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  • Family Travel – Practical Tips for Travelers to Italy

    Learn about the many misunderstandings you can avoid by better understanding what to do when in Rome (or Naples or Calabria or anywhere else in the Boot)
    Our Paesani

    By Francesca Di Meglio

    St. Peter's Basilica
    St. Peter's Basilica
    Many travelers to Italy, especially those with Italian ancestors, head there believing they know the culture. They think navigating the trip will be a piece of "torta," as a result. But the truth is that Italian and Italian American (or Italian Australian or Italian Canadian, etc.) culture are two different things. In addition, times have changed from when many of our ancestors actually lived in Italy. So, our perceptions aren't quite timely.

    Discover these practical tips for travelers – of Italian ancestry or not – to Italy:

    1. Not everyone will understand dialect.
    Many of Italian heritage speak the local dialect from wherever their family hails. Mine comes from the island of Ischia, where the people basically spoke their version of the Neapolitan dialect. We still speak that at home, too. True, southern Italians still often speak the dialect of their area. But the dialect has changed since your grandparents lived there. And many more Italians have given up on dialect in favor of the universal Italian language as formal education has become more prevalent. In addition, if you speak, say, Neapolitan to someone from Puglia, he or she may have no idea what you're saying.

    2. Throw in a few Italian phrases whenever you can.
    Even if you mostly know dialect, you probably know how to say, "Ciao," or "Buona notte." Whenever you can say an Italian phrase that all Italians will know, you should do it. The natives will appreciate your willingness to try. They might correct your pronunciation, but don't let that stop you from trying again. It's a great way to break the ice. It's rather charming to boot.

    3. Italians actually have a specific, formal way of talking.
    When Italians don't know someone or speak with a superior, such as a client, doctor, etc., they use the formal Lei rather than tu. This means they conjugate verbs as though they are speaking of "he, she, or it" when speaking with this figure. And they will either refer to the person as Lei or Signora, Signore, or Dottore (Dottoressa). If you mess this up, the person could get offended. I've been there. Hope to find an understanding person, who realizes you are not Italian and might not know of these formalities. Or study up.

    4. Ordering coffee isn't as easy as you think.
    Americans are always complaining to me about their inability to get a giant cup of coffee in Italy. There's no such thing. They know nothing of American coffee or our absurd-sized mugs. Italians serve shots of espresso in tiny little cups. You can order a doppio but that will just be two shots of espresso. You can also order a caffe latte, but that will be espresso with milk and not nearly as large as what you might get at Starbucks. You can always order a cappuccino, but no self-respecting Italian will; in other words, ordering one gives away your foreigner status.

    5. Tipping is not a must.
    Italians have come to expect Americans to tip waiters, taxi drivers, etc. But this is not typical in Italy. There is no culture of tipping. However, I always offer some tip just because I know they know I'm American and I come from a family full of waiters, bartenders, etc. I know how much work goes into these service jobs, and I want to show appreciation. Still, you don't have to get hung up on percentages. And you can talk to locals about what is expected if you're not sure whether to tip.

    6. Prices are negotiable and sometimes decided on the fly.
    My family comes from Ischia, and I have a common first and last name for the island. I've been visiting since I was 2 years old, and I married a native of the island, too. I live part of the year there. Still, owners of shops, who don't know me personally, try to take advantage of me. They will tell me the price is higher than the sticker or convince me a product that is cheaper is unavailable even if it isn't. They will certainly try to do that to you, too. Be prepared. Remember you can try to haggle. You just might get a lower price. Just make sure you always have a receipt after the transaction because the Italian equivalent of IRS often stands outside stores and might ask to see it.

    7. You have to buy bus tickets before you get on the bus.
    Bus tickets are available in the tobacco and select souvenir stores. You must purchase your tickets before you get on the bus. You cannot buy tickets on the bus. If a police officer is on the bus and realizes you have no ticket, you will be charged a fine. And it might be hefty. This happened to people whose cruise ship had stopped in Ischia. They paid about 150 euro, everything they had in their pocket, for this error.

    Traveling to Italy is a dream. But it can turn into a nightmare if you don't prepare yourself ahead of time. Learning these little nuances can help you get around and enjoy your vacation.

    Di Meglio has written the Our Paesani column for since 2003. You can follow the Italian Mamma on Facebook or Twitter @ItalianMamma10.

    Article Published 9/11/17


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