Note to the American reader:
My first taste of Italy came over 30 years ago. I was barely old enough to talk, barely old enough to walk, and nowhere near old enough to comprehend the fact that I was in a country few would ever get the chance to visit, let alone live in. Being the product of an Italian mother and an American father (both multi-continental, multi-career parents), I was fortunate enough to live there for nearly a decade before moving away in my early teen years. Even after leaving I was able to go back and visit on several occasions, including a few weeks ago. I speak Italian fluently and have Italian-born friends and family residing in several cities there. It is because of this past history that the views, experiences, connections and insights I have formed in Italy may not be as easily obtainable for the average American reader. However, to maximize your chances of achieving the best possible experience while there (whether it be a vacation or a transfer), I’ve put together this guideline for you. Well, it’s not so much a guideline as my thoughts poured out on paper in no order whatsoever…in either case, I hope it will help you to gather a sense of how to enjoy Italy…and how not to.
Leave the United States in America
As simple as this may sound, as easy as it is for you to believe that this is something you won’t do, many Americans often forget this one important rule: every other country in the world isn’t the U.S.! There are many commodities, comforts and freedoms that we enjoy on a day-to-day basis that simply don’t exist in other countries. Assuming that they do exist, or getting upset once you find out they don’t is both foolish and, well, a totally American thing to do. I could stand here and tell you that the U.S. is the world leader in technology, science, political agendas and civil liberties. I could rant that we have more CD’s, DVD’s, barber shops, nightclubs, open gun laws, buffet lines, workout craze’s, fashion designers and movie theaters than anyone else out there. I would be half boasting…but I would also be half correct.
In my thirty-three years of life I’ve travelled to nearly two-dozen countries, including South Korea, Germany, Italy, Mexico, Switzerland, Austria, France and Canada…and yes, we are ahead of the game in more ways than one when compared to the rest of the world. We’re also way behind in more ways than one in several of those afore-mentioned areas…but I’ll save that discussion for another article. One advantage, however, that I’ve noticed most other countries have is the ability to accept the fact that the country they’re visiting will most likely be entirely different than where they’re from. This allows them to not only appreciate the sights, sounds and cultures of different nations, but to appreciate their own even more. This is something that you the average American reader should do as well before you even set foot on the airplane flying out of the U.S. You’ll be able to soak up Italy for what it is on the outside, while maintaining that proud, red-white-and-blue mushiness on the inside.
Phone Cards, The Celly, Textorama, Monster Bills
In this day and age we’re more than likely to have three main items on our person at all times when visiting other countries: our passport, our wallet (or purse), and our cell phone. I won’t go into detail on the first two, as they’re simple to use, easy to carry, and shouldn’t need much instruction other than the fact that you shouldn’t lose them! The cell phone, however, can be a pretty tricky thing to use when you’re not making a call from inside the good ole US-of-A. If you only plan on visiting for a few days, don’t bother with your cell phone. Turn it off and keep it in your pocket so you can still turn it on and access your contact list when you need to, then buy a phone card. You’re on vacation for crying out loud, you’re not going to need your stupid phone! Catch some rays, catch some z’s, catch a lover…do something. You’re in Italy…enjoy it!
Many American cell phone companies offer overseas plans for those of you who will be traveling/living outside of the U.S. for extended periods of time. But be warned, these overseas plans can easily turn your average phone bill into a money-munching nightmare. This isn’t because your phone company is out to screw you (ok, maybe they are), it is simply because they have to raise the cost per minute, cost per text, and cost per megabyte you use according to whichever country you’ll be traveling too. I can’t tell you which plan and which country will cost you more or less, but I can tell you to find out before you leave. Getting your phone ready to use will be a hundred times easier to do stateside than it will be once you get to Italy. Another way to avoid the “bill of doom” is to buy an inexpensive phone for use while you’re there. You’ll be able to get a SIM card from a local phone company (TIM, Wind, Vodafone, etc.), and this will give you not only a local number, but also the ability to use that phone on pay-as-you-go credit. Several American cell phones also allow you to simply open up your phone, remove the SIM card you currently have inside (from AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, etc.) and replace it with the SIM card you just purchased from a local Italian company.
A word of caution however, this does not work with every phone! Again, do some research on the phone you own before you leave. You should be able to easily find that information on the Internet, you’ll find that it’s good for so many other things than just looking up porn.
The American Look, The Suit, The Dinner Outfit
So…now you’re in Italy. You’re soaking up the culture, your cell phone is working, and you’re not sticking out like a soar thumb American. Or are you? Look at yourself. How are you dressed? Are you wearing your New England Patriots jersey? Are you wearing your Air Jordan’s and your backwards Abercrombie & Fitch baseball hat? Take them off. As a matter of fact, take everything off, sit down on the edge of the bed, and read the rest of this guideline before standing up to get dressed again. There’s nothing wrong with representing your favorite football team, and there’s nothing wrong with representing arguably the greatest player to ever pick up a basketball. But representing them in Italy might not be the best thing to do. Sure, sure, we could sit here all day and discuss pride of country and style of dress. Sure, you could decide that you want to look American, and that you’re going to wear whatever you feel like wearing because doggone it; it’s your God-given right as an American to do so. If that’s the way you see things, then there’s nothing more I can say. Put your clothes back on, and go have fun.
If, however, you decide to do in Rome as the Romans do, but aren’t exactly sure how to go about doing so, then get up off the edge of the bed and go look out the window of your hotel. Spend a few moments observing the people outside. Not the other tourists like you…the locals. As you can see, most Italian men and women dress with a certain flare that sets them apart from the men and women of other countries. I’m not saying that they walk around in tuxedos and Versace dresses all day while cooking breakfast and cleaning the house, but their day-to-day outfits are, well, more Italian. See how they tuck in their button-down shirts? See how they often wear ties, or jackets, or nicer shoes…even when they’re just out eating lunch? See how the women have on full dresses, oversized sun hats, not daisy dukes, short, tight mini skirts, and a plain tight T that says, “I ‘heart’ Me”? Good. Now go back to your suitcase, dress like they dress, and go have fun.
You might be wondering why I’m so adamant about this. Why would I take so much time to talk about something as simple as the attire that one should wear while vacationing in Italy, when I could be teaching you how to cook Spaghetti Carbonara or telling you how to say, “where is the restroom” in Italian? It’s because having lived in Italy, I’m privy to a few reasons that have inspired me to caution you as I am…and I will dispense with those reasons now.
A) Just like the rest of the world, Italy has its share of pickpockets, thieves, and various other forms of low life’s. Sending out an “I’m American” signal will only paint you as a bigger target than the average European tourist, and that will cause them to want your belongings more than theirs. This is not something I can explain. It’s something that just is. It’d be like sitting next to a woman on a city bus full of men just because you’re a woman, or getting the back of a random Yankee fan in a bar full of Red Sox fans just because you’re from New York. People are more likely to bond with one of their own, and less likely to hurt someone they can relate to directly.
B) There are certain establishments that will treat someone dressed like a tourist, well, more like a tourist. And that’s something that you simply don’t want. Waiters, waitresses, bartenders, and bouncers are more likely to spend more time speaking with a local then they are speaking to someone who takes ten minutes to order an appetizer or figure out whose name they’re trying to drop at the door because they can’t speak the language. Again, this is something that’s hard to explain, but take my word for it…it happens.
C) Some folks that are more than likely to want to hassle you more if they think you’re American: the police, beggars, hari Krishna, drunks, and the guys that sell fake purses on the corner out of a folded up sheet. True, they may only hound you for a minute or two, but when it happens ten times a day that can add up to precious minutes cut from your sun tanning on those topless beaches you’ve been hearing about.
* This blog is also a featured article in Contraband Magazine (Contrabandmag.com)