Woman About World: Italy's 10 golden rules
Sunday 20 February 2005
1 The first thing anyone travelling through Italy has to remember is that each province (I use the term loosely) thinks itself better than the next.
1 The first thing anyone travelling through Italy has to remember is that each province (I use the term loosely) thinks itself better than the next. So a visitor would do well to declare the place they are in at that moment to be their absolute favourite. Then there is the north-south divide. In the UK the South is considered more affluent and stuck-up. In Italy the reverse is true. Northern Italians consider those from the South to be peasant-like; southern Italians think those from the North are unfriendly and arrogant; but they will only admit this in the privacy of their own homes, church or the local supermercado.
2 Rome is a country all of its own and Romans are naturally closest to God since God lives there in the shape of the Pope. "Outsiders" - anyone from beyond the Vatican walls - can buy a seat closer to God in the shape of plastic Virgin Marys filled with blessed water, or rosary beads. But the most points are collected if you buy an illuminated religious picture the size of a single bed. This will hang on the wall until it collapses, usually hitting someone in the temple and killing them. This will be reported as "God's choosing".
3 The further south you go, the more flesh it is permissible to show in the street, but the less flesh you can show in church. In certain parts of Italy it is considered bad behaviour to enter a church with bare shoulders. If you have been invited to Sunday lunch, a most welcome gesture would be to buy a tray of small pastries from the local patisserie. Ignore all protestations from the eldest woman of the house that she won't touch a morsel of cake: she will, and how.
4 It is entirely permissible to push, shove and cheat your way into a train seat over long journeys. Italians will. They only queue for Holy Communion.
5 The further north you go, the more liberal the girls become. In certain villages in southern Italy, girls get engaged at 13. It is not permissible to just take a girl out for a drink. You have to meet the whole family and show good intent. That scene in The Godfather where the whole family goes on a date with the daughter? Strict Italians don't realise it's a drama - they think it's a documentary.
6 Italians never use their "front room". Television-watching and general sitting around is done in the kitchen. The front room is kept for really posh visitors such as you. The furniture is likely to be still covered in plastic but it is a great honour to be invited into that room so you must act as if the plastic is not there. Bring spare towels. You will sweat in hot weather and slide about a lot.
7 Italians hold great store by bomboniere - tiny, useless and expensive trinkets that accompany sugared almonds and mark every occasion, however minor, from birth to diamond wedding anniversaries. These bomboniere are displayed everywhere (again this is one of those traditions that gets crazier the further south you go), either free forming all over the place (often atop hand-crocheted doilies) or housed in reverential glass cabinets. Do not ever make fun of the miniature clock that doubles as an ornament of a dog perched on a well (complete with rope pull). It's a ceramic monstrosity to you, but it marks the occasion of something important.
8 Italians do not understand or respect vegetarians. They will say things like, "But it's chicken", or, "We won't tell". The only way to truly ensure a flesh-free meal is to say that your religion forbids you to eat meat or fish.
9 It is permissible to reverse up the motorway if you have missed your turn-off. It's even better if you have blinds pulled down over the back window. Stopping at motorway service stations may cost you more than you think. If you are approached by someone to "mind" your car, you would be wise to hand over a euro or two. Remember that a caffe is an espresso. If you want a cappuccino ask for one by name.
10 Many shops close for lunch and may or may not reopen that day; some also close completely on a Monday or if any football is on (regions vary). It is illegal to leave a shop without a receipt, even if you've only bought a coffee. The onus is on you the customer to ask for a receipt - and so, if it comes to it, will be the fine.
Enjoy your stay!
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