P.S. How cute is Florence at Christmas time?! Look at that tree!
6) You're allowed to be friends with non-Italians!Sometimes we put so much pressure on ourselves to not speak English and to force ourselves to make only Italian friends and only speak Italian. Obviously speaking English all the time won't be the best for your language but as long as you're happy that's all that matters! For example, I made friends with some Japanese people who didn't speak English. Our common language was Italian which was great, although a little bit odd, and they taught us how to make authentic sushi which was such a cool experience. At the end of my 5 months I had met so many different people from all over the world who introduced me to new cultures, foods and customs - enjoy it all!
7) Travel, a lot.It can be a little expensive to do this, depending how far away you want to go and where you want to go, but I was fortunate enough to have my Erasmus fund to use towards my travels. In the 5 months that I was here I went to Cinque Terre, Siena, the Tuscan countryside, Milan, Rome, Bologna, Trapani (Sicily), Naples & Pompeii, all of which you can read about in more detail (if you want to) here:
Cinque Terre: A Day Trip to the Beautiful Cinque Terre
Siena: A Weekend in the Medieval City of Siena, Tuscany
Tuscany: Yoga, Yummy Food & Beautiful Countryside: A Weekend Yoga Retreat in Tuscany
Milan: Ciao Milano!
Rome: When in Rome
Bologna: A Foggy Day in Bologna, the City with the World's Oldest University
Trapani: Trapani: Discovering Sicily
Naples: A Taste of Naples: Pizza, Pastries & Limoncello
Pompei: The Ancient City of Pompeii & Visitor Tips
8) Don't be scared to speak ItalianDon't be scared to make mistakes! As I said before, it is a difficult language but the best way to learn is by making mistakes, being corrected and remembering them. Ask your friends that speak Italian or your teachers/professors, waiters, anyone to correct you if you make errors. It seems a little bit scary at first but I promise you that it'll be worth it and it's how my Italian improved a lot. I used to worry about my accent too but whenever Italians spoke to me with an Italian accent in English I didn't judge them so I'm sure that they aren't judging you either!
9) Some practical informationSim-cards: When I first moved to Florence I went on the hunt for a sim card, una sceda. You need to do your research and shop around and ask how much the cancellation fee is - in some places it was 60 euros! My Polish flatmate recommended TIM to me and it worked quite well as well as being rather affordable (and no cancellation fee). I'm sure that wherever you are you will have a TIM near you.
Housing: I found my flat on www.easystanza.com which is the Italian version of easyrooms. I actually also found my flat in Paris on the French site and I have to say that both times it worked out pretty well. There are a lot of scams out there so if you don't want to go to Italy before to choose a flat the best advice that I can give you is to Skype them and do not sign anything. At the end of the day if you pay a deposit or a first month's rent and you get there and it's awful, you can always leave and find somewhere else.
For me the most important thing was finding nice people to live with - and I ended up living with the loveliest girls who were from all over the world! There was a Canadian, a Polish and a Belgian who later got replaced by a girl from Hong Kong, not to mention Sophia's cat named Lili who was definitely a prominent member of the house (to everyone that had to endure my incessant snapchats of her, I deeply apologise, she was just so cute and fluffy, although a little crazy, but look at those blue eyes).
Public transport: Obviously this will vary by region but from my personal experience the transport system worked pretty well, at least in the northern and middle parts of the country. Trains worked well and tickets generally increase in price the later you leave buy them so try to book them in advance. There are two main companies which run called TrenItalia and italo and you can buy tickets either online or at the stations themselves. Bus tickets can be bought in little kiosks and in some supermarkets.
Pickpockets: Unfortunately it happens a lot in Italy, like in most countries to be honest - a woman I know had her handbag stolen by gypsies in a church! Saying this, I have been told by many that Italians are quite honest people and for example, once I forgot my wallet in a cinema and a couple of days later, when I realised where it was, I called them and they still had it, with all of my cards and all of my money. Maybe I just got lucky? I don't know but just be careful of your belongings and I would suggest carrying a handbag that closes with a zip or isn't easy to get into. If you don't have one of these then it's the perfect excuse to go shopping, and in Italy you'll find an abundance of gorgeous handbags.