Cultural Differences

It’s always helpful to participate in a few of the cultural differences you’ll find when visiting another country — particularly if they’re easy to do…..not something like having to cheerfully eat sheep eyeballs. Here are just a few easy-to-adopt suggestions for Italy.

Actually, this first one is for both Italy and France: Acknowledge the shopkeeper when you enter her/his shop. Unlike in the US, where you’ll probably never see the person waiting on you again, most of the people behind the counter are the owners — particularly in the smaller towns — and they’ll be there day after day. It really is their second home, so be as courteous as you’d be if you were their guest, and give them a hello when you enter and a goodbye when you leave.

Restaurant etiquette #1: Don’t just sit down. Wait for someone to direct you to a table.

Restaurant etiquette #2: The first question you’ll be asked is what kind of water you’d like. They do not ask IF you’d like water. The answers are naturale (still water) or frizzante (sparkling). (You could also say gassata, which means the same thing.) Since these are both mineral waters, acqua minerale is not a helpful answer. Unlike in Germany or Switzerland, where we’ve paid up to $10 for a bottle of water, you seldom pay more than $2 in Italy. I suppose you could always say you don’t want any water, or just a glass of acqua di rubinetto (tap water), but….well…’s not often done…..and aren’t we talking here about cultural differences you want to practice?

Restaurant etiquette #3: Just like the shops in the smaller towns where the owners work all the time, the restaurants are also mostly family-run. You will often see 1 person doing the job that would be done by 3 or 4 people in the US. So be patient. The same goes with the food. Mamma or nonna might be alone in the kitchen churning out all the meals. Good as she is – it’s impossible for her to have the plates for a table of 4 come out at the same time……

Restaurant etiquette #3-A: ……And since you should eat your meal at the proper temperature, it means people should start as soon as the food arrives and not wait for everyone to be served. I know it seems impolite to us, but to Italians, it’s even more impolite to disrespect your meal by not eating it as it should be eaten.

Restaurant etiquette #3-B: When I said “proper temperature” in the previous paragraph, I should point out that Italian food is normally neither very hot nor very cold. You MIGHT burn the roof of your mouth on pizza cheese, but that would be the only real possibility. Even coffee will be served so you can drink it now rather than having to wait 5 minutes to let it cool down. And as for chilled foods – I’ve seldom had either my white wine or my acqua frizzante as cold as I like them….not that I’m complaining. “Moderation” is the key word when it comes to “proper temperature” for eating…..

…..And “moderation” is also the word when it comes to drinking. If someone is loud and drunk, there’s at least an 80% chance the person is American, and a 99% chance they’re not Italian. Italians have been drinking since they were children tasting Uncle Giovanni’s homemade wine at family dinners. It is a part of everyday life, and they respect it as such. With our history of restrictive drinking laws, our young people often go wild once they hit Italy. If there’s a broken bottle in the street, there are probably American fingerprints on it. While American youth often look at drinking too much as being the measurement of how much fun they’re having, Italians learn early that being drunk is brutta figura, which loosely means appearing in a way that will be looked down upon – and that’s something NO Italian wants.

Last on today’s list is Lane Discipline. I believe I’ve mentioned this before, but it won’t hurt to remind you that on the road, you pass on the left, drive on the right. You should NOT get in the left lane and clog traffic for miles behind you. If you aren’t actively in the process of passing someone, stay on the right.

So — I don’t think any of these nods to Italian culture fall into the eating-sheep-eyes category,  In fact, now that I’ve re-read them, I see that it’s more like saying “please” and “thank you”.  Maybe your mother really was right:  it’s all about good manners.