What are the Most Shocking Parts of Italian Culture?
Everyone knows about culture shock. It is what it literally implies–the shock of coming into contact with another culture that is vastly different from your own. You hear about it when you prepare to visit countries in Africa, Asia or the Middle East, and maybe some in Eastern Europe.
But when you think of Italy, you think of sun, wine, amazing food and gorgeous countryside. You also probably think of Western Europe, a.k.a. America 2.0. At least, I do. Or rather, did. Then I experienced Italian’s culture.
The idea of culture shock didn’t really occur to me when I first visited the country to see my sister who was living in Milan a year ago, and I would still argue that it doesn’t really exist for short-term visitors. For example, when my sister pointed out the fact that cars park literally anywhere possible and in any direction (facing each other on sidewalks was a classic scene), I thought, “How quaint.
I must take a picture so I can look back on this for my amusement.” It didn’t really affect me because I was only a visitor and sure to return to the US, the land of normal parking rules and other such comforting things.
I’d quite forgotten how quaint I found the cars, because I was too busy trying to dodge them so I could cross the street without getting run over at any given time.
But when you pick up and move to a country where there are no rules for parking or otherwise, the reaction is quite different. I’d quite forgotten how quaint I found the cars, because I was too busy trying to dodge them so I could cross the street without getting run over at any given time.
The crowds on the Spanish Steps, so charmingly overwhelming when I first saw them a year ago, became tedious, annoying and, well, shocking, when confronted with them day after day….after day.
Ignoring the street vendors persistently in my face trying to sell worthless tourist trap items at popular landmarks and hearing the ever popular, “Ciao, bella” was fine for two days when I visited. Who doesn’t like to be told they’re beautiful? But being confronted on a regular basis in metro stations, restaurants, street corners and while passing by said popular landmarks? An entirely different story.
You get used to it, eventually, as with all things. I walk past the parked cars and simply shake my head rather than gawk and stare. I’ve learned to navigate the crowds successfully. (Tip: Remember the game of chicken? Relearn it if you have to. Otherwise you will always get pushed around on the street.)
It’s really weird and a little creepy to me to hear a complete stranger come up to me in the street, tell me I’m beautiful and then keep walking. I mean, what am I supposed to do, run after you and beg to start our life together?
But there are still things that surprise me even after living here for six months. For example, riding the metro system is an entirely different experience for me than it was in the U.S. (Disclaimer: I didn’t live in a place in the U.S. where the subway was common, so perhaps I’m remembering incorrectly.)
As soon as the train leaves a station, people get up to ready themselves to get off the train at the next stop, and anxiously ask me, “Ascendi?” (“Are you leaving?”) if I happen to be standing near the door. As if the train, much less myself, is suddenly going to bar them from exiting. What’s the rush to get up? You will get off the train. It’s okay. Really.
And I’m still working on getting used to hearing “Ciao, bella.” Aside from the obvious implications of the objectification of women when that phrase is used, it’s really weird and a little creepy to me to hear a complete stranger come up to me in the street, tell me I’m beautiful and then keep walking.
I mean, what am I supposed to do, run after you and beg to start our life together? In the U.S., a man would immediately be decked after uttering something like that to a woman, and then told, “Get lost, creep” before she threatened to call the police.
I’m continuing to learn the rules of the road here, and the biggest rule? Again, I emphasize that there really are none.
But here? The culture of Italy is a way of life, and indeed, there’s a joke that you’ve had a bad hair day if you don’t get at least one or two “Ciao, bellas” a day. I’ve learned to accept the compliments with a smile and a thank you, and to keep walking without worrying whether I’ve supposedly met my soulmate. But inwardly I question the usefulness of such a phrase and what its intentions truly are.
I’m continuing to learn the rules of the road here, and the biggest rule? Again, I emphasize that there really are none. Coming from a country and culture where rules were meant to be followed, that is perhaps the biggest shock of all. It’s sink or swim here, but I think I’ve mastered treading water and am starting to make some forward progress.
What are the Most Shocking Parts of Italian Culture?
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Do you have tips for women travelers in Italy? What were your impressions? Email us at editor@for information about sharing your experience and advice with the Pink Pangea community. We can’t wait to hear from you.
What are the Most Shocking Parts of Italian Culture? photos by Unsplash and Carrie K.