THE 3 GOLDEN RULES:
1 - Plan for complications
2 - Give yourself extra time
3 - Relax!
Like Dorothy stepping into the Land of Oz, you are not in Kansas anymore! Italy is a foreign country with a different culture. You may be surprised at how different a lot of things are. As wonderful as it is, Italy can require a lot of patience at times. Keep your eyes and your mind open, and above all maintain some good humour. Your time in Italy will be much more enjoyable if you can roll with the punches and not get too attached to any carefully laid plans. Even the most sublime experiences here are usually sprinkled with a bit of the ridiculous (which hopefully will make for good stories later).
Manage your expectations by keeping the following in mind:
A bar in Italy is what we would call a café at home. It is a place to get coffee, pastries and sandwiches, as well as alcoholic beverages. Some serve simple lunches, usually for reasonable prices.
Always look at the price list before ordering. In tourist areas, there are usually two sets of prices, one if you stand at the bar (al banco) and the other if you sit at a table (al tavolo). It is perfectly acceptable in Italy to stand at the bar to eat and drink. The table prices are usually double and require a server.
Signs that say “NO SELF SERVICE” mean you can’t take something from the bar (or cooler) and sit at a table (well, you could, but you would be charged the table price).
It is common in tourist areas to have to pay before you order. If you see people laying their receipts down on the counter as they order, you must go to the cash register and pay first.. Typically you order your pastry/sandwich from one person and your coffee from another. Hang on to your receipt in between.
The Italian coffee culture is very different from ours. People do not walk around with giant coffees in their hands. A coffee is a small, quick affair. Here are a few things you should know:
A caffè is an espresso.
A caffè americano will get you a reasonable facsimile of North American coffee — a shot of espresso in a big cup and a little pitcher of hot water. If you want milk ask for it con latte (cone LAH-tay).
A cappuccino comes in one variety in Italy. It is made with lots of frothy whole milk. Don’t even think about asking for a milk substitution. Enjoy the lusciousness. You’re on holiday.
Latte means “milk” in Italian. If you ask for a latte you will get MILK and only milk. If you want a coffee with hot milk you have to ask for a caffè latte. This is frequently served in a clear glass. In summer sometimes they will ask you if you want it caldo (hot) orfreddo (cold).
A caffè corretto has a shot of alcohol in it. (And don’t be surprised if you see people drinking them in the morning)
Banks are open Monday to Friday from 8:30am to 1:30pm and again from 3 to 4pm.
In the centre of Florence stores are open all day (10am-8pm) 7 days a week. Otherwise, shops are usually closed all day Sunday and on Monday mornings, and in the afternoon on business days (from 1pm til about 3:30pm).
Shops, offices and public agencies in Italy typically stay open til 7:30 or 8pm.
There is a dress code for churches, even if you are only visiting them as a tourist. Typically, that means no shorts, short skirts or bare shoulders. In summer, ladies should keep a scarf in their bag, even if it’s sheer, to cover their shoulders. The shorts and short skirts are frequently overlooked, but not the bare shoulders.
English is widely spoken in tourist areas (and they can usually identify you as North American before you even open your mouth). If you don’t know any Italian, don’t worry too much, but do CONDUCT YOURSELF IN A POLITE FASHION. Pushiness and rudeness will not serve you well. Italy is a country that still uses a formal way of speaking when you don’t know someone; if you observe this you should be treated politely in return.
It's bad form to walk up to an Italian and ask, “Do you speak English?” Try:
Mi scusi, parla inglese?
Mee SKOO-zee, PAR-lah in-GLAY-zay?
Excuse me, do you speak English?
Use a polite greeting when you enter shops and bars, and at ticket counters:
Buon giorno “Bwon-JOR-no” (until about mid afternoon)
Buona sera “BWON-a SEH-ra” (after about 3pm)
If nothing else, at least say thank you (Grazie “GRAH-tsee-yeh”) in Italian!
An Italian phrase book or minidictionary is handy, especially when not in tourist areas. If you choose to visit smaller places (and you should), English probably will not be widely spoken.
Although there are lots of police patrolling tourist areas, you should not go asking for trouble. Pickpocketing is the most common problem. Ladies should carry a purse that zips and keep it zipped and under an arm. Men should keep their wallets in their front pocket or inside jacket pockets, or better yet in a flat, zipped pack under clothing.
In crowded areas like the train station or bus terminal, do not turn loose of or lose sight of your bags. Thieves are expert at absconding with a bag left on the floor the moment you turn your head. They'll search it for valuables and dump it before you can even find a police officer. Another scam is for one thief to distract you (asking you for help with something) while another takes off with your bag.
Gypsy children can be a menace in certain areas. Don't let yourself be surrounded by them; they are brilliant thieves. Beware especially if they are carrying pieces of cardboard — these become screens for little hands going into bags and pockets.
Footwear / Street Surfaces
Many streets in Italy have uneven surfaces. There is lots of cobblestone and slate. Wear shoes that fit snugly. Heels are not a good idea as they get stuck in the cracks between the cobblestones. Ladies, for dressier footwear, something with a wedge heel is your best bet.
Warning: The shoes in Italy are fantastic. If you love shoes, bring your life savings. If you love shoes and are on a budget, stay away from the shops.
Do not feel compelled to give begging gypsies any money. They will often prey on your sentiments with dogs and children that aren't even theirs.
See also CRIME.
Italy is part of the EU and the currency is the Euro. North American bank cards work in Italian bank machines, there are lots of them and you will get the best exchange rate. Be prepared to deal in cash FAR more than you're used to. Note that your bank card will NOT work in shops.
DO NOT bring Traveller's Cheques; they are a pain in the neck and expensive to cash (if you can get them cashed at all).
Use this calculator to check current exchange rates:
A NOTE ABOUT CARRYING ID: Everyone in Italy, citizens and tourists alike, are required to carry government issued ID at all times. You will also need to present your passport for all sorts of "odd" things -- like checking into a hotel, registering to use the internet, exchanging money or mailing a package.
Summer is extremely hot in Italy. The early part of June can also be very warm. (If you are from a colder part of North America, June can feel like the middle of summer).
There are drinking water spigots throughout the city of Rome and many other cities. The water is usually cold and delicious. If you put your finger over the end of the faucet, the water will shoot up through a hole and become a drinking fountain.
Don't forget a hat, sunglasses and sunscreen.
Tipping is a very subjective practice in Italy, not a norm like in North America. Restaurants in tourist areas may add a servizio of about 15% to your bill; if this is the case, you've already left a tip. Tips should be given when you feel you've received exceptional service. Servers in tourist areas may be pushy about receiving a tip but you shouldn't feel pressured if you think service was average.
How much to tip:
To Do With Time
TIME CHANGE: Italy is 6 hours ahead of the east coast of North America and 9 hours ahead of the west coast. You lose time going to Italy and gain time coming back.
TRAVEL TIME: From eastern North America, a direct flight takes 7 or 8 hours. From western North America, figure on 14 to 18 hours if the connections are good. You will arrive THE NEXT DAY.
TELLING THE TIME: The 24 hour clock is used. (Add 12 to the time after noon).
THE ITALIAN TIMETABLE: Lunch for Italians is normally around 13.00 (1pm) and dinner around 20.00 or 21.00 (8 or 9 pm). Although in tourist areas you can find places serving meals at virtually all hours, the more traditional places won't even open for dinner til 19.30 (7:30pm). If that seems incredibly late, then do like the Italians and enjoy the early-evening habit of going for an aperitivo and snack (most bars put out of really nice spread at cocktail hour).
Toilets are, well, different in Italy. Be prepared for a bit of a third world experience in some places. Public bathrooms can be primitive, filthy, broken down or just a trick to figure out. Hole-in-the-floor toilets still exist. Italian toilets are constructed on a different set of plumbing principles and they can be stinky even in high end hotels and restaurants.
The toilet flusher can be one of about fifteen different things. If you can't figure out how to work the sink or the toilet, look on the floor. Sometimes you have to step on a button or lever to make the water come out. Sometimes the water simply does not work. The lights and door locks may also not work and often there is no TP. Carry tissues and hand sanitizer.
If there is an attendant it is customary to leave a small tip, like 50 centesimi (cents).
Ladies, please note it is never a good idea to put tampons down the toilet in Italy.
Public toilets can be hard to come by in Italy. The easiest solution is to go into a bar and buy something small, even an espresso will suffice, and you have the right to use the bagno (BAN-yo).
The Trenitalia site is good and can be viewed in English, www.trenitalia.it.
There is a lot to know about taking trains in Italy. It can be baffling. You really have to put aside what you are accustomed to in North America. Much info follows but it's worthwhile to read. Best to print and bring with you.
TICKETS: At major train stations you will usually find a staffed ticket counter (biglietteria) in addition to machines that will "talk" to you in English. These are easy to use. If you need human assistance, most agents speak English (in major cities and tourist areas). Always double check your ticket before you walk away from the biglietteria. You can buy tickets onboard but there is a huge surcharge (like 25 euro).
NOTE: An Italian train ticket gives you the right to board a train of a particular class between two points. It is NOT a guarantee of a seat nor is it designated for a particular train on a particular day (unless there is a mandatory reservation). This also means that a schedule will NOT come with your ticket. If you buy your ticket from a machine, you must write down the schedule. If you buy it from an agent, you must ask for a schedule ("orario").
VALIDATE (STAMP) YOUR TICKET!! There are little yellow machines for this on the walls in the station. One end of the ticket usually has a triangle and the word "CONVALIDA" written on it. Stick this end of the ticket into the machine and wait til you hear it stamp... if it is working. As with many things in Italy, sometimes you have to fiddle with it a bit. "Fuori servizio" means "out of service".
BROKEN MACHINES: If you are in a small train station and there's only one machine and it's broken, just look for the capo (the person who goes around checking tickets) when you get on board and tell them the machine was broken. They will hand-validate your ticket. (Even if they don't speak English, they'll know what you mean, standing there distraught as you hold out your ticket and point at the station.)
WHY THE VALIDATION? Train tickets in Italy are good for several months; validating them activates them. Tickets are not collected as you board and sometimes the capo never comes around; validating prevents them from being used more than once. But the main reason: There is a heavy fine for unvalidated tickets and you have to pay it in cash right then and there on the train. Sometimes the capo will take pity on you as a tourist, sometimes not.
KINDS OF TRAINS: The Eurostar are modern and fast and go to major cities all over Europe. They are also the most expensive. The Intercity trains are usually pretty modern and make stops in the major and secondary cities. They are typically the best blend of cost and efficiency. The ES and IC trains are good to take between major points. If you have to get to a small place, catch a Regionale train as the last leg of your trip, otherwise it will take forever, as they stop at every town. The Regionale trains are cheap and the older ones are usually pretty grungy. (Still, keep your feet off the seats; the Trenitalia staff will not hesitate to scold you in any language.)
RESERVING A SEAT: On popular routes on the ES and IC trains, it's recommended and often required to reserve a seat ("posto"). Second class is fine. (Seats cannot be reserved on Regional trains and there is no first class even though you can buy a ticket for it.)
NOTE: An Italian train ticket gives you the right to board a train; it is NOT a guarantee of a seat. If you have not reserved a seat, you may find yourself battling a throng of stampeding Italians or standing the whole trip. The other advantage of reserving a posto is that if someone's in it, you don't have to worry about the language barrier, you just show them your seat reservation.
If you reserve a seat, you will get a separate ticket for that particular train on that particular day. "Carozza" is the car and these numbers are usually displayed in the window of the train doors; "Posto" is the seat number; these are usually right above the seats, sometimes listed on the outside of first class compartments.
TRAIN TIMETABLES: If you can, use the Trenitalia website to check schedules. (You can also buy tickets online.) Make note of the train number and exact time of departure; these two things are key to finding your train once at the station.
At the station, the timetable ("orario") can be enormous but there is a method to the madness. There are two kinds: "In Partenza" (departures) and "In Arrivo" (arrivals). Trains are listed in order by time using the 24-hour clock. Trains are usually named for their final destination city and will be listed on all the giant electronic boards (or monitors) by this name, as well as their ID number.
FINDING YOUR TRAIN: Once you've identified your train on the board/monitor, you will find the platform number in the "Bin" ("binario") column and info on how late the train is in the "Rit" ("ritardo") column. Be aware of last minute platform changes, which are not always announced in English. If you're on the platform and suddenly all the Italians start to leave, follow them. Note: your train ticket will have your final destination printed on it but this is not necessarily the name of the train! For example, if you are going from Rome to Livorno, the train might be called "Genova" because that's where it ends. By knowing the departure time you can find the train name and number on the timetable. If you have reserved a seat, the train number will be printed on that ticket. To find out the time of your arrival, look at the detailed list of stops under your train on the timetable.
TO CONNECT OR NOT TO CONNECT: In Italy, a connection is called a "coincidenza". Need we say more? Always take a direct train if you can find one, even if it costs more. If you have to connect, go through a major centre. That way, if your train runs late, you have more choices to get back on track (so to speak).
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