“Oh Yeah, and you blend.”
– Mona Lisa Vito in “My Cousin Vinny”
Try as hard as they may, both characters of Mona Lisa Vito and Vincent Gambini in the 1992 Comedy, “My Cousin Vinny” just don’t fit in. Even Vinny’s cowboy boots, don’t do much to help him blend into the small southern town where he and his fiancé have traveled from New York City to try and get Vinny’s cousin out of jail. It’s blatantly obvious they’re not from around those parts.
The film is a laugh a minute. It’s a hoot and half watching these two tough New Yorkers try to blend in. But at least they try. Too often American travelers fall into a trap of expecting everything in Italy or another foreign country to be exactly as it is at home and when it’s not, it’s no laughing matter and has even earned many an American traveler to Italy a not so nice nick name; ugly-pushy American or “Americano brutto.”
Toto, We’re Not in Kansas Anymore
While traveling in Europe has come a long way, Europe is still different from America. Italy is no exception. That said, I find the differences something to treasure. They add to the experience of being in a foreign country. So, among my first piece of advice I offer to anyone who has never traveled overseas, take to heart the famous words of the great St. Ambrose; try to blend and appreciate the customs and the lifestyle, or more specifically as he told St. Augustine, “when in Rome do as the Romans do.” So, what does that mean exactly? What does “doing as the Romans do” in Rome and across Italy actually look like?
Well here are a few tips that will answer those questions, help you blend, and, last but not least, really feel like you’re in sync with the Italian lifestyle.
- No cappuccino after 12noon. Cappuccino is a breakfast beverage. Both cappuccino and espresso are consumed in the morning, but espresso is also a popular afternoon pick-me-up which you’ll see Italians grabbing after pranzo or lunch. Not so for cappuccino. If you want avoid the trap of looking like a tourist, consume that cappuccino in the am only.
- Dinner is going to be late: Late according to American norms. Once you start strolling the streets of any town or city in Italy in the late afternoon or early evening, you’ll notice something that seems odd by American standards. The restaurants are either empty or in many cases closed. That’s because for Italians, dinner or “cena” is much later in the day. Most Italians don’t sit down for their last meal of the day until well past 8pm. It’s not uncommon to be walking back to your hotel at say 10 or 11pm and see Italians just sitting down to have a light supper of pizza, insalata, or a bowl of pasta. Pranzo, or the mid-day meal, is actual the main meal of the day and the most important. So, plan your days accordingly and enjoy a late cena and a stroll.
- Whatever you do, don’t cut the pasta: A few years ago I was dining with some American friends of mine in my favorite Roman neighborhood of Trastevere. When our delicious dishes arrived, we all began to eagerly dig in and then we suddenly stopped when there was a very loud gasp coming from most of those seated at our table; not to mention the Romans sitting around us. One of our gang was actually cutting her linguini! A real no-no. If you want short pasta, order short pasta. But cutting spaghetti, linguini or any other long pasta is well, just wrong. It affects the texture and the taste and not in a good way. The waiters are happy to provide a table spoon if you haven’t yet mastered twirling the noodles on your own with a fork, but please don’t cut the pasta.
- Do your best to communicate without raising your voice: I may seem like Captain Obvious here, but believe me this happens all too frequently. Italians are just about the nicest people on the planet. They eagerly welcome tourists and have a great love, most of the time, for America and Americans. And most Italians in the large cities speak English very well. Even if they don’t, they will try to communicate. But yelling at them is not going to make our language easier to understand. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen this happen with Americans getting frustrated because they can’t express themselves so they try to make their point by raising their voice. Given that there are so many great apps out there allowing you to quickly translate a phrase or question, why not try that as opposed to getting flustered. The Italians greatly appreciate any effort you make and will return the favor.
- Take the Advice of Doris Day’s Mother: Last but not least, search via the web (e.g. Google) and memorize the refrain from the oldie but goodie Que Sera Sera. It is the perfect way to approach Italy and to understand Italians a little bit better.
The lovely little number tells the story of a daughter asking her mother about the future and her mother responds “whatever will be will be” or in Italian “que sera sera.” That’s pretty much the Italian attitude in everything. Knowing this ahead of time will prevent frustrations and allow you to relax, adapt, and have another vino while you wait for the shoe store, museum or pharmacy to open up even though the sign says the establishment is open for business. My husband and I once spent hours looking for a gelato shop that was supposedly among the best in Rome. When we finally found it, hidden in the shadows of the Pantheon, guess what? It was closed! And this was in the late summer in the middle of the week with the open sign hanging on the door. Go figure. Italians go with the flow of whatever suits them and sometimes that means adjusting your schedule as well. It happens less in the big cities and at sites that accommodate large groups of tourists, but it happens.
Vinny and Mona Lisa Would be Proud
These may seem like minor things, but not following them will make you stick out like the proverbial sore thumb. Practicing them, on the other hand, will help you assimilate more easily, enjoy your Italy vacation more fully, and cause even Mona Lisa Vito to admit that “oh yeah, you do blend.”