The Babbel Blog

language learning in the digital age

When in Rome: 8½ ways to integrate with the Italians

Posted on December 9, 2015 by

We’ve already looked at how best to fit in with the Spanish and the French — now we turn our attention to the Italians. Want to visit the bel paese without faux pas or fashion crimes? Read on.

(For those interested in a more permanent trip, we also have a handy guide to Italianizing yourself.)

1. Behave yourself at the dinner table…

Pizza, lasagne, spaghetti carbonara… the Italians have probably contributed more to the world’s recipe books than the rest of us put together. Thankfully, they don’t ask much in return: just that us tourists play by the rules and stick to the menu.

 Don’t, for example, even think about asking for chicken pasta — it’s just not a thing in Italy. The same goes for that olive oil/vinegar/bread combo you might have seen in Italian restaurants. 
Get a more complete guide here, or check out our Italian cuisine courses to make sure you really know your prosciutto from your pastasciutta.
2. And in the cafe

If food is at the heart of Italian culture, coffee is its lifeblood. And your triple-chocolate soy-milk mochaccino with cinnamon is a blocked artery. 

Coffee in Italy is serious, but mercifully straightforward: espresso-based drinks with milk are for breakfast — a cappuccino with something sweet makes for a great start to the day. If you need a caffeine hit after lunch, stick to the black stuff. Just order a caffè normale and drink it at the bar.
3. Meet the locals

Those who are fond of personal space might be pleased to hear: Italians are actually a little more reserved than some of their neighbouring countries when it comes to kissing strangers. When you first meet someone in Italy, a handshake will normally suffice. Once you get to know them a little better, you may feel comfortable going for a peck on the cheek. Just remember: left to right.
4. Be fashionably late

If the above goes well, you might score an invite to an Italian party. Good job! Just don’t ruin it by showing up early. When your Italian friend tells you to “be there around eight,” they really mean “please don’t arrive before eight-thirty. I won’t be ready.” Bringing wine is encouraged, but make sure it’s a good one.
5. In fact, just be plain fashionable

Face it: the Italians will be better dressed than you. But that doesn’t mean you need to feel out of place. First off, you’re going to want to avoid the socks and sandals look, (but you knew that, right?). Also on the list of no-nos in most places are sportswear, beachwear and anything threadbare.

 Oh, and if you plan on seeing the inside of Italy’s spectacular religious buildings, you’d better keep those shoulders covered. They may not let you in otherwise.
6. Plan ahead
A little preparation goes a long way in much of Italy. Taxis, for example, need to be booked in advance. You can try to flag one down if you like, but the driver will probably just wave back. It’s also a good idea to purchase tickets for museums and other major attractions in advance. If nothing else, there’s so much to do and see that prioritisation is vital to your holiday bliss.
7. Learn the lingo…

We’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: a little lingo goes a long way. It really can make all the difference between spending your whole vacation (and your whole budget) in mediocre tourist traps, and spending it immersed in a new culture full of surprises and lasting memories. We’ve even got Italian holiday courses to get you up to speed quickly.
8. Or use your hands

Italians are famously animated when they speak, but it’s not for theatrical effect. There’s a whole pseudo-language in these gestures — they carry real meaning, altering the nature of what’s being said or conveying ideas all of their own. Italian artist and designer Bruno Munari even put together a visual dictionary for those who want a pocket-sized primer.
8½. If all else fails…

Speak English… kinda. Just as Italian has given the English language such gems as graffiti and broccoli, us anglophones have made some interesting contributions the other way. When Italian migrants first arrived in New York, they assimilated the English they heard into their own language, but not before adding a dash of style: shoeshine became sciuscià, car became carro and “hurry up” became orrioppo.