I just recently returned from spending a month in a language school in Florence. Now obviously certain things in Italy are quite different from their counterparts in the UK – well, if the culture wasn’t a bit different, then what’s the point of going abroad? It’s not as if I turned up and freaked out about using the euro, but here are a few examples of commonplace things that really struck me more than others.
- Street numbers: in Florence, the shops and houses on a street have different number sequences, the former written in red and the latter in black. I did not observe this difference when I first arrived; I merely thought I had developed strangely specific double vision.
- Yoghurt pots can only be bought in pairs, instead of fours. I kept forgetting and had to return to the supermarket more frequently than I would have liked.
- Shutters versus curtains: my room was no different from any of the other houses in the city in having two large panel windows which could be covered by two shutters inside. There were also green slatted shutters on the outside, which combined with the others to give me a nice sense of security, so that if someone threw something at the window, it had two heavy layers of wood to get through before hitting me. (Quite a comfort when a fight broke out outside the club across the street.) At home I just have curtains (but luckily no club outside). They are less effective at blocking missiles, or light, but I think they are preferable. Whilst back in Blighty my eyes gradually adjust to the morning light seeping into my bedroom, in Florence I was daily blinded by even slightly opening the shutters. Wearing sunglasses first thing became necessary, though sartorially strange.
Guaranteed to add humour to any shower.
- Personal space: In my experience, this concept was not recognised by three distinct groups: motorists, people and pigeons. In the narrow streets of Florence, it really is a self-preservation society (I know that’s Rome, just go with it), as cyclists, motorcyclists and drivers of small cars dodge through gaps that any sane person would classify as “too close to important limbs”. Sometimes they ring a bell, more often they’re through before you noticed the danger your toes were in.
- People: it’s long been recognised that Italians are happy to be a lot closer to others than the Brits. Fine, I expected this, but the one time that this unnerved me was in the supermarket. There was always a queue, because there were never enough checkouts open and the staff preferred a gossip anyway. On this particular day, though, the queue was colossal and I waited at least half an hour with my beer, yoghurt and toilet roll. Gradually I became aware of two old couples behind me, uncomfortably close and moving closer. Perhaps they were pulled in by the gravitational pull of my behind, or they were trying to push past. Either way, it’s uncomfortable trying to expand your space in a queue and block the inevitable advance of determined shoppers.
- As for pigeons, the little bastards strut around like they own the place. They’re much worse than the flying rats in Newcastle, because at least the latter flap off in alarm when you shoo them. Not the Florentine ones though, you’ve got to properly aim a kick before you get the slightest reaction, and even then it’s essentially a feathered shrug and hop out of range. Many’s the time I’d been trying to enjoy a panino when one pesky bugger crept up beside me.
“I am watching you. And your sandwich. Mainly your sandwich.”
- Shopkeepers and haggling: it is a truth universally acknowledged that a market stallholder in possession of some stuff wants to attract your attention. However, whilst UK vendors shout what their wares are, the Florentine stallholders took a more, ah, personal approach. This ranged from: “Hey beautiful, want to see my bags?” and: “Are you from paradise?” (“Well, Newcastle, so yeah”) to leering, kissy noises and simply reaching out and grabbing you. I’d be interested to know if these approaches ever actually worked in selling anything because personally I don’t want to be near to, let alone buy something from, someone who seems to consider me on a par with said object.
- Also, I am crap at haggling. One time I had to pretend I didn’t speak much English.
- The streets of Florence were also full of migrant workers selling all sorts of art prints, toys and electrical items tourists might need. It’s clear some of these guys were operating illegally, because occasionally there’d be a shout and a whole legion would take off as a policeman ambled around the corner, and – HOLY CRAP THE COPS ARE ARMED!
- So there are three types of police out and about on the mean streets of Florence: the municipal police who deal with petty crime and traffic, the financial guard who fight tax evasion and mafia money stuff, and the Carabinieri, who are the military police. As far as I could tell, all the ones I saw were armed. I pointed out my surprise to my flatmate who replied, “Don’t you want them to protect you from dangerous criminals?” It’s true – I can safely assume that the people involved in organised crime in southern Italy are probably packing more heat than the average pig, but still. It’s just strange to see such an object, to whose concept you’re culturally accustomed, actually in front of you, where it can be used at a moment’s notice. I’m not sure it’s something I could get used to.
- No decent tea: note the word “decent”. There were lots of “Tea Emporia” and you could order a pot in a café, but really, it was so weak it would struggle to form a puddle by itself.
- Coffee rules: The lack of decent tea was, of course, made up for by the amazing coffee on offer (I write this in a well-known coffee chain while I cry quietly into my Americano). However, there are social rules attached. Firstly, you don’t ask for espresso – it’s just called ‘caffe’. And there’s no such thing as an Americano or a mocha. The former is ‘caffe lungo’ and the latter ‘moka’ is a particular way of brewing coffee.
- Furthermore, the timing of your order needs to be considered. Ordering a cappuccino or latte after 11 tends to be frowned upon because these are considered breakfast drinks. If you’re lucky, the barista will give you A Look. If you’re unlucky, they’ll announce your order to the rest of the shop and everyone else will question your sanity. My mam wouldn’t last long, given her addiction to having a latte at any time of day or night. I committed my own faux pas a couple of times of ordering espresso after 4pm: they think it’s odd, because they believe you’ll therefore be awake all night, but a few times during my trip, well, that was kind of the plan.
So there you are. You expect the big differences, like language and cuisine, but the little ones can proper trip you up if you’re not looking.