When you embark on a journey into a foreign land you expect some culture shock. New food, new people, far away from home with no point of reference in sight, you tend to notice that your normal way of living is about to be turned on its head, but when I landed in Florence, Italy I realized a few things that shattered the cultural stereotypes most Americans have about Italy – as well as some aspects that confirmed my preconceived ideas about life in Italy.
The beautiful Arno River connecting Florence’s two sides.
- Grocery stores
You’ll find that you can’t read a damn thing, as obvious as this should’ve been before I came. I’m not fluent in Italian so it was difficult to find out what certain things were when I found a suitable market. Fruits and vegetables are easy, but the essentials needed to actually cook are more difficult to find and they come in smaller portions. They don’t have Walmart or Kroger in Italy, and after a day or two I found that I was dependent on certain places in America more than I realized.
Italian people are nice and most speak English, although speaking some Italian will go a long way. Some Italians cannot speak a word of English and knowing “Can I have…” in Italian has saved me. I expected our differences before I arrived in this beautiful country, but I didn’t expect how much we are the similar.
American stereotypes are filled with how Italians dress more suave and chic than we do in America, but after I arrived I saw that they weren’t that different from us. Yes, there were those that wore stylish dress shirts and ties, but when it’s hot they wear shorts and when it’s chilly they wear peacoats. I read a multitude of articles before I left about how women rarely wore shorts in Italy and how they don’t wear workout clothes, but that’s not the case. They don’t wear sweats like some do in the U.S. but they do wear running gear and tennis shoes, so pack what makes you comfortable.
- Laissez-faire Attitude
When you start to experience Italy you will notice a different attitude compared to the U.S. In my first week I noticed the relaxed way of living Italians have regarding certain aspects. Public affection is a cultural norm here and so is alcohol. I can’t count how many people I’ve seen with open beer or wine bottles on the streets, and it’s not a drunken stupor as you would experience in most cities in the U.S. since they usually have police standing nearby here. Italians seem to have a handle on the alcoholic aspect of their lives and getting publicly sloshed to the point of stupidity is not something I’ve seen. Light fun is what they live for and alcohol is consumed to relax, not to get wasted. Enjoying the subtle hints of relaxation is how they live in this culture.
I never realized how much I took free water for granted until I arrived in Europe. At restaurants, you have to buy water by liters and it is usually shared among the table. It’s not something automatically given to you in America. Bottled water is more common as well, but luckily it’s cheaper than Coke or juice. Usually it’s around 1 euro and other drinks are upwards of 2.50 euro.
Living quarters are a place where water is less common too. Water pressure isn’t very high so long showers are impossible. Most showers and faucets don’t have the option to choose hot or cold and hot water is rare. Toilets don’t have as much water in the bowl as they do in America either, as weird as noticing something like that is. Italians conserve water more than I have ever seen in my life.
- Free public bathrooms
Before leaving America, this concept never even crossed my mind. Yes, some stores in America make you buy something before using the restrooms, but in Italy most public bathrooms require you to pay to use it. Usually, it’s a low fee around .50 euro, but you never really notice how much you use the bathroom in public until you have to pay for it. It’s also not like how it is in America where it’s common to drive everywhere and you can rush home to use the bathroom. Since you mostly walk in Florence, unless you can run like Superman, a public restroom is your only option.
I like to refer to these incessant insects as “Italian hell”. I grew up where mosquitoes were extremely common, but I have never seen them like I have since I began living in Italy. Florence is not a place where air conditioning is common, which makes having your windows open a necessity. Window screens are few and far between as well causing mosquitoes to easily find their way into your apartment, and even closing your windows at night doesn’t help because somehow those little soldiers break through your defenses.
Waking up with a million bites all over my arms, legs and face provided me with a new appreciation for screened windows. I often felt like I was wearing a plague as I walked Florence in the daytime, so my advice to you is that if you bring anything with you from the U.S. it should be every form of mosquito repellent you can carry without setting off customs flags.
Italy is breathtaking, but I was so shocked by the differences at first that I couldn’t fully appreciate the beauty around me. I had an idea in my head of what I would experience in Italy when I first arrived and I was nearly turned off by the differences. I didn’t want to leave because I wanted to finally discover what I loved so much that made me choose Italy in the beginning. As the days wore on, I explored and relaxed more than I ever had in my life, and in doing so, I truly breathed in the air of new places.
I took chances and tried things I never would’ve tried before. The inability to read what was printed on a package of meat allowed me try something new. I yearned for a fresh wardrobe, wanted to travel to places I hadn’t previously considered after learning of experiences my roommates had, and unplugged myself from the technologically dependent world. I wasn’t living in the dark ages, but not having a phone or access to television exposed me to new possibilities. In the end, what surprised me most about Italy was this: that the differences between what is here and what I’m used to have helped me grow.
Want to read more about Italy? Check out “4 Breathtaking Photos of Italy”