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What to expect when meeting your Italian in-laws

So you've met and fallen for an Italian. But when it gets serious, how do you navigate meeting the parents? Here are the do's and don'ts to help you make a good impression - and preserve your sanity.

What to expect when meeting your Italian in-laws
Meeting your Italian partner's parents can be a daunting experience. Photo: Miguel Medina/AFP

It’s all romance in the beginning, but the Italian dream starts to get real when you meet the in-laws.

It’s already a social minefield in your first language and a familiar culture: what to say, how much to say, what to wear, whether to shake their hand, kiss their cheek, the topics to avoid… and the list goes on.

In another language and culture, especially if you’re new to both, this can make for a stressful first encounter. Here’s an overview to guide you through what to expect and how to survive it – nay, even enjoy it.

What to wear when meeting the parents

Fashion and dressing in Italy is a whole other topic in itself. As someone who comes from the chilly north of England, I thought nothing of wearing sandals or open-toed shoes when visiting Italy in spring. By April it’s warm, by May it can be scorching.

It’s balmy, you can happily walk around with short sleeves, so why on earth would you get stared at like you’d gone out in just your underwear for slipping on a pair of summer wedges? It’s one of those unwritten but heavily bound rules of living in Italy. You don’t wear sandals until summer.

“You’re so English,” my partner would say when he looked me up and down before stepping out for the day. You haven’t seen girls on a night out in Liverpool in the dead of winter, I thought.

As chance would have it, that same day we heard a bunch of guys walking down the street in Bologna chatting in English. They were wearing short-sleeved shirts, even though it had gone past 6pm. The horror. “Vedi?” I said. You see? It’s perfectly reasonable to dress light when it’s over 20 degrees.

READ ALSO: Why Italy’s ‘mammoni’ will keep staying with mamma

Bear this in mind when meeting your other half’s family. You don’t have to dress up formally or wear Italian designer brands to go round for Sunday lunch, but be prepared for some comments if you don’t meet the codes of the season.

They notice everything. They will comment on your appearance and sure, compliment it too, if it merits it. Maybe you won’t understand everything at first, which sometimes isn’t the worst thing.

A couple kisses in front of the Colosseum in Rome. PHOTO: FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP

The language you need to know

If you haven’t studied Italian before meeting them, as I didn’t, it can be overwhelming. Italians speak over each other, debate heatedly and chat fast. They’re renowned for not being able to speak English, so it’s on you to struggle through it and express yourself as politely as possible, even if your Italian skills are limited.

It’s true that you should learn the language of the country you move to, but often there’s some respite when you’re new, as the locals may be able to help you out thanks to their knowledge of English. It’s not the case in Italy for the most part, so get learning with books, apps, TV shows, online courses or practicing with your partner.

Even though there may be a language barrier to begin with, many Italian parents will probably be very warm and friendly. They’ll want to connect with you and are curious about the person their little prince or princess is spending time with.

When you’re first introduced to them, it’s likely they’ll greet you with a kiss on the cheek. How many depends on where in the country they are from – or whether they’ll give you a big squeeze instead. Men may shake hands, but if you’re not sure, follow their lead.

READ ALSO: Here’s how to talk about love, sex, and dating in Italian

As a rule of thumb for the greeting kiss, you give a kiss on each cheek – and start with your left cheek to avoid embarrassing mishaps of planting a smacker on their dad’s lips. Yes, I’ve done that. I actually watched a YouTube video first to check the direction too and they got it wrong, in my defence.

When you say hello, a simple ‘Ciao!’ is fine. You can say ‘Buongiorno!’ (until about 4pm) if you want to be formal, but follow their cues and if they say, ‘ciao‘, it’s fine to say it back.

Here are some more useful initial greetings and phrases you may hear:

  • Piacere di conoscerti – Nice to meet you (informal)
  • Piacere di conoscerla – Nice to meet you (formal or older person)
  • Come stai? – How are you? (informal)
  • Come va? – How are you? (informal)
  • Come sta? – How are you? (formal or older person)
  • Buonasera Good evening (arriving after 4pm)

Here’s a sample intro conversation:

A: Buongiorno, come sta?
B: Buongiorno, sto bene, grazie. E lei?
A: Tutto bene, grazie. In famiglia stanno tutti bene?
B: Tutti bene. E i suoi?

A: “Good morning, how are you?”
B: “Good morning, I’m fine, thanks. And you?”
A: “I’m fine, thanks. Is everyone in your family okay?”
B: “They are all well. And what about yours?”

It’s likely they’ll want to cook for you. Food and family are everything in Italy. Many parents express their love through food, so make sure you go with an empty stomach because they’ll want to fatten you up.

For your own health, do not say you’re hungry. You’ll be presented with vast amounts of food and there is already plenty to start with. Lunches can stretch on for hours, which is hardly surprising when you factor in a starter, followed by a dish of pasta, then a meat course with vegetables and potatoes, then a dessert, then a digestif. By the time you get to the limoncello, you’re in a food coma – an abbiocco.

READ ALSO: The common Italian food myths you need to stop believing

Try everything as refusing food is a tricky area in Italy. It could be perceived as an insult, so be sure to compliment everything. If you’re vegetarian, you may need to explain that prosciutto counts as meat, even if it comes in tiny cubes.

Che buona questa pasta! – This pasta is amazing!

Ma che buona che è questa torta! Cosa ci hai messo dentro? – Wow, this cake is so good! What did you put in it?

Squisito! – Exquisite/delicious!

Ottimo! Non capita tutti i giorni di mangiare la pasta così buona – Really good! It’s not every day that you eat pasta this good.

Questi pomodori sono più che buoni. Sono spettacolari! – These tomatoes are more than just good. They’re spectacular!

Il profumo di quella bistecca mi fa venire l’acquolina in bocca – The smell of that steak makes my mouth water.

Some of those just might earn you brownie points. And when you really can’t take anymore, you simply say you’re pieno/a (full) or “Sono pieno/a come un uovo! – “I’m stuffed!” (literally, I’m as full as an egg).

Be yourself – the cliché that’s true

It’s tricky not to feel like an outsider, no matter how much warmth your partner’s family may show to you. The rules on dressing and eating alone are enough to set you apart.

But your partner chose you, so even though it’s likely you’ll go native and change some of your habits, you don’t have to become fully Italian. That, by the way, is impossible. No matter how Italian you dress, how fluent you become, you will always be different. And that’s kind of the point.

Sure, you may not see eye-to-eye on how close men are to their mothers in Italy, the role of women – including how much they clean – or the state of the economy, but it’s wise to avoid comparisons. “Oh, in America it’s done like this, which is way better” isn’t likely to endear you to them. As long as you show you care about your partner, that’s all that matters to their family.

And if you’re ever in a sticky spot about any controversial topic, such as, “When are you going to give me grandchildren?”, you can always answer with vedremo – “we’ll see”.

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