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14 mistakes foreigners make when moving to Italy

When you move to Italy, you're bound to make a few mistakes before you settle in. Here are some common ones to look out for.

14 mistakes foreigners make when moving to Italy
Being aware of Italy's quirks and unwritten rules will make for a much more enjoyable move. Photo by Tiziana FABI / AFP

So you’re finally moving to Italy and are ready to throw yourself headlong into ‘la dolce vita’?

Congratulations. But as anyone who has spent much time in the country knows, that dream can start to feel elusive when things don’t go as expected.

You may know by now that spaghetti bolognese is not Italian, and you order cappuccino after lunch at your own peril. But what else will you find out as you dig beneath the surface of Italian life?

To help make sure you get off to the best possible start, here’s a look at a few of the common mistakes foreigners make when they first move to Italy.  

Making only expat friends

One thing you’ll probably notice immediately when moving to Italy is that relationships – and contacts – are paramount.

This isn’t simply because Italians like to be friendly. Italy can be a complicated place, and the bureaucracy baffles those who were born here too.

READ ALSO: 15 things you’ll need to get used to about living in Italy

As a foreigner, it’s no exaggeration to say that most of the information you’ll need to live a rich and full life is probably going to be written in Italian or bad English, if it’s written down at all.

Making a few Italian friends right away will really give you the inside track when it comes to living in Italy, as they’ll be able to guide you when you can’t find the information you need. They will also be eager to help you get a handle on your new language and culture, so it’s really worth going the extra mile and befriending locals.

Photo by Scott Graham on Unsplash

Assuming things will be open

Italy is often referred to as ‘a country of small- and medium-sized businesses’ by economists. While this has wide-reaching implications for the country’s economy, it also means something very important to ordinary people: almost everything is closed at lunch.

You may hear people say this is no longer true in Italy, but if you venture beyond tourist areas or central Milan you will no doubt find public offices, banks and shops closed in the early afternoon.

The only exception is large supermarkets and high-street chain stores – but even these may be closed on Sundays.

It is therefore a bad idea to assume you’ll be able to use your lunch break to go and do things like get a bank statement, take your shoes to the cobblers or get some keys cut. Annoying, yes, but it does mean that you have no other option other than to stop stressing out and have a proper sit-down lunch.

Not taking the whole afternoon off for an appointment

You’ve no doubt enjoyed taking it easy on Italian holidays, but once you move here you’ll just be trying to live your everyday life – bills, bosses, work schedules and appointments included – but in a different language and at a very different pace.

Moving to a new country always involves some bureaucracy, but Italy has a reputation for red tape for a reason. Things move almost comically slowly, and this can be doubly frustrating if you have somewhere else to be.

This is another thing that varies depending on where you are in the country. Public offices in Milan, for example, are somewhat better set up to meet the needs of international residents than those in a small Sicilian village.

READ ALSO: 13 essential articles you’ll need when moving to Italy

But as a general rule, you’re not going to get much done on your lunch break (not least because those offices may be closed – see above).

In general, it’s probably wise to give yourself a couple of hours for any appointments involving bureaucracy, banking, or healthcare, unless you want the additional stress of your boss calling while you’re mid-argument with a local government official.

And before you go and queue up at the comune, check what you may now be able to do online.

Forgetting to validate your train tickets

If you’re travelling by train in Italy, there are boxy looking machines (usually green or yellow) on the platform: they are used to validate your train tickets.

You need to place your ticket in the machine before getting on the train if you don’t want to be fined and/or thrown off by the conductor once you are in transit.

READ ALSO: Eight things to expect when you move to Italy’s Veneto region

It’s easy to forget, but if does slip your mind, just walk along the train until you find the conductor and let them know you have forgotten and you won’t get into trouble.

Not realizing how expensive painkillers are

In many countries, paracetamol and ibuprofen products can be picked up at the supermarket for small change. Not so in Italy.

Generally speaking, you’ll need to shell out more than €5 at the pharmacy for a simple pack of painkillers, while more advanced cold and flu formulas can cost upwards of €10.

Assuming fresh milk will be available everywhere

For a country which prides itself on its admittedly wonderful gastronomy, there is an awful lot of UHT milk in Italy. If that bothers you, check what type of milk bars are using before you order a milky coffee.

On the subject of milk, it can be tricky to find alternatives to full-fat cow’s milk in cafes, so expect to be disappointed if you attempt to order a ‘skinny latte’ or ‘soy-milk macchiato’.

Tipping each time you go to a bar

In many countries a 10 percent service charge is the done thing, but there isn’t really a tipping culture in Italy so there’s no need to throw your cash around.

If you want to leave a tip, just round the bill up to the nearest 0 or 5 and that will do nicely.

Photo by Miguel MEDINA / AFP

Showing up early to parties

‘Fashionably late’ is always a good idea for parties the world over. However, in Italy it is a practical necessity, unless you want to be standing on your own, waiting for everybody else to arrive.

For informal evenings with friends, up to half an hour after the invite time is on the polite spectrum. In some places, that could stretch to an hour.

Obviously, group social contexts are one thing, business meetings and dates are another. In the case of the latter two, it’s polite to be punctual.

Thinking you can use your bank cards everywhere

By the letter of the law, businesses in Italy are legally obliged to let you pay on your card for any item over €5.

However, as previously stated, Italy is a country of ‘small and medium sized businesses’, which has implications here too.

It’s not unusual to find small independent shops advertise card payments, but that the machine is mysteriously broken. If it does work, it may take so long for the payment to go through that you give up and pay in cash.

READ ALSO: ‘It’s crazy’: What to expect when you work for an Italian company

Many shopkeepers have long refused to accept cards for small transactions, saying it is not worth them losing part of their profit in commission.

The government has taken steps to address this in recent years, encouraging electronic payments as part of moves to clamp down on widespread tax evasion. Meanwhile, many shops also began to allow card payments for ‘hygiene reasons’ during the pandemic.

But the faulty (or non-existent) card machine hasn’t disappeared entirely, so it’s always wise to carry cash with you as you go about your everyday life – just in case.

Thinking you like things

There’s a lot to get your head around when learning the Italian language, but here’s something to know right away: you should stop saying you like things.

In Italy, things like to you, or please you. That’s just how the Italian verb piacere‘ (to like) works, though this construction is an alien concept for many English speakers.

READ ALSO: Some of the best podcasts for learners of Italian

So if you want to say ‘I like it’ you have to say ‘a me piace‘: literally, ‘it likes to me’ or ‘it is pleasing to me’. So far so good, but if you want to say ‘I like them’ you have to then change the verb for its plural form and say ‘a me piacciono‘.

Super importantly, if you want to tell an Italian guy or girl you like them, you have to say ‘mi piaci‘.

Drinking too much at parties

Some cultures drink more than others and Italians drink less than most.

Obviously this is a generalization, but the statistics show that the further south you go, the less people – women particularly – drink outside of mealtimes.

So if you want to make friends or network at your next Italian party, it’s probably a good idea to take it easy on the booze.

READ ALSO: How do Italians eat spaghetti? The Local answers Google’s questions

Even when young Italians proclaim that they drink “a lot”, be aware that this will probably turn out to be a sensible amount by most northern European cultures’ standards; drinking so much that you start shouting, falling over, picking fights or telling strangers you love them is far from the norm.

After all, staggering drunkenly through the streets is hardly ‘la bella figura’.

Thinking you can get an Uber – or a taxi

You might have noticed this one on previous visits to Italy, but ride-hailing apps like Uber don’t exist here – at least not in the way you might be used to elsewhere.

While you can of course get a traditional taxi if you’re in a major city, you might also find that local residents simply don’t use them, and as a result taxis of any sort are very thin on the ground elsewhere, including in large provincial towns. 

READ ALSO: Six things foreigners should expect if they live in Rome


Putting your washing machine on at night

Most people live in blocks of apartments in Italy and in some areas, usually in the north of the country, there are actually laws about what times you can make noise and put your washing machine on.

Precise rules vary building-to-building but if you don’t want to incur the wrath of an overzealous neighbour, have your laundry finished by 10pm.

Kissing or not kissing

Kissing rules are a nightmare for foreigners in Italy, as there is no blanket rule that tells you how to behave: what is culturally normal in one part of the country is less normal in another area.

Generally, men and women can (but don’t always) give each other a kiss on each cheek for hello and goodbye in most areas of the country. In the centre-north it’s less common for men to greet each other like this. However, in many parts of the south – Sicily in particular – men do give a kiss on both cheeks when they greet each other.

Needless to say, kissing is informal, so wherever you are, you don’t want to kiss your boss, bank manager or waiter. Even then not everybody kisses, some people just like their personal space. 

With your friends, a good bit of advice would be to simply follow other people’s lead: if they are accustomed to a kiss they will probably warn you and say ‘un baccio’ before they move in for the kill.


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What’s a ‘scampagnata’ and how to do it the Italian way

It’s that time of the year again when Italians go on the so-called "scampagnata", otherwise known as "gita fuori porta" meaning a day trip outside of city ‘doors’. 

What’s a 'scampagnata' and how to do it the Italian way

It’s a tradition hailing back to a distant past. Every trip far from the urban center has always been an excursion of pleasure, a break from the daily routine. 

These scampagnate (‘wanderings in the countryside’) take place during the weekend when people indulge in detox time from work and it’s a sort of ritual that involves both families and groups of friends. 

You get to explore nearby pristine rural areas and discover amazing villages and sites, but above all it’s an opportunity – or rather a justification – to enjoy savoury, huge lunches in traditional taverns and trattorias with typical dishes. 

The period for such day trips starts exactly when summer ends, so when it starts to rain and the temperature drops, and runs throughout the entire winter.

When summer’s over Italians tend to be rather sad and gloomy, the beach joy is over and winter is coming. Autumn for them is just a preparation for winter so these trips are a way to shake up the dark days by bringing a dose of optimism and something to look forward to during the working week. 

MAP: The best Italian villages to visit this year

Italians are dead serious about scampagnata, it’s a sacrosanct treat. Foreign observers might think these involve picnics in parks; it may be so, but it is not the rule. 

These outdoor adventures as per Italian style are always very comfortable, laid-back and cozy. Scampagnate are never by train or public transport and the maximum amount of time spent driving in a car or on a motorbike is never more than 3-4 hours.

Departure is never too early in the morning and we still want to eat with ‘our feet under the table’ like my grandpa used to say, so forget paninos and camping-style omelettes. Unless a group of friends is into trekking, hiking or cycling it’s usually an easy-going, calm weekend experience that involves little physical activity. Nothing too adventurous, it’s all about having a good time – and eating. 

The preparation for the gite fuori porta can be complex and time-consuming as it’s a way to mentally escape from the office during the working day.

There are rounds of calls and text messages throughout the week to ‘vote’ for the specific place to visit and also for the restaurant. Ladies chat about how they will be dressing in a very cool way, showing off the new wintery clothes. 

Everybody proposes a place but then nobody has the courage to actually decide where to go so most of the week is spent debating the destination until the person most overloaded with work says ‘OK let’s go there. Basta.’

I remember once with my friends it took us two weeks to organize a day trip to the Park of the Monsters of Bomarzo near Viterbo, the problem wasn’t agreeing on the place but finding a suitable restaurant that could satisfy our palates. 

READ ALSO: 14 reasons why Lazio should be your next Italian holiday destination

The fact that an hour or so is spent walking around a ‘new’ hamlet, admiring a waterfall, going underground in an old well or visiting a new museum justifies the amount of calorie intake during lunch. Energy is also consumed buying gourmet products like honey, jams, ricotta and hams, or a pair of handmade gloves or porcini mushrooms and chestnuts at a food fair. Feeling like a one-day ‘blitz tourist’ gives you the illusion that you can still savor a short holiday near your home during a non-festive period. 

Rule number one is to be well equipped in case it rains or gets cold, if you happen to go up on the mountains an umbrella is a must as are scarves and heavier coats. The car must also be stacked with the most awesome music albums to enjoy along the ride.

It’s still a trip ‘on a budget’ as people don’t want to spend too much given scampagnate may be every weekend. If it’s a bunch of friends they split the cost of the fuel, parking, and the bar and restaurant bills alla Romana way (meaning everyone pays his or her share). 

The choice of the restaurant is key because eating out is the main driver behind the scampagnata

The typical lunch menu always has to feature antipasto all’italiana with all sorts of hams and cheeses, beans and bruschetta followed by pasta, meat and tiramisù. And of course tonnes of wine, which raises the question of who will be driving the car back home as that person will have to stay semi-sober.

So people vote on who the unlucky driver will be. After the coffee and the ammazza caffé (coffee-killer liqueur), it’s time to leave after a 2-3 hours long lunch. 

While the driver does his job the other members of the group go in a slumber in their backseats with their bellies full, feeling already a bit of nostalgia and dreading the Monday back-to-work routine. 

Often to prolong the beautiful excursion Italians tend to ‘tirare alla lunga’, to ‘stretch’ the pleasant trip and go home as late as possible.

Scampagnate can also turn out to be tough when it’s cold but just for the sake of sitting on a bench in the middle of a gorgeous piazza, munching on pancetta delicacies until the sun goes down, you endure even if your feet are freezing. 

The first one who says ‘OK let’s go home’ is a party pooper, the others frown because the scampagnata mood has just been killed. 

I find the gite fuori porta so typical of Italians who believe that even short journeys are a culinary mission.