Italy: How to Avoid Looking Like a Tourist

DSC03689 (2)Before I went to Italy, I read a number of articles advising you on the do’s and don’ts of travel in Italy. Let’s talk about some of them.

Italians serve their bread dry. Don’t ask for butter or olive oil.

On the third day, Bridin declared, “I don’t care. I want butter. I AM a tourist.” Seriously, why are we trying to hide it? The minute we open our mouths they know where we are from. And probably one glance at my freckles rules me out as a local. Anyways, being able to travel internationally is a privilege. Why should we be ashamed of that? Embrace it.

Cover your knees and shoulders in church or the Vatican

This one I agree with. I think it’s important to respect the values and social mores of a country related to things like religion and modesty. I noticed none of the people ever had their shoulders exposed, anywhere. No talk tops or sleeveless shirts. I did not notice anyone’s knees.

Italians eat pizza with a knife and fork.

Not so much. Most of the pizza places are take-aways, and the people I saw eating pizza in restaurants used their hands. But no one ate anything out in public, and when I wandered down the street munching on panini people openly gawked at me. At first I thought they were jealous of my sandwich. Then I thought it was because I was eating meat on Ash Wednesday outside the Vatican. But I eventually got the vibe that I was being crass. So where were people eating all of the food I saw them buy? Hiding behind ruins?

Watch out for traffic. Lines on the road are just decorative.

Totally true. One woman walking to the Vatican with us stood in the street while waiting for the light to change. I saw a driver waiting to turn right get angrier and angrier. I had to yank her out of the way just as the driver went ahead and turned right, and zoomed through the space where she had been standing. The tourist looked at me in shock. I deadpanned, “They don’t care.” I noticed it was often a matter of playing chicken. One gorgeous woman glared at my cab driver like, “I DARE you to hit me” as she crossed in front of him. Then, on my last day, I screamed, “Look out!” as a driver backed into a crowd of people on a plaza. One guy jumped, but still got a little bump before the driver threw the car into gear and took off.

Italian people are super-friendly and warm

One of the American TV show hosts said, “All of the nonnas in the restaurants loved my children and would pull them into the kitchen. When we returned to the same restaurant we were treated like regulars.” Well, yeah. The people working in the restaurants, tour guides, hotel staff and shop owners cooed over me. But the operative word is “working.” Those people make their money off of tourists, so it is their job to make you happy, and they probably have more exposure to us Americans and our weird behavior. I only made one “friend” on the entire trip who was not working in hospitality.

When entering a place of business, you must say “Buon Giorno” to the staff or it is considered very rude, like entering someone’s house without knocking.

People on the street do not smile at you and greet you. I often do goofy things, like drop my bag or trip over stones in the road. In America, I look around to see if anyone saw me being a dork. Onlookers in America look at you with a wry, sympathetic smile or may even say, “I hate it when I do that!” or “Aren’t these roads slippery!” In Italy you are met with disapproving stares, like, “Another clumsy American!”

I can’t help smiling at people I pass, and the nonnas would glare angrily back at me, which made me kind of passive-aggressively smile even bigger. “You don’t like THAT smile? How do you like THIS SMILE???”

I don’t know how Italians behave if you aren’t a random tourist and come to their house as a guest or are introduced by a mutual friend. Probably super-friendly and warm.

Sometimes Italian toilets are just a hole in the floor

Well, OK, but rarely. The boys in my husband’s band saw a lot of that on the road, but it’s not like you are defecating in a hole into the basement. It’s as if you took your toilet off the ground. There is still plumbing, and it flushes. The guys got around it by going into “bars” for espresso, and there were usually regular toilets there. If not in the Men’s Room usually in the Women’s.

I only saw regular toilets until I arrived on Capri. I stopped dead in my tracks, and a man gestured at me to say, “Yes, that’s the ladies room.” But he did not understand my problem.

I encountered these toilets all around Napoli. Even in the big train station. It was hard to squat without peeing on your pants, and I was always afraid of falling. When it was time to fly home I thought, “But I just figured out how to use the toilets!” (Take off a leg of your underwear or pants. Or take them off and hang them on the partition. Straddle the toilet backwards and rest your hands on the wall. You’re welcome._

Italian people are more fashionable and you should dress up.

I took that to mean “pack a few nice dresses for restaurants and churches.” That was not what it meant. Italian people are heavily tailored. They wear a spotless uniform of perfectly cut jeans or pants with nice shoes and a puffy quilted down jacket. Speaking of shoes, they hate it when we wear sneakers. But they aren’t walking 9 miles a day through museums and historical sites. They also have shoe closets nearby. Travelers don’t have the luxury of packing 8 different pairs of shoes.

After worsening shin splints, I finally started wearing my river shoes, a cross between sandals and sneakers — which everyone hated. One woman in the train station looked me up and down between my shoes and face with open disgust, like I had dog shit on my feet. I just thought smugly, “Yeah? What are you all dressed up for? To go to work. I am going on a magical European vacation, so suck it.”

Rick Steves promotes the idea of “blending in,” and in one video he points out a group of Americans and Italians sitting on the steps laughing together. He uses them as a perfect example of getting to know the locals when traveling in Italy. First of all, we know those people were actors, hired and paid for this scene. And unless you are a single person under 30, your chances of establishing tight relationships with the locals are pretty slim. I’m sorry, your hostel days are over. No more snogging with randoms at the music festival. Anyways, Rick Steves, with your red hair, backpack and khaki shorts, do you really think you’re blending in?

I will tell you how you can blend in. I believe every Italian is assigned a quilted down jacket upon birth and changes them out like shells every year. Almost every single Italian I saw was wearing one. Buy the quilted jacket and be one of them.

When it’s warmer, they switch from the parka to the shorter jacket style

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And when it’s really warm, they switch to the vest. Even the gondoliers wear the vests.

So I photographed and made fun of these jackets for 2 straight weeks. Then I left my coat in Venice. I had to buy something or freeze to death for the rest of the trip. When in Rome…


About Kiki Maraschino

I like catfish. Sure, we all like catfish, but I think for me it is somehow deeper.
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