Italy is a beautiful and sometimes confusing country. As embarrassing as it is to admit this now, I knew really nothing at all about Italy when I first went. I’m talking about “what’s the Ponte Vecchio” and “is this the Duomo” (when passing Santa Croce) nothing. However the things I wish I knew before I first went to Italy don’t really include these more important historical and artistic facts: these were fun to learn in a more kinesthetic way as I was traveling about the country. But day-to-day, more practical tips would have been much appreciated. Because I had no knowledge of Italian language before going abroad, most of these are relating to language mix-ups.
1. Grazi? Grazie? Grazea?? Grazia???? Help!!
I took Spanish all throughout high school but I never took a single day of Italian before I went to Pisciotta so the language was a mystery to me (albeit a familiar mystery, due to its similarity to Spanish). Now knowing the language fairly well, one of the most irksome things to hear is someone saying “grazi” (Think: how Snooki says it when the Jersey Shore went to Florence). As with most romance languages, all vowels are pronounced in Italian so it’s incorrect to just drop the “e” (sort of like “graz-EE-ay.” Think: Mrs. Ungermeyer in The Lizzie McGuire Movie).
2. What the Heck is Rocket Salad?
A lot of the time when we went out to eat we got menus in English because most of us had never taken Italian (are you seeing a theme? — Learn a little Italian before you go). We kept seeing the phrase “rocket salad” in a myriad of different items at restaurants in cities from Rome all the way to Salerno. We were so confused. What item would be on pizza and in pasta and also have this strange translation? Answer: arugula. Yes, my friends, the Italian “rucola” turns into the English “rocket salad” rather than “arugula.” To this day, this one still baffles me. However, it’s good to know I can just order the dang rocket.
3. Literally Everything about Bathrooms
The first time I remember using a public bathroom in Italy I was in a restaurant in Rome at our first dinner. I practiced with my friends at the table (“dov’è il bagno?”) and finally mustered the courage to utter the first Italian words I probably ever said to an Italian person. Did I have any idea of what she responded with? No! But whatever, it was a step closer. I found it. However once I got in the bathroom, that’s when the real trouble started. I couldn’t figure out how to flush the toilet or even turn on the sink to wash my hands. I think I ended up having to pull a cord for the toilet and I very distinctly remember having to step on a pedal at the base of the sink to make the water turn on. Many months and many, many public bathrooms later, I will say with utmost certainty that most public bathrooms in Italy are different and confusing. There are so many different pulleys and levers. Just keep going till you find the right ones (good luck). On the plus side, in train stations you have to pay to use the bathroom so they’re typically cleaner than their US counterparts.
4. Where’s the Chicken Parm @?
I’m a vegetarian now but I wasn’t during my first trip to the Mother Land. I wasn’t a real big chicken parm fan either but I was incredible confused to find it lacking from every single restaurant I went to. Was chicken parm a regional thing and I just never went to its home region? Nope! Chicken parm is actually just not a thing in Italy. Eggplant parm, yes! But its chicken counterpart? Sadly, for some I’m sure, no. One of my American-Italian professors actually told a story about her asking her Italian born-and-raised Nonna to make her chicken parm and she was so confused that she ended up layering pieces of chicken over it and putting gravy and mozzarella on top.
5. How Do You Say Bruschetta?
Bruschetta, the little pieces of bread with tomatoes, garlic and other fun toppings, is such a great-tasting staple of Italian cuisine. Fun fact: it was originally a food for poor families since it was so easy and affordable to make. But, when you order it, are you saying it correctly? I sure wasn’t for my first two weeks in the country. Say it with me: brew-sket-uh. “CH” in Italian becomes a hard “kuh” sound. My Italian-American stepmother (a few generations removed) makes fun of me for my newfound way of pronouncing it, but we know the truth.
6. You Can Get Locked Out of a Hotel You Are a Guest Of
I don’t stay in a lot of hotels in the US nor do I really go back to them too late but the first night I stayed in Rome, due to a long and weird series of events, I ended up walking around the city until sunrise with two other people on my trip. We finally ended up going back to the hotel room and when we go there, the front door was locked!!? I ended up forcing it open a slight bit and sliding through before the front desk worker came downstairs, mad (sorry friend). It’s a thing. On my last night in Florence last summer, we walked around the Duomo for a long time and ate Kebobs and I waltzed back to my hotel probably around 1am. I had a strange feeling which came true as I came back to a locked hotel door. I eventually got let in. But! This is something to be aware of, especially if you are planning on partying. Ask your accommodation if there is a curfew and if there’s a way to get in after hours!
7. Going Back to Bathrooms, Where are the Signs for Them?
This one’s short, simple and probably obvious to everyone but me but I figure I’d throw it out there unless there are any other confused travelers out there. The “WC” signs you see in restaurants, airports, train stations, etc, are short for Water Closet, AKA bathroom. Follow them.
8. Wine Time Baby!
You can buy wine in grocery stores in Italy (thanks Conad). You can also buy it in an Alimentari (corner/convenience store). However at least in Florence, you can’t buy alcohol after 10 (I think? Maybe it’s 9). For me at least, all the different types of wine blended together and I had absolutely no idea what to pick. Here’s some help: the letters on the bottle (IGT, DOC, DOCG) refer to a classification system. IGT indicates a wine that meets the least amount of requirements, DOC meets a mid-level amount of requirements and DOCG meets the most requirements. It doesn’t necessarily mean a DOCG is better than an IGT, but it’s a good metric for a bottle on the fly. There’s also another fabulous option: vino sfuso. They’re stores where they sell local wines and fill you a bottle from a large vat and are extremely cheap (I think I paid about 3 euros per bottle last summer?). And the wine is good too!
9. I’ll have 2 Plain Slices!
No, you won’t. Save for one place near Firenze’s Duomo, you can’t really get a slice of pizza in Italy. Instead, you get a personal pie (could be shared depending on your hunger levels). It’s different than pizza in the US/NY of course, but it’s really good anyways.
10. Con Gas o No?
In restaurants in Italy it is almost impossible to get tap water (in my experience). Your waiter will ask you if you want it with gas (sparkling) or without, or some variation of this phrasing. You’ll get a large bottle of it (enough for 2-3 people) usually for about 1-3 euro depending on your proximity to tourist attractions.
This is certainly not an exhaustive list but I hope I helped you become more knowledgable to prep for your journey! What did I miss? What were the things that surprised you the most during your first trip abroad?