7 Cultural Mistakes I Made While In Rome (And What I Learned From Them)
By: Kristin Magaldi
All my life I grew up thinking I was the most authentic Italian. With a mother born in a small village in the heart of Sicily, a father whose family hailed from Naples, and a childhood filled to the brim with Southern dialect, fish on Christmas Eve, and way too many carbs, I considered myself as legit as it gets. I walked the walk when it came to Italian traditions -- never eat later than 4pm on Sundays, always have pasta before any main dish, talk with your hands, it helps get your point across better -- and even learned to talk the talk when I started college, choosing to learn Italian outside of my language requirement. That being said, visiting Rome, Italy for the first time in my life the summer of 2014 was a very rude awakening. Sure, my surname was recognized as being Italian wherever I went, but there was still something so fundamentally American about me, that the locals laughed when I pretended to know what I was doing. The result? A slew of cultural mistakes that to this day still haunt me in ways I will always find simultaneously hysterical and mortifying. Though I thought I knew everything, there was still so much to learn, embarrassing mistake after embarrassing mistake.
Be Careful How You Greet People
This one I learned just a few hours after landing in Rome, and to this day, is one of the most embarrassing errors I made my month studying abroad. While strolling the streets of the residential neighborhood of Garbatella with my fellow students and the coordinator of our program, we came across three men dressed to the nines in military-style uniforms. Out of respect, I muttered, “Ciao” as the gentlemen passed, feeling compelled to acknowledge them in some way. All three seemed to stop in their tracks, oggle at me in disbelief, then leer as if I just asked them something super NSFW.
“You don’t say ‘Ciao’ to the Carabinieri,” my coordinator later berated me. I quickly found out that the Carabinieri were a very dignified branch of the military in Italy, and my too casual of a greeting appeared to be an aggressive way of flirting with them. After being told on multiple occasions thereafter to always greet people with, “Buongiorno” when in doubt, I will never make that mistake again.
One word. Who knew?
“To Go” Truly Isn’t A Thing
As a New Yorker, the inherent need to rush everything is such a basic compulsion, I often forget many other cultures make a point of taking their time. Case in point: drinking coffee. We have a habit of dropping by a coffee shop, ordering a latte, and then grabbing it to go so that we may plunge forth with our lives. That is completely not a thing in Italy. In fact, coffee is so much of an art form there, it’s meant to be enjoyed while standing at the bar, and sipping before work with a friend.
Did that stop me? Nope. One day during our class at the University, our professor let us take a coffee break. We strolled over to the coffee shop right next to our building, and ordered a cappuccino a portar via so that we could get back to class ASAP. Since that’s basically a non-existent request, the barista gave me a flimsy cup with an even flimsier lid. Thinking the lid would be just as stubborn as a Starbucks’ top, I pushed the lid onto the thin plastic cup with so much force, my hand went right through the cup to the counter. Frothed milk and espresso exploded everywhere as the barista broke out into a fit of laughter, and the manager came out from the back, screaming at me to go to the bathroom because I was dripping everywhere.
After that, every time I passed by that coffee shop, the barista would pantomime me destroying the cup, and erupt into another fit of laughter. Awkward.
Cappuccino Is Strictly A Morning Drink
If you thought we were done with the coffee-centric rules, you are sorely mistaken. As I said, drinking coffee is a way of life in Italy, so there are plenty of codes of decorum that go along with your afternoon pick-me-up. One of the most important? Cappuccino shouldn’t be ordered after noon. Italians have some very strange rules when it comes to the way you should be consuming your food, and according to these beliefs, milk is something your stomach can only handle in the morning. After that, it probably won’t sit so well, so if you want coffee, go for an espresso. And never, ever drink your cappuccino with orange juice; citrus and milk won’t mix well in your stomach. Ordering a cappuccino after noon is the quickest way to signal that you’re a tourist. Sure they’ll give it to you, but they’ll turn their nose up at you all the while.
Buffet Has A Whole Different Meaning There
If there was one moment that completely proved to me that I am red white and blue, through and through, it was the way I responded to an Italian buffet. My professor had suggested that we go to one restaurant for Aperitivo, the Italian-equivalent of happy hour in which you spend about 10 euro, got one drink, and two hours of unlimited food. For Italians, aperitivo is a small treat to enjoy a little bit of food and a casual drink before having your real dinner. To us, this was the cheapest buffet we had experienced in Europe.
Though the small size of the plates should have let us know that this wasn’t an all you can eat affair, that didn’t stop us from piling our plates high with all of the pastas, cheeses, salads, and rice dishes the restaurant had to offer. Once we got our drink and sat down with our plates, in true American-fashion we proceeded to wolf down the entire meal in record time. After we realized a few people were looking at us distastefully, we decided it probably wasn’t the best idea to immediately go up for seconds. But after a few minutes of waiting, we had a hard time stopping ourselves.
Beware Of Shorts In The Summer
Shorts in the summer makes sense. You’re hot, so naturally you’ll opt for a little less clothing coverage so you don’t melt into a puddle. My mother had warned me that Italians tend to be on the conservative side, and stay away from shorts, but I thought this was just an outdated notion. Surely in 90 degree heat, the Romans wouldn’t still be wearing pants, right?
I was so wrong. Even on the hottest of days, most Roman women and men would stay clear of shorts, opting for airy harem pants or capris to let their legs breath. When I did choose to put on these scandalous bottoms I received a lot of judgmental looks from the locals, especially older women. It made me acutely aware of my legs in a way I’ve never been before.
Always Be Prepared To Cover Your Shoulders
Even if you’re not planning a trip to the Vatican, and are content to walk the streets of Rome for a day, be aware that it’s always a good idea to have a shawl or small jacket with you. Rome and many other cities in Italy have an array of gorgeous, ancient churches that are must-sees for any domination out there. But if you’re going to enter one of those churches, you are required to be covered out of respect and there will be people checking at the door to make sure you are. I missed out on a few incredible chapels because I didn’t come prepared.
Don’t Assume An Ancient City Is Anything Like Your City
As a not-so well traveled person who barely left New York, I easily fell into the trap of believing Rome would be very similar to the Big Apple. That wasn’t even remotely true. On my first day in Rome, I asked my coordinator to give me a map of the metro so that I could start studying up on the intricacies of underground transportation, believing it to be like New York’s tangled web of subway lines. She looked at me, and laughed telling me there were only two subway lines in Rome and that she was sure I wouldn’t have issues figuring it out.
I also made the mistake of thinking that public transportation would be as reliable as it is in New York. Though the metro was definitely a good way to get around, it closed late at night, and metro employee strikes were common. The bus was a pretty decent option as well, but if you’re planning on exploring the nightlife of Rome, be prepared to be jipped by a cab driver later on in the night. Unless your Italian is perfect, it’s hard to avoid.
Though being the bud of a cultural mishap isn’t the place I ever thought I’d be, I definitely learned a lot from my trip to Rome. For instance, before you go somewhere, it’s important to study the culture, and ask friends who have been there about common practices. Though the Romans could be pretty judgmental of Americans, they were ultimately forgiving; sometimes this isn’t the case with other places. It’s always a good idea to learn a bit of the language before you go as well; you don’t have to be Rosetta Stone-level proficient, but if you take the time to learn common greetings, the locals will respect the fact that you’re trying. And of course, take a second to learn from your mistakes. Yes, they might be embarrassing, but you definitely won’t be the picture of cultural adaptability on your first trip abroad. No matter how Italian you think you are.
A little about Kristin:
Kristin is a 23-year-old Brooklynite who lacks the amount of travel experiences she desires, but makes up for it with adventurous food exploration, and serial dating Europeans. On a typical day you can find her killing the production game at MTV, or discussing that one time she studied abroad in Italy over Trader Joe’s cheapest red wine. Though her carefully perfected winged liner may fool you, she’s still the picture of a liberal, millennial desperately trying to get her sh*t together.
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