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15 things you’ll probably never get used to about living in Italy

15 things you’ll probably never get used to about living in Italy
Photo: Brooke Cagle on Unsplash
Moving to Italy means embracing a new culture, language and mindset. It can be exciting, life-enhancing and sometimes downright exasperating. Whether you're considering a new life in Italy or have been here for years, here are some of the things you just might never adapt to.

The Italian lifestyle has plenty of perks, of course, but if you think that dreamy holiday schedule of daily aperitivo and motoring through rolling hills in a Fiat 500 is what daily life in Italy is like, you might be in for a shock.

Even after living here for a while, here’s what still gets The Local’s writers raising an eyebrow or swallowing a cough.

1. Food rules

You have no idea how much food controls everything about life in Italy until you’re in the country. It is the sun around which all life rotates and woe betide if you go against the forces of Italian nature and stray from the culinary norms.

My mum always tuts on her visits to Italy, usually complaining about not being able to have a cappuccino after lunch or why you can’t sprinkle parmesan on certain dishes (mainly fish).

READ ALSO: Seven surprising Italian food rules foreigners fall foul of

It took me a while to understand all the faux-pas I was making at first when all eyes swivelled on me.

Occasionally curious, other times they threw me a look as if I’d insulted their grandmother. ‘Ma cosa fai?’, they’d say incredulously as they gestured with their finger and thumb.

Photo: Karolina Kołodziejczak/Unsplash

Still, as much as I’ve developed a deep appreciation for Italian food and wine, it makes me smirk into my napkin to watch the reactions when mum orders a lemonade to pour into her Vermentino.

The absolute horror, the sheer comedy.

2. Cake for breakfast.

I’ve even got used to this one – but only sometimes. I couldn’t eat sweet stuff every day as soon as I get up, no matter how many times they tell me it will give me energy. And possibly diabetes.

3. Eating times

Not only are there rules on what you can eat with what, on what and in what order, there are also set times for said structured dining.

It varies around the country, but often in the countryside and especially in the north, you can’t eat lunch after 2.30pm. That is, nowhere is still serving after that time.

It’s a move away from life in other countries where food is available 24/7, but in Italy there are plenty of times when the kitchen is closed, which can throw your day off if you didn’t know about it.

I appreciate it, but occasionally you want to go have a meal at 3pm. Maybe you woke up late that day, you know?

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

Photo: Gabriella Clare Marino/Unsplash

4. How much you have to eat

Okay, the last food-related one. I did warn you food was at the centre of everything.

Be prepared to eat in Italy. A lot. With family, friends, whoever you meet. You always eat. Nobody invites you for a coffee or a cup of tea. You go to eat and usually Italians will want to show their hospitality to you by cooking.

And it’s not one dish – expect various courses including a starter, a pasta dish and a meat dish, followed by dessert and some after-dinner liquor and biscuits. It’s enough to give you an abbiocco that will definitely require a pennichella.

Multiply that for celebrations such as Christmas and New Year’s Eve. I want to cry thinking about that coming around again, knowing I’ll barely be able to see or walk after the 12 courses that stretch on all day until after midnight.

There’s a reason one of the first Italian words I learned was, ‘Mangia!’ (Eat!).

READ ALSO: What to expect when meeting your Italian in-laws

5. Fashion

Making ‘la bella figura’ (a good impression) is still paramount in Italy and Italians are very style-conscious.

You might be a fashionista already and take pride in your appearance, sure. But there are more rules about what you can wear when. If it’s mid-20s Celsius, you’d think there was nothing wrong with wearing a pair of sandals, right?

If it’s only April, wrong. They will notice, comment and judge you for your bare toes at that time of year.

Don’t ask me why, but if I do that in the perfectly reasonable weather for it, they tell me I look like a tourist.

Boh.

6. Language

Boh‘ is a good Italian word to learn early on, equal to ‘I don’t know’ or the similarly short plosive in English, ‘meh’.

Learning Italian is an absolute must, no matter how long it takes you to get through everyday interactions. It’s something you’ll definitely have to face.

Italians are notorious for not usually speaking much English, which can mean moving here with no Italian language skills is stressful to say the least.

In other countries, you may find you have some grace period where you can get by speaking English.

Not in Italy.

READ ALSO: 12 signs you’ve cracked the Italian language

Photo by Emily Levine on Unsplash

7. Bureaucracy

Where do we even begin with this? One thing is sure – it never ends.

Italian bureaucracy is legendary: the red tape that could wrap around the Earth three times and have you coming back for appointment after appointment, only to be told they’ve lost your files altogether.

Beat the queues: 19 bits of Italian bureaucracy you can do online

Get used to form-filling, departments more entangled than a pan of spaghetti, and the need for an iron resolve to keep going. I’ve had more than my fair share of repeated trips to the Questura (immigration office) to collect my post-Brexit ID card, only to be told it’s still not there (even when the official website says it is ready for collection).

Don’t try to use logic, it only makes things worse.

8. The obsession with plastic

There’s no logic for this one either. The world and Italy is facing a climate crisis and yet the compulsion to use plastic continues.

Italians frequently buy water in plastic bottles literally by the barrel load and happily carry it up four flights of stairs to their apartment. Even though in most places, the tap water is perfectly drinkable – a privilege not the whole world enjoys.

And it doesn’t end at plastic water bottles. If there’s a BBQ, out come the single-use plastic plates, cups and cutlery. Ma perché?

Life in Italy: ‘How our shopping habits have changed since we moved from the US’

Photo by Andreas Solaro / AFP

9. Arriving late

Italians are late for everything, which is irritating when it happens all the time. Even high schools and universities have an academic quarter-of-an-hour, meaning it’s acceptable to turn up 15 minutes after the lesson start time.

How can things run like this? Well, they just do. The only thing you can do is to tell your friends to meet 15-30 minutes earlier than you actually plan to be ready. That way, they might actually be on time for your three-hour lunch.

10. Queuing – or not

Queuing? What queuing? It’s chaotic, people push in and you just might lose your patience if you’re from a line-loving country like the UK.

But get used to it you must. Maybe you’ll end up loving the passionate disorder?

11. Cash gifts

Being a guest to practically anything, but especially weddings, is likely to make you sweat when you realise the culture of gift giving in Italy.

You spend a fortune on presents and it’s expected – don’t think you can spend time on finding something thoughtful, but perhaps doesn’t cost an arm and a leg.

Nope, they want cold, hard cash and they’ll make a note of how much you gave so they know what to give you back when it’s your turn.

My husband told me of times he was a witness (gulp, more than once), where you’re expected to give eye-watering amounts of money – in the ballpark of €1,000.

It’s a custom that I’m not sure Italians totally love. If there’s a summer packed full of weddings, you may hear some say that they can’t afford to go on holiday that year as they are invited to too many.

Photo: Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

12. Cleaning standards

There’s keeping your house clean and tidy and there’s the Italian translation of what that means.

I have to confess I’m always a little apprehensive when Italian family and friends come over, as I know they have such high cleaning standards and look around our shelves with a scrutinising eye.

The vacuum cleaner is all I can hear from my neighbours or they’re outside beating their rugs. It seems to be part of a culture of keeping up appearances.

My in-laws in the south have two kitchens – one for everyday use and one that is pristine and only used when guests visit.

13. The role of women

Even though it’s a universal problem, Italy lags behind when it comes to gender equality and you might be shocked at how big that gap is.

Housework is still widely considered the woman’s domain, even if they have a full-time job. In fact, the word for ‘cleaner’ in Italian is ‘donna delle pulizie’. A female is specified in the term – literally, ‘woman of cleaning’.

When you’re independent and have long looked after yourself, it’s tough to get your head around the fact that in Italy, there are clearly defined, disadvantageous roles for women.

Although fortunately, not everyone is stuck in this mentality.

14. Dark houses

You can’t criticise Italians for wanting to keep cool in the summer, as it is absolutely sweltering in July and August.

So to survive those summer months, Italian houses are often dark and designed to let not much light – and heat – in. It makes sense, but it can feel a bit depressing to always be stuck in gloomy rooms.

READ ALSO: Italian property problems: Why do ten strangers own my bathroom?

15. Questionable TV shows

Italian TV can really turn your head at best – and at worst, can cause outrage.

From the dolly girls in skimpy outfits dancing around an aged male presenter on Saturday evening shows, to the more than dubious ‘comedy’ sketches of controversial satire, it might be better to stick to Netflix.

What do you think you’ll never get used to about living in Italy? Let us know in the comments below!


Member comments

  1. I remember many years ago my newlywed wife and I booked a tour for our entire wedding trip in Italy. On our arrival in Rome from the USA we were boarded on a beautiful bus on our first trip to Florence. On our way the tour guide gave us a thorough presentation of what to expect and all the places we would be visiting. In particular I will never forget the advice she presented, she said “for those of you on your first trip, you will fall in love with Italy. There will be many places and experiences you will enjoy and there will also be others that will frustate and disappoint you. My advice is to accept it, try to enjoy it all and don’t try to change anything. The Italians have been living in their own culture for centuries, you will not succeed in changing it in your two week vacation or maybe ever.”
    It is still true today.
    I am Italian born, I travel back to Italy often and I too experience the frustrations but part of me likes it. It reminds me I am home again and this unique behavior right or wrong, it strangely adds the charm of what makes Italy different then other countries.

  2. Bruno Bozzetto, the Italian cartoonist, created an animation titled “Europe vs Italy”. Bruno highlights just a few of the differences between Italy and the rest of the world. I’ve watched it many times over the past 10 years as it always brings a good laugh, especially the part about bureaucracy. You can view it on YouTube here:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tzQuuoKXVq0

  3. They always want to call you, even though you have filled in all the forms and updated the web site with all the relevant information. Even though your Italian is poor, they still want to call you to go over it all again, verbally.

    Queuing does exist, it just doesn’t look like a queue. So learn to ask “sei l’ultimo?” and when they go in, you know it’s your turn next.

  4. I am surprised about queueing being a problem in the part of Marche I live in in is rigourously followed particularly in hospitals and other institutions. The order of people arriving is noticed by everyone and you place mentally recorded usually by an older lady. Woe betide anyone who pushes in and you are reminded vigorously when it’s your turn! I’ve always found it amazing that the queue exists, everyone stands around or wander around chatting and talking until their place is next, Then a call goes out and they go to the counter, door or what ever. Maybe this area is different because it’s not a big city, I’m not sure

  5. I don’t agree about the cleaning standards in the homes – they don’t seem anything above my own standards and can never say I’ve noticed. It does disturb me that they believe they have high standards of cleanliness when you consider the state of the outside public spaces and this doesn’t add up somehow. You can’t have a standard for your own personal space and a totally different extreme standard elsewhere, something’s not right.

  6. frances the noise level even if they are sitting either side of a table, they have to talk as though they are 20 feet apart to each other. also the everlasting barking of their dogs, which they never tell to be quiet.t

    thank you

  7. Great list. However I can live with those. However, one of my bug bears are the midday closing hours. I still can’t get used to it. Having lived in Italy, way North and all way South, to rush to do my shopping so people can have the aforementioned lunch and siesta, drives me crazy every time.

    1. Oh yes, and supermarkets being closed on Sunday afternoons! I forget all the time.

      Thanks for reading!
      – Clare

  8. Jon, this still drives me crazy! Nothing can be planned in advance. On the other hand, at least people are very forgiving when I have to change plans at short notice!

    Thanks for reading,
    – Clare

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