What’s the point of travel if you’re not going to experience everything that’s wonderful about other cultures? If you don’t have any curiosity about the customs, character and cuisines of other climes, you might as well stay at home and eat cold chips in the dark. And while it might feel like Europe is one happy, homogenous family nowadays, you never really can predict what’s impolite or not – after all, who knew it’s considered really rude to cut your salad with a knife in France?
To ensure everyone enjoying one of our villas in Italy doesn’t fall foul of such frightful holiday faux-pas, we decided to put together a handy guide to some of the social pitfalls you might encounter on your travels – and more importantly, how to avoid them.
1. Keep your small talk small – and polite
OK, so this is one might sound like common sense, but it bears repeating. A little tact and diplomacy will help you make friends and influence people wherever you are in the world, but as with everywhere there are a few topics that you’d do well to steer away from in Italy. Some are pretty obvious – Italians are very proud of their culture, cuisine and heritage, so speaking badly of any of them is a definite no-no, and people will think you’re an idiot if you even mention the mafia as a joke. One that might be a little more obscure is the North – South divide in Italy, discussion on which can get pretty heated. The North has always been seen as ‘richer’ than the South, and you’re certainly not going to win any friends by comparing the split to either side of the Watford Gap.
Italy might be forever associated with gregarious hand gestures, but they belie the formality that’s at the heart of Italian socialising – or fare i complimenti, as it’s known there. A good-natured good time isn’t going to be begrudged by anyone, but being overly loud, boorish, or (worst of all) overtly drunk is a surefire way to annoy the locals. In a similar vein, don’t be offended if strangers are rather reserved with you at first – it’s actually more out of a formal politeness than unfriendliness.
3. It’s important to relax and enjoy your meal…
There’s a tendency for waiting for staff the world over to think your dining experience isn’t complete if you’re not badgered every fifteen seconds to check on the quality of the food or if you’d like anything else. Not so in Italy! You’ll be left in peace to enjoy your meal and the company of your fellow diners until the plates need clearing, and unless you’re really pushing your luck after closing time you won’t get the bill until you’ve specifically asked for it.
4. …But don’t be stingy when it comes to pouring drinks
When you’re sitting around the dinner table enjoying your meal, make sure you don’t just top up your own drink when you find your glass is empty. Whether it’s water, wine, or anything else, make sure you offer to pour everyone who’s drinking the same thing as you a glass. The gesture will definitely be reciprocated as the meal goes on – in fact, if you’re worried about drinking too much it might be a better idea to keep your glass topped up to stop it getting refilled all the time.
5. Know your onions – or your regional dishes, at least
Think Italian food is just pizza and pasta? Think again. Going around asking for spaghetti bolognese is just going to prompt tired, sad sighs from waiters and fellow restaurant goers alike, and the mere mention of a ham and pineapple pizza is likely to get you laughed at (or worse) in any self-respecting pizzeria. Instead of indulging in the kind of food that isn’t even exotic on a pub menu, do a bit of digging and find out what the true seasonal and regional stars are. Feeling adventurous? Just ask what the waiting staff recommend and enjoy the surprise – it’s unlikely you’ll be disappointed.
6. Avoid the cardinal sin of pasta…
You might now have the knowledge to avoid the scorn of pizzeria owners up and down the country, but if you want to earn the undying contempt of any true Italian, ask for some parmesan on your seafood pasta. It’s a culinary crime to mix fish and cheese in Italy, and you’ll even be on shaky ground asking for some parmesan on your pasta if the restaurant doesn’t provide it by default.
7. …And the right meat for the job
If you want to eat like a true Italian, the only acceptable meat on a pizza is pork (whether that’s ham, salami or salsicca is totally up to you) and you never eat chicken with pasta. As far as Italian cooking is concerned, they’re two totally separate dishes.
8. And know the right time of day for a cappuccino!
It’s before 11am. All that frothy milk makes it a breakfast drink – if you want to caffeinate like a true Italian, it has to be espressos all the way after that.
9. When you’re out shopping, keep your hands off the merchandise
If you’re doing a bit of browsing and eyeing up something you’d like to buy (and it could be anything from cantaloupes to cashmere) it’s best to let the shopkeeper or sales assistant actually handle the wares. They’re there to help after all, and have probably spent a fair while getting all those shirts folded and stacked so they look perfect. If you’re buying loose fresh fruit and veg, plastic gloves will be provided to handle it and you’d do well to use them if you don’t fancy being scowled at by old ladies.
10. Never put your feet or shoes on a table or a chair
This one’s pretty self-explanatory – it’s just plain rude.
Do you have any hints or tips on travelling in Italy? We’d love to hear them in the comments below!