When in Rome,
DON’T use the phrase “scusa” or expect to hear anyone else use utter the Italian equivalent of “excuse me.” Before leaving for Rome at the end of August, I taught myself how to say my most frequently used phrases in Italian (hello, goodbye, please, thank you, I’m sorry, I don’t understand, excuse me…). I’ve said “scusa” a couple of times since arriving last week until I realized not only that nobody cared, but that I hadn’t heard a single person use it themselves.
DO greet strangers (but only in stores, restaurants, elevators, and cafés). Smiling and saying “ciao” to a nice person walking down the street on a beautiful morning is an invitation to be looked at like a crazy person. In Rome, you keep your good mood to yourself until you come in contact with someone in an enclosed space. People in service positions appreciate a big smile and a friendly “buongiorno” and won’t spend the next five minutes wondering where they know that smiling stranger from. It’s wise to save greetings for these people.
DON’T drink out of plastic bottles. I bought a bottle of water the first time I visited a café in Rome and was surprised when the man behind the counter gave me a glass. The Italian attitude towards food and eating is entirely different from that of Americans. These people do the majority of their socializing over food and when they eat, that’s all they do. They don’t walk or text or check their e-mail while sipping water or munching on a sandwich. Italians take time to enjoy their food and life in general. This is very different from the American “eat to survive” sentiment that is so familiar to me.
DON’T tip. Waiters, cab drivers, and maids are all paid larger salaries than their American counterparts. This is one of the Italian quirks that I have the hardest time wrapping my head around. After twenty years of calculating twenty percent tips every time I eat out, it is always tempting for me to leave something for someone who provides a service. In Italy, just a couple of cents is an appreciated tip for a service well-rendered, but by no means is expected.
DO try to speak in Italian. The effort is sincerely appreciated by locals and people are more than willing to help you out or switch to English if you’re really struggling. In some cases, I have started a conversation using the very little Italian that I currently know just to have an Italian start speaking in English, presumably to practice their own foreign language skills. Those people with unenthusiastic views of tourists and foreigners tend to warm up a bit when a pathetic American at least attempts to speak in the native tongue.
DON’T get upset when you’re waiting to order gelato and someone cuts in front of you and orders before you. Waiting in line is a foreign concept in Italy. If there are even a few inches of floor in front of you,
don’t be insulted if someone utilizes that space to order their food first. Many Americans might view this behavior as rude and while that was my initial reaction, I’ve come to appreciate the national aggression and even enjoy partaking in it. You know what they say… When in Rome, do as the Romans do.