6 (Un)Common Sense Things for Non-Italians in Italy

articles, europe, florence, italy, life, travel

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10 months and 10 days in Florence as of today. Where did all that time go? When I heaved my bags off of the train and onto Florentine land all those months ago, I had checklists upon checklists of Things To Do, Things To Buy,  Things To Accomplish, Places To Go, and whatever else I had misty ideas about. But as I mentally scroll through those endless lists, it’s kind of sad to see all those boxes that are still unchecked. I’m sure my expectations were probably unrealistic and more the reflection of the idealistic I’m-finally-here! sort of mindset, but I honestly thought–as I’m sure many study-abroad students have done–that I would have more time to do those things, and then I find that amid all the school work, errands, chores, and (in my case) scholarship requirements, I’m suddenly ten months in, with barely three months left on my visa and still a long list of TTD’s to get through.

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Despite all that, I did want to write something to sort of mark my ten months of living in Florence, because I feel like I’ve learned so much being here–cliché as that line is–and I also feel sad about having to leave so soon (but more on that later).

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One thing that has constantly surprised me during my time here is just how wrong people’s perceptions of “Italians” are. These perceptions are those that I often hear from fellow Filipinos or Filipino-Chinese, and some of those that are portrayed in the media. I guess there’s always been this notion that Italians are snooty and not very nice, especially to tourists. In my experience and through various observations, I say this: maybe (just maybe), more often than not, it’s the fault of the tourist (at least in part).

This isn’t a generalization by any means, but I would honestly say (and I’m trying to be as diplomatic and PC as I can be here) that there are certain types of tourists who may fall into the category of fulfilling the stereotypes that are attached to them. And there are a lot of people like that–people who maybe feel entitled to certain things and to being treated in certain ways, and who don’t make attempts to create a genuine flow of discourse or even any sign of friendly interaction with the locals in the countries that they are visitors in–that they are visitors is a fact they probably too often forget.

If you don’t figuratively “put down your arms” (I suppose in some cases this is literal more than figurative) and “come in peace”, how do you honestly expect the other party to greet you? Surely with more than a little apprehension and guardedness? It’s a two-way street. Your rudeness will likely be returned with not-so-niceness, which is probably and understandably their defense mechanism against touristic ignorance. Again, not a generalization, but something I’ve seen happen more than a few times.

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 I’ve been lucky so far in that I myself haven’t experienced any of that sort of negativity with any of the locals I’ve met here, whether it’s the cashier in a tabacchi shop or a waitress in a restaurant or someone I see at school. Other expats I’ve met also say the same thing (while tourist friends I’ve asked haven’t always been as fortunate). I think people sometimes forget, or maybe underestimate, just how far kindness can go.

Maybe Cinderella reminded you, or maybe it’s good upbringing kicking in if you’ve got it, or maybe it’s just that sort of evasive uncommon common sense that you either have or don’t–but I’ve found that if you approach with kindness and without ego, even with the fewest of Italian words in your arsenal, more often than not you will be met with kindness as well.

I’ve noticed that when locals see you trying (and even failing) to speak some Italian–even if it’s just a greeting, a thank you, or some broken phrases pilfered out of Google, as long as you are genuine and humble and kind about it–they never turn their noses up at you or laugh at you; on the contrary, they make sure to listen and they try to scrounge up what English they know in order to respond.

In the end, through the broken phrases, mispronunciations, errors in grammar, charades, and hand gestures, there is communication and general understanding. Imagine if more people in the world attempted to be kind instead of whatever the hell they’ve been doing that ends up a tragedy or other on the news.

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If you do find yourself in Florence or anywhere in Italy, for any period of time, these are some of the simple things I’ve learned to help make your interactions with the locals (hopefully) negativity-free:

1. When entering an establishment (shops, restaurants, etc.) and greeting people (cashier, waiter/waitress, owner, etc.), try to not start with “ciao. This is probably the most helpful tip I’ve gotten, and the simplest. “Ciao” is an informal greeting used for people you know, so it is not something you open with, when addressing someone you don’t know or have just met. For those situations, using the more formal “buongiorno“, “buonasera“, or salve” (the formal “ciao“) are more appropriate. When you’re leaving, “ciao” is then OK to use, or you can stick with the more formal “arrivederci“, “buona giornata“, “buona serata“, etc.

2. If you have no other Italian words in your arsenal other than the greetings, don’t assume that the person you’re talking to can speak English. You can try asking inglese?” or “parli inglese?” (“do you speak English?”) and see where they’re at. But no matter how bad you are at Italian, don’t be afraid to try or stumble at it, because the locals really appreciate it when they see you trying, and they even help you along. Kindness. Good intentions. Some doodling or charades. That’s all it really takes.

3. Be generous with saying basic good-mannered things like “please”, “thank you” and “you’re welcome”. It goes a long way.

Please = “per favore“, Thank You = “grazie” (like grah-tsyeh not just grah-tsee) and grazie mille(thank you very much), and You’re Welcome = “prego (used both as a response to Thank You, as well as “you are welcome” like when inviting someone into a restaurant, offering your seat to someone on the bus, etc.) 

4. Having a few extra Italian words up your sleeve can also go a long way. Many locals are pleasantly surprised, excited or delighted when they see a foreigner (especially Asians, I think–but maybe that’s just in my case) use some words that are beyond the basic tourist vocabulary. I’ve definitely experienced getting friendlier service because of it!

When my sister and I were in Rome last December and I said “va bene” to something our cab driver had said, he lit up excitedly and began speaking to us. Even when I said that I only knew poco poco italiano” (a little bit of Italian), he was happy and started proudly telling us history tidbits about Rome on our way to the hotel. In a gelato shop, just my pronouncing the gelato names correctly (I hope!) prompted the server to happily ask if I spoke Italian (to which I again replied poco poco Italiano), and then he gave us an extra dollop of cream on our gelato. You can tell how proud they are of their language and of their cities, and how eager they are to be able to share them.

5. When you meet someone new or are introduced to someone, you can say piacere (pia-che-reh), which literally means ‘pleasure’ but is like saying it’s a pleasure to meet you, or nice to meet you. Also a good word to have handy.

6. Expressing pleasure or delight is also a staple in Italian language. I’m not the type of person who’s good at or is comfortable with giving and/or receiving compliments and things like that, so it’s definitely something I’m easing into, and trying to get more comfortable with, but “perfetto“,”va bene“, “bene“, “brava“, etc. are common expressions used when you’re satisfied with a meal, or have been given good service, or to use as compliments, and so on.

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 A lot of people are quick to bring up racism or discrimination when they’ve experienced service or treatment that they’re unhappy with here (or in any other foreign context, for that matter), but the fact that I am Asian (and already with so many unpleasant stereotypes attached to being one) has not hindered me in the way of making friends or receiving fair treatment when I enter restaurants, shops, or other establishments.

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I’m not saying that discrimination doesn’t exist; in fact, I myself have been the object of discrimination and small-mindedness–surprisingly enough, discriminated against not by Italians but by some ‘fellow’ Filipinos I’ve encountered here, who seemingly follow the short-sighted school of thought that Filipino-Chinese are somehow not ‘real’ Filipinos (even though we were born and raised in the same country). But this is a whole other debate.

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All in all, the main takeaway for me here is that kindness, and not ego or ignorance, is the currency to have on hand. But sadly, it’s also the currency that most people seem to lack (or forget to pack on a trip).

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