10 irksome culture shocks in Italy

Italian Culture shock

It’s been a while since my last rant about the irksome parts of culture shock in Italy. I’ve learnt to adapt to most of the stuff I used to find bothersome; after all, you cannot pretend that an entire culture will change to fit your convenience.

I take culture shock with a smile and try to put a comic slant on it. Most of the time, I feel like David Attenborough in a BBC documentary, interacting with the natives while being fascinated, perplexed and amused at the same time.

After 20 years of living in Italy, I often go through a strange kind of ‘reverse’ culture shock every time I’m back in Australia (but that’s another story).

So here are ten points of culture shock I still need to navigate that sometimes bother me, make me laugh and others that aren’t too bad—the hilarious consequences of living in Italy instead of simply visiting.

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1. A lack of personal space: In Australia, we have way too much space compared to the population. Here in Italy, there are many people for the physical space. The result is tiny apartments and houses, insufficient parking and a population with no problem invading other people’s personal space.

You will be spoken to way too close to your face. People will stare at you and look at you up and down. Your in-laws will comment on your appearance and interfere because life is always lived close to others. It’s just the way it is. Particularly in Sicily, even in the bigger cities, family life spills out onto front door steps and into piazzas as the local community coexists with the concept of family.

Yes, it’s suffocating, oppressing and soul-destroying, but you’ll get used to it. The in-laws will be doing it out of love, the community wants you to be a part of it, and strangers have always done this. Please don’t feel like a victim no one is out to get you; it’s the reality.

2. Insane formality: Italians can be terrible intellectual snobs; they are very proud of their language, hard-earned jobs and education. So be prepared to be highly formal when first meeting people. Be sure to use the ‘lei’ different proper grammatical way of addressing teachers, doctors, lawyers and people who are older or more experienced than you.

I was surprised to discover that Italian society has an intellectual class system. There is a distinction between those who can speak Italian well, with a particular level of education or accent and those who can’t. As a foreigner, you will permanently be corrected when you make grammatical errors or are reminded of your quaint accent.

Over the past few years, I’ve been working in the local schools in Sicily, and I’ve transformed fMaestraoreigner into a formal colleague of other teachers, who happily address me with the title of ‘Maestra’ or ‘collega’ and using the ‘lei’ instead of the informal ‘tu’. I think it’s hilarious the silly game many Italians are forced to play. We are all the same people; get over yourselves.

3. Male and Female dynamics: I’ve always been perplexed by the relationship between the sexes in Italy. I think women have a terrible struggle with sexism and bullying in Italy, which has never been acknowledged; for goodness sake, there isn’t even a word for sexism and bullying in Italian (even though the English terms are slowly being adopted.)

It has always bothered me how men and women in Italy cannot be considered friends; Italians have words like fidanzato/a, and amico/a, which refer to boyfriend, girlfriend or fiance; there is no term to express a platonic friendship; it’s sad. Why can’t you be friends without sexual connotations or expectations?

While men who are friends with other men seem much more intense, you will often see perfectly heterosexual men kissing one another on the cheeks, walking arm in arm, standing close to one another and embracing. If you saw this kind of male behaviour in Australia, you would assume it was a gay couple. Not so in Italy.

On the other hand, female friends are not so amicable; women compete with other women. The insanity is instead of lifting one another; they are judging one another physically and playing the sexism game amongst themselves. Come on, Italy, let’s stop playing games; we all need to move on.

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4. Dirt: One of the things I noticed even on my very first visit to Italy is how dirty the place is; in the big cities, it is dusty, people sweep their balconies out onto the street, and laundry hung out to dry will drip on you as you walk by, you will accidentally step on abandoned dog poop and stumble upon dumped trash along the side of the road and under bridges (especially if there is some labour strike occurring).

The concept of recycling is slowly being taught, and the use of plastic bags is banned by law. But many parts of Italy have been permanently damaged by the illegal dumping of toxic waste. Including areas outside of Naples, the sea floor near the island of Capri is in the middle of a major clean-up, and parts of Sicily near Gela and Caltanissetta have become ‘terra bruciata’- burnt-out wasteland thanks to the decades of a poorly managed petrochemical industry. All heartbreaking.

5. Dolce Vita: Despite the negative aspects of culture shock, I love the pigheaded Italian approach to life. Their dedication to the Dolce Vita allows them to savour life fully.

Italy is all about slow living, talking, socialising, taking care of themselves, enjoying a drink, a quick coffee, preparing good food, and then taking the correct time to taste and digest it all.

There is always plenty of holidays during the year to spend time with friends and family, as work is seen as a necessary evil and should not get in the way of living in the moment. Amen to making more memories and not more money.

6. Gossip mill 100%: When you come to Italy, you can be assured that someone will be talking about you. An Italian gossip mill is an outstanding machine; it connects everyone to everyone else professionally and personally.

So why not use it to your advantage! Let people know you can teach English, take good photos for a reasonable price, make birthday cakes, and babysit.

It’s the best way to get a job, honestly! And also how to find a good plumber, electrician, accountant or lawyer.

Make friends with the local gossip, avoid making too many waves, and blend in. Complain about the same things as they do, agree with them but don’t add to the venom.

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7. Coffee culture: Italy has the best coffee in the world, yet having coffee here is quite a rigid traditional ritual.

In Italy, coffee is exclusively a short black (espresso), and cappuccino is strictly a morning drink served with whole cream milk and not piping hot.

Ordering a latte will give you some milk with a dash of espresso; a macchiato will provide you with a short black with a dash of milk. Coffee is served quickly at a ‘bar’ or cafe together with other drinks like juices, wine, spritz and bitter aperitifs.

If you are after something more substantial, you could sit down at a wonky table and grab a cornetto (croissant), pastries or a quick panino but don’t expect much else.

An Italian bar is a spot you nip off to for ten minutes at a time when you are at work or if you have nothing to do during the day.

Starbucks opened its doors in Milan in 2018 and has been reasonably successful and has even opened a second store with another projected opening in Rome. But despite its popularity there is usually no take-away coffee, no small, medium or large sized drinks, and no free wifi or working on a computer at the cafe’. Sniff!

8. Arrogant Doctors: Medical practitioners in Italy rarely have a suitable bedside manner; it seems that’s been left out of the prerequisites.

So be sure to revise how to use the formal ‘lei’ form while addressing them, write a list of questions to ask them, and insist on being transparent because they ain’t wasting time on explanations, unfortunately.

The poor public hospitals are the victims of terrible cutbacks and lousy management, so be kind to the doctors and nurses as they are very stressed, but they are doing their best despite any rough edges.

9. The danger of ice: Since we are at the beginning of a long hot tourist-inducing Italian summer, I thought I’d mention the fear Italians have of consuming cold drinks with ice and avoiding air conditioning.

Many visitors complain about the lack of icy cold beverages and arctic blast air-con. I understand this insanity as I grew up in Australia, where people used to put their glasses in the freezer to get their beer extra chilled.

I feel a little embarrassed for my Italian friends and family when I explain their avoidance of cold in summer to others, as they believe it is terrible for your health. Italians are slightly hypochondriacs and avoid icy drinks (except for granita) and air conditioning as they fear it could make them sick or, in some extreme cases, kill them.

My husband is always telling me the same story about a school friend who drank an icy cold drink one summer and consequently dropped dead as the difference in temperature sent his body into shock; if this story were true, I would have died of brain freeze many years ago.

11. Names: This may surprise you, but Italian bureaucracy has a massive problem with middle names. It is imperative to consistently use all of your names on every possible documentation from bank accounts, I.D cards, passports, bills, signatures and tax file numbers.

You will be denied payments, get other people’s bills to pay and get perplexed looks from confused postal workers. A signature is always written surname first, then the first name followed by all middle names.

If you decide to abandon your middle names at the border as they are too confusing for Italians, then good for you as long as any other documents you use do not contain them, as you will be forced to update everything if a middle name is discovered.

If you don’t have any middle names, lucky you!!

I’ve always had problems as my mother named me a member of the British royal family with two middle names. In Australia, I always had to spell out my complex Italian surname as no one understood it or could pronounce it. So when I moved to Italy, I thought that’d be the end.

But my pronunciation of Del Borrello to a Messinese sounds like I am saying, Gian Borello. My name has been transformed numerous times, and one of my consonants was robbed. Sicilians only like local surnames and not others from other Italian regions. Santa pazienza!

So it looks like I will always struggle with my name.

14 thoughts on “10 irksome culture shocks in Italy

  1. Love your honesty!! What a fab post and I got to know a lot more about the Italian culture than I imagined …Living there has its perks 😉

    As I just hit the publish button for the Culture Shock post, I am also writing another post and you will be shocked how similar my culture is to Italy’s!! A lot of these things don’t surprise me.

    1. Yes, its so true I find Indian culture to be so similar to Italian, simply the family values, way of life and general attitudes. Growing up in Australia I found my best friends were either Italian or Indian.

  2. Yes I can relate to all of these and had a good chuckle over your humorous presentation. I wrote about all the ridiculous malattie, but I’m having trouble loading it at the moment. I’m having trouble with the links from my iPad here in Puglia. Ciao, Cristina

  3. Oh Rochelle! As always I’m nodding and laughing at all of this. These things drive me mad. They’re all so true. Very perfectly described!

    1. Thanks! I can literally write hundreds of article about culture shock, plenty of material there! But the Italians think I’m just being difficult. But the pain is real 😉

  4. Ciao Rochelle! I really enjoyed reading your post and can so relate to your #1…I even wrote my entire post on it!!!
    I actually tend to lean toward the Italian attitude to ice…I cannot stand ice in my water! Even in the summer it gives me goosebumps and I feel chilled all over. LoL I doubt consuming cold things will harm your health though, especially with all that gelato & granita. 😉 I’ve actually met a quite a few Italians without middle names, I wonder if that’s why?! I’ve always loved long names like yours though, probably because it sounds so regal! Thanks for sharing your great post with #DolceVitaBloggers <3

    1. Thanks Kelly, culture shock is a real barrier of expats that’s for sure and you really can’t do anything to avoid it! As for the middle name thing, yes I honestly think Italians don’t like middle name just because they complicate your life. I love my names and I managed to give my son a middle name too, just one?!?! 😉

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