Embarking on your first international trip from the USA is an exhilarating experience, especially when Italy is your chosen destination. Italy promises a remarkable adventure filled with rich culture and history. However, it's essential to be aware that international travel can come with its share of challenges, potentially leading to moments of culture shock.
In this week's blog, we cover some of the most common challenges.
While English is commonly spoken in major tourist areas, it's helpful to learn a few basic Italian phrases and use translation aps to get by. Outside of major tourist areas and big cities, locals may speak limited or little English. Be patient and use non-verbal communication when necessary. A few phrases and hand gestures can go a long way.
Don't be embarrassed about making grammatical mistakes or sounding silly. Most Italians will be understanding and willing to help. They're happy that you're at least trying to communicate.
Ice and Beverages
In Italy, ice is not typically served in drinks as it is in the USA, and even when it is available, it's typically provided in smaller quantities than what Americans are accustomed to. If you want ice in your drinks while dining at restaurants, you may need to request it explicitly. Bags of ice are not commonly found for sale in stores, and we are unable to stock ice in our support vans during tours.
In Italy, it is common to consume water at room temperature. Therefore, if you do not specify your preference for cold water or water with ice, it is likely that you will be served water at a temperature warmer than what you might be used to.
Air Conditioning and Heating
In Italy, air conditioning and heating systems are often less robust than what you may find in the USA. There are specific regulations governing when heating can be turned on and the turn on date varies by region. If you happen to be in Italy during the spring when heating systems are turned off or in the fall when they are yet to be activated, it's important to understand that neither the hotel staff nor your guides can do anything about this and you'll be told to put more layers on.
In stores, resturarants, and other public places, even when the A/C is on it may not be as pronounced as you're used to. In many instances, these establishments keep doors and windows open while the air conditioning is active to maintain airflow.
It's worth noting that screens on windows are not a common feature in Italy. Therefore, if you decide to open your window to enjoy a breeze, be prepared for the possibility of insects finding their way indoors.
European hotel rooms, including those in Italy, are often smaller when compared to American standards. Single hotel rooms in particular are especially small. On Tourissimo tours, travelers who request their own rooms will be provided with what we refer to as a DUS, which is a double room intended for two occupants but used as a single. This ensures more space and comfort, and is why there is often an extra charge associated with booking a single room.
Most double rooms have a bed that is equivalent in size to a double or queen size bed. King size beds are not common. In a twin room (a room for two people with two beds), it is uncommon for there to be two big beds. Most oftern there will be two twin beds, or one double and one twin bed.
Many hotel buildings in Italy are quite old. This can lead to sound traveling easily between rooms, potentially impacting your peace and quiet. It also means that there might not be an elevator, or if there is one, it can be quite small.
At Tourissimo, we also utilize a unique hotel type known as an Albergo Diffuso, or scattered hotel. These establishments may feature a central reception area with hotel rooms dispersed in various locations around a small town. As a result, in some instances, you may need to transport your luggage to your room (by walking) or wait (and pay extra) for assistance. This also means that not everyone will have the same size or style of room.
Lackluster Customer Service
In the USA, we're accustomed to receiving service with a smile and the belief that the customer is always right. However, in Italy, the experience can often seem quite different. It's not uncommon to feel overlooked in stores or left alone for extended periods when dining in restaurants. Service employees may sometimes come across as brusque or appear to be less accommodating. It's important not to take these differences in service personally, as they are part of the cultural distinctions between the two countries.
In Italy, service workers do not primarily rely on tips, and in the majority of places, leaving a tip is not considered obligatory. However, there are specific situations, such as when you're guided by a tour guide, where a tipping culture does exist. For more detailed information on tipping in various scenarios across Italy, including guidelines for tipping at the conclusion of a Tourissimo tour, we encourage you to read our blog on the topic: Tipping in Italy.
In Italy, cash is still king. Credit cards, especially Visa and MasterCard, are generally accepted, but it's quite common to encounter situations where the credit card machine may be out of order, especially in smaller stores and for small purchases. How to exchange money for your trip to Italy
The concept of personal space in Italy is notably smaller, and physical spaces often tend to be more confined. In congested areas, you should be ready for lively streets and crowded public transportation. On many occasions, the roads we traverse during our bike tours are narrow, secondary routes. Although traffic is typically light, passing cars might occasionally come closer than you're accustomed to. Remain vigilant and hold your line. It's worth noting that drivers are usually aware of your presence and intend to provide what they believe is adequate space.
Dinner: Start Time, Pacing, and Amount & Type of Food
Dinner in Italy typically starts later than what we're accustomed to in the USA. In the northern regions of Italy, it's common to dine around 8 or 8:30 PM. As you travel farther south, the dinner hour tends to shift even later. During Tourissimo tours, we make an effort to arrive for dinner at 7:30 PM, although this isn't always feasible.
In Italy, dishes are not served all at once. The dining experience usually begins with antipasti (appetizers), followed by pasta dishes. Subsequently, the main course and accompanying sides are brought to the table, followed by fruit, dessert, coffee, and finally after-dinner drinks (usually all separate courses).
If you opt for a set menu, you'll likely receive all these courses (antipasto, pasta, main and dessert). However, there are instances where a set menu offers either pasta or a main dish, but not both.
When ordering à la carte, you have the freedom to choose. You might select items from each course or decide to enjoy an antipasto and a main dish, or perhaps just a pasta dish. It's important to note that the courses are not all served simultaneously, and others at your table might receive their dishes while you're waiting. In such situations, it is entirely acceptable and expected that you start eating as soon as your food is served to savor it while it's hot and fresh, even if others are waiting for food.
During your Tourissimo cycling or hiking tour, many of our menus are pre-selected. Nevertheless, it's common for us to be surprised with extra dishes and portions. While we strive to accommodate various dietary preferences, in certain places, the offerings may be somewhat limited. If you have dietary preferences or restrictions, it's important to let us know ahead of time (even before you book).
Do you have your own story of culture shock or cultural misunderstanding that you remember for your first trip to Italy? Share it in the comments below.