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Posts tagged ‘travel tip’

Driving Tips for Your Italy Trip

Don’t let the Italians intimidate you.  It doesn’t matter how fast or slow you are going, someone is going to be riding your butt.  I get braver as the trip goes on, but I never go faster than I feel comfortable.  Sometimes I pull over if they are making me nervous, but usually they have found a way to pass me before that happens.   I have only seen one accident in my travels.  Italians seem crazy, but they are great drivers and despite what I am doing they always manage to avoid me.

Get a good map before you go.  I always use a Michelin map, purchased at most tour stores (ie AAA, Barnes & Noble…).  GPS is becoming more popular and more readily available, although has its short comings in the smaller more rustic areas.  Even when using GPS, make sure you know where you are headed and don’t follow it blindly.  ViaMichelin is a good site for planning before you go and you can print out routes you create on-line.  See my resources page here.


You have to throw away everything you know about directions when driving in Italy.

Entering the Autostrada. Know which direction you are going and towards which major city.

There are no exit numbers and things are not marked logically (for the typical American).  When traveling, you begin by going in the direction of the largest city.  You will need to navigate by knowing the names of the towns along the road you need to travel on.  Also, look your map and find the three largest cities near or past your destination because many signs post the major city that road is traveling toward and wait to post the smaller cities until you are almost there.  As you travel, keep your eyes open for these towns.  Eventually, as you get closer to your destination your small town will appear.  For example:  when traveling to Baschi from Rome, you will head towards Florence first while looking for the exit to Orvieto.  After taking that exit you will begin to look for signs for Baschi.  You will not see any sign for Baschi until the exit.  You must also know the Italian names for all the cities.

Typical signs found at a round about.

Signs are posted everywhere and when you come to a round about, you may need to go around more than once just to make sure you’ve found what you are looking for.  It can be more than a little overwhelming!  Cities are marked with a blue sign, the arrow is pointing to the road you must take.  B&B’s and agriturismos are usually white, historical sites are marked with brown signs, autostradas and major freeways have a green sign.   Just remember that keeping up with the flow on the round about is key and don’t be intimidated.


Entering the toll booth.

There are several different kinds of roads.  The easier, bigger and fastest are the autostradas which are marked by a green sign and an A.  The most important thing to remember here is to STAY TO THE RIGHT at all times until you are just ready to pass.  While on the autostrada, you will notice small signs in the median marking the distance to major cities and the city of the next exit.  This will help you anticipate when you need to exit.  These are also pay roads and you will be charged by the distance traveled.  Each time before you enter these, you will stop at a booth and take a ticket by pushing a red button or grabbing an existing ticket already waiting for you.  When you exit the autostrada, you will get in a line marked ‘Biglietto’ (ticket) to pay your fee.  Above each lane is a photo depicting the method available, some will have a picture of a credit card as well as money/change.  You can pay with your card in these lanes if you don’t have enough cash.  Anyway you choose, the total owed is displayed on a screen for you.  Just make sure you DO NOT get into the line for the commuters who have prepaid cards.  These are usually the shorter lines and are the blue lanes marked TELEPASS.  I always keep my change handy.  Some lines have a person who will handle the transaction, other lines require you to insert your ticket and then you pay the machine.  The system is similar to the toll bridges in San Francisco.

Push the button, grab our ticket and go.

There are larger but less direct roads that are free and then your typical two lane country roads.  Traveling through Tuscany, these will be what you use the most.  For those with a weak stomach be warned, it is very easy to get car sick wandering around in the country.


When parking, most lots have a pay machine that gives vouchers for the amount of time you will be there.  Again, I keep lots of change handy.  If you are parking somewhere that doesn’t have the spaces clearly marked, make sure you have a way out no matter how the next person decides to park.  I have seen some very creative arrangements.

Getting gas is similar to the states, just make sure your tank is full before Sunday or any major holiday as the stations do tend to close at these times.  Gas in Italy is expensive; it will make you look forward to coming home and filling up here.  The trade off is that distances are shorter.

Before driving away from the office with your rental car you will want to verify whether the car uses diesel or regular fuel and make sure they show you how to open your gas tank.  Also, have them actually show you how to open the trunk, release the parking brake, start the car and put it into reverse.  You may feel silly at the time, be it’s better than struggling with it while a bar full of men look on.  I learned the hard way that the stick shift often needs to be pushed down  for reverse.  Most  brakes are very touchy, after your first day driving you will know why.  Once on your way, toss  a local Italian paper in the back window and keep all belongings out of site when not in the car.

Train Tips and Manners for Your Trip to Italy

Train travel is a very easy and low stress way to get around Italy but can initially be overwhelming.  Once you get the system down you can relax and enjoy the scenery passing by without worrying about where you are going.  Trains are what most Italians use for transportation, so you get a real feeling of being with the people.  Connections are usually frequent and to all the large cities.  These tips should help you ease into train life and after a few connections you will feel like an old pro.


Intermediate stops are shown on this typical posted schedule in the middle column

This is probably the most intimidating of all.  The train schedule is posted at every station, usually on the wall.  Just like in the airport, there is an arriving and departing schedule.  You are looking for the yellow one that says ‘Partenze.’  When looking for your connection, you must know which major city the train is heading to.  For example:  if your destination is Orvieto, you must first find Firenze (Florence).  Under that main connection, each stop that train makes is listed including Orvieto.  It’s hard to believe that a worn piece of paper posted on the wall is actually telling the truth, but it is.  Many times I’ve chickened out and double checked at the ticket booth, only to receive the same information.  Train schedules are listed in military time, so a train leaving at 5pm would say 1700.  You will also need to know the Italian names for the cities you will be traveling to.

Each station will have several platforms or ‘binario.’  The posted schedule will have a binario assigned in the last column but this can change.  At every station there will be either a TV monitor or electronic sign stating which train is about to depart from which binario.  Also, in front (or at the side) of each individual track there will be a sign with the destination posted for that particular train.  When in doubt, ask a railway official (they will be in green suits) or the closest Italian.  Keep an eye on the reader board as I have missed trains because the track (binario) was changed at the last minute.  Announcements will be made prior to the trains arrival and most of the time it is repeated in English.


Once you find the correct binario or track and your train, you will need to make sure that you get on the right car.  Cars are divided by first and second class.  The first few cars will have a big number 1 by the door which designates them as first class, followed by cars marked with a 2 for second class.  I always travel 2nd class because there is little difference between the two except the price.  Each car will also have a number and the seats inside that car will be numbered.  This only matters when you have purchased a ticket that requires a reservation, similar to an airplane.  Connections between Florence and Venice for example are reserved seating.  Just look at your ticket.  If you have a car number ‘carozza’ and seat number listed then that is where you must sit.  Otherwise it is first come first serve and can get a little crazy.  If you hit rush hour, you may have a hard time finding a seat.  My trick…walk to the end of the train, hop on and move forward to find a seat.  Many times the first few cars will be packed while the last few are wide open because everyone has tried to get on the train at the front of the station.  Don’t panic if you can’t find a seat or find ones together.  Places will open up as people get off at their stops, just keep your eyes open.

Ladies, the choice is yours. Photo courtesy of

Ladies:  You can’t pick who is in your family, but you can choose who you sit by.  If you are traveling alone, find a seat next to a nun or cute old lady, otherwise you may find yourself sharing a seat with a dirty old man.  NEVER pick an empty compartment or row of seats.  It is always better to choose your seat mates than have them choose you.

If you are getting nervous that the train will leave without you, you can always hop on and move through the cars from inside.  The train can’t physically leave while a car door is open, so you won’t have to worry about leaving a travel companion on the platform.  Rarely a smaller train will require a ‘reservation’ that wasn’t listed.  Don’t worry, they won’t kick you off.  Just smile and play dumb, they will just ask you to pay the difference on the spot and can even take credit cards.  Large luggage will not always fit above or under your seat and must be stored near the front of the car (storage space and racks are normally provided).  I have never had a problem with theft, but I do make sure I keep my eye on the suitcase at all stops and keep any valuables with me in my day pack.  If you are traveling in Southern Italy or on a night train keep your bags with you at all times and when you are ready to sleep attach a strap from your luggage to the rack.  Italian thieves do not want to work too hard and this is just enough to encourage them to move on.


You can find fast ticket machines throughout the stations.

You can buy your tickets several ways.  Tickets can be purchased at the station at any time; you do not have to wait until the day you are ready to travel.  At the large stations, the lines can be irritatingly long so plan ahead.  A time saver would be to buy all your tickets at one stop from a local travel agent or to purchase them at a smaller station or during less busy times.  Write down the connections and dates that you need on a piece of paper to hand to the person; this makes the process much easier.  Most stations also have automated ticket machines, which work like an ATM.  You scroll through a long list until you find your destination.  This is a simple, easy and quick way to get your tickets yet they stand alone almost unused by most Italians.  Don’t be afraid, they work well but Italians just don’t trust them because they are electronic.  When asked ‘Fidelity Card?’ you must say no.

Don’t forget to validate your tickets before boarding,

Your ticket must be validated before you board.  There are yellow boxes posted all around the station, simply put your ticket in all the way to receive the time and date stamp.  If you forget, you run the risk of high penalties from the train conductors who are not always the happiest people on earth.

Each ticket will include the following: Treno (train #) Carrozza (car #) Posti (seat #)


Trains in Italy are not as timely as in other areas of Europe.  I find that the later in the day you get, the later the train.  If you want to be somewhere, try to get the earliest train that you can handle.  Strikes are also very common throughout Italy; the only nice thing about them is that they are planned ahead of time so you can too.  Strikes only last one day at a time and not over holidays or in August.

Opening the train door may sound simple but not always easy to do.  Most trains have a button on the side which will open the doors, similar to an elevator button.  This is the same when walking inside the train between the cars.  Older trains tend to have handles or levers.  Try rocking the handle clockwise (or counter clockwise if that didn’t work) or rotating it up and down.

The toilets empty out on the tracks and it is considered impolite to use the restroom while at a station or stop.  I know because I was an offender.

Most trains have a snack car where you can purchase over priced sodas, beer/wine or snacks.  I prefer to pack a lunch from the local market and eat that on the train.  This is very acceptable and a fun way to get to know the people you are traveling with.


Each stop has several signs with the name marked in white on a large blue background and you are given enough time to grab your things and exit.  Watch for towns along the way that are before your stop so that you are ready to go just in case.  The schedule at the station will have the approximate arrival time at each stop which gives you an idea of when to be ready.

If you are getting off in a major city like Rome or Florence, make sure you don’t leave the train too early.  Most of the major hubs have stations that are dead ends and hard to miss.  If for some reason you exited too soon just grab the next train coming through.

How to prepare for your trip to Italy | Money, Insurance and Communication

There are many steps you can take prior to leaving that will make your trip more enjoyable and successful.  I have talked about getting in shape and the importance of good shoes here, as well as keeping safe and important documents here.  Now for more tips and advice.


The world is a smaller place these days and I no longer use Travelers’ Checks or go directly to the banks.  There are ATM’s in every town and on every corner in the big cities which you can use to get cash.  While you will incur a charge, it is comparable to the best rate at any bank and a steal compared to the corner exchange windows.  Not to mention the time you save and the ease of use.  Most banks have a daily limit of around 200-300 euro.  You will need to verify this limit with your bank and make sure that you can use your card internationally.  I always bring a back up card just in case.  That way if for some reason one card is denied or eaten by the machine you have immediate access to cash.

You will need to call your bank and your credit card company before departure to let them know of your travel plans.  Due to increased security some companies will stop your card until they are able to contact you to verify its use.  You must notify the company AND then have them transfer you to the fraud department and do it all over again.  This is redundant, but it is better than getting stuck trying to fix problems while in Italy.

Be aware that all banks and all credit cards will charge an international fee.  It is maddening but it is just a fact of life.  The fees have typically been 1-3%, but with the recent changes going on I would not be surprised to see that increase.  When taking out money in the ATM, I always take out the max to make better use of my machine fee.

Make sure you bring some euros with you, usually 100-200 is enough to get you to the first ATM.  Having this cash immediately available can come in handy in those ‘just in case’ situations.  You can purchase these through the larger branches of most banks.  If you are flying through another city in Europe (besides the UK) and have a long layover, it is possible to use your debit card at one of the airport’s ATM’s.

The exchange rate!  Oh it hasn’t been on our side since the Euro was first introduced.  At this time the rate seems to at least be staying under 1.4, so assume you are spending 1 1/2 the price and that way you wil not under estimate the price.  See my resources page for current rates.


Trip insurance is always a nice thing to have and there are many different companies to choose from.  I admit I haven’t always use it religiously, but if you are in any way concerned about losing money due to circumstances out of your control this is definitely a must.  It is always better to be safe than sorry and now that I have more at stake I want to protect myself.  I would suggest using a big name company like Access America, Travelex or Travel Guard. is a good site for comparing the different options.


Now this is an area that has completely changed in the 20 years that I have been traveling.  Everything is so much easier and faster with technology; gone are the days of postcards and written letters!

The easiest way to keep in touch with those back home is the Internet.  In big cities you will find Internet access everywhere, from exchange booths and in the back of mom and pop stores to your own hotel and chain Internet stores.  Even small towns will have at least one spot where on can get on-line.  Places will either charge you by the minute (you will pay when you are done) or you will buy a pre-paid time card.  Either way you will be asked to show your passport.  Don’t Panic!  This is standard security procedure and a requirement by the European Union.

Phone calls are possible in several different ways.  You can call home at any pay phone or the phone at your accommodation by purchasing  an international calling card, found at any Tabacchi shop (see below).   Ask for ‘una carta telefonica prepagata internazionale.’  I always buy either a 5 or 10 euro card because you can get a dud occasionally and these aren’t refundable.  There are two numbers on the card, the first takes you to an operator (or recorded voice) that will ask you to enter the code…which is the second number.  If you have ever used a calling card in the states, these work the exact same way.  You will then be able to dial your number.  From Italy to the US, you will dial 00 then 1 then your number with area code.  For example, to call my phone from Italy I would dial 00 1 208 419 8957.

Words of warning regarding pay phones.  With cell phones so prevalent now, I’m finding that as the pay phones break they aren’t being repaired (at least not in a hurry).  If you find one that seems to be working but you are having trouble, it is most likely the phone.  Treat it like you would your 89 year old grandmother, get your point across but with tenderness.  Push each button distinctly and don’t give up.  You may have to try several times.  Also, pay phones use up more minutes than the phone in your accommodation. They require a different phone number (listed on the back of the card).

The ever reliable Italian postal system.

Cell phones are all over and I’ve been traveling with mine the last few years.  You will want to check with your phone company to verify if it will work in Italy.  If so, be prepared to pay as much as 1-2 $ a minute.  Prepaid phones can be purchased once in Italy but tend to come with quite a few restrictions and I never feel like taking the time to get one once I’m there.  I’m sure with each year this will continue to improve.  My suggestion would be to ‘un-plug’ while on vacation, or just have your phone for emergencies.  I keep in touch with my daughter using prepaid phone cards as they are truly the cheapest and easiest, but keep my phone with me just in case.

Italy’s time zone is ahead of us by 6-9 hours depending on where you live.

And then there is mail.  What can I say.? It’s Italy and some things never change; you will beat your postcards home!


Typical shop found on every corner.

The Am-Pm of Italy, these can be found on just about every corner and in every village and town.  Look for a black sign with a big white T (although I have seen some green ones around).  In here you can buy just about anything, including phone cards and bus tickets.  If you find yourself lost these are great for a point in the right direction.

I love feedback, so leave me comments!

copyright 2014  Andi Brown, Once in a Lifetime Travel

How to prepare for your trip to Italy | Jet Lag Advice, Passports and Keeping Safe

There are many steps you can take prior to leaving that will make your trip more enjoyable and successful.  I talked about getting into shape and making sure your feet are taken care of yesterday here.  Today I expand on a few more topics.


Although jet lag is just a fact of life with travel, there are many things you can do to minimize the effects.

Courtesy of

  • Adjust your schedule a few days before departure by trying to go to bed an hour earlier or more (I know, this never works for me either but can be helpful if traveling with younger children).
  • Start thinking on local time as soon as you board that plane, set your watch to Italy time as you wait for take off.
  • Keep hydrated on the flight and after arrival, this is crucial and you will be surprised at how much better you will feel.
  • Avoid alcohol and caffeine.  I know that sounds just down right mean considering where you are going.  I settle for a compromise and avoid both prior to leaving and during the flight (just remember the wine you are about to enjoy is one hundred times better than anything they serve in a bottle, even if it is free!).  My first night I take it easy with my wine at dinner but there is no way I would miss my morning cappuccino.
  • Eat lots of fresh fruits and veggies both before and after arriving.  This should be easy to do once in Italy, just head to the morning market and take your pick.
  • Try to exercise and get outside the day before you leave.  Once in Italy do your best to stay awake (only nap if you arrive in the morning and never ever fall asleep in the afternoon).  Walking around town and getting as much fresh air as possible will help; sunshine is the ultimate antidote to jet lag.


You will need only your passport to enter Italy.  A few important things to keep in mind:  Your passport must be valid for six months AFTER you return home and you should  give yourself two months minimum if you are applying for the first time.

If you plan on driving in Italy you will need an International Drivers License.  These are easily obtained at any AAA office, the required waiting period is just long enough to let the photo dry.  While this is not required in Italy, I never travel without one.  You want a document that the police can read in Italian should you get into any trouble.  Depending on the person, you could wind up with a ticket simply out of his frustration with your English license.  You will need to bring your American driver’s license and will not be able to rent your car without it.

You will need to make three copies of all your important documents (passport, both driver’s licenses, any insurance cards or important medical information like prescriptions) and the international phone numbers for your bank/credit cards.  Keep one copy at home with family, another copy hidden in your luggage and the last in your money belt.  I know this may sound a bit much, but nothing will ruin your vacation faster than losing one of these and not knowing the important information needed to fix the problem.


By Kerry at Passive-Aggressive Notes. Maybe they would be happier if they had money belts.

Italy can often get a bad rap when it comes to the topic of safety.  We’ve all heard stories about the gypsies, pickpockets and amorous men.  While all of this does exist, you can protect yourself from anything happening to you.  I have been traveling to Italy since I was 19 years old and have never had a problem.  I firmly believe this is because of the way I travel.  The single most important thing you can do is use a money belt.  These are discreet pouches that actually tuck into your clothing.  If someone wants to rip you off they basically have to remove your pants, and my guess is you are going to notice that.  Thieves are looking for easy targets and there are plenty of them around.  They are not going to take the time or the risk trying to steal from you.  Instead they will target the distracted tourist with a camera bag on one shoulder and a big fanny pack around their waist.

My favorite moneybelt can be ordered from Rick Steves

I do carry a day pack but it contains nothing of value and when I have my camera out I make sure that I am aware of it at all times and never put it casually around my shoulder.  If I must stop to look at a map while carrying a pack, I make sure I am in a spot where a can back up against a wall and never out in the open.  I watch the crowds.  Pickpockets can be the typical out of place looking gypsy with a baby and kids, but they can also be a well dressed middle aged man.  Use your money belt (even though it can get sweaty in the summer), keep your valuables at home, wear your day back securely on both shoulders and keep a sense of your surroundings.  I leave my wedding ring at home and travel with a band.

While I did have my fair share of bottom pinching that first trip, I have not had any problems with the men since.  Hopefully that is a reflection on my presence and not my appearance!  Italian men will look; it is how they are raised and it is in their blood.  I choose not to be offended at that and instead use it as a little ego boost.  What I do not allow is unwanted forwardness.  To avoid that I will speak directly, simply and loudly if I have to.  If you beat around the bush, hesitate or even offer the faintest of a smile you will have an admirer.  But honestly, that type of negative interaction is rare.  I do enjoy my conversations with men and have met many interesting people, but because I am firm and direct I never feel uncomfortable.  I have also noticed that the younger generations seem to be more respectful in general to females.

I have had people tell me that the big cities in Italy were dirty, noisy, pushy and overwhelming.  I can understand this view if not approached with the right frame of mind.  It is dirty compared to other cities and graffiti is everywhere, but it is mostly harmless soccer trash talk and not the negative gang related stuff we are used to.  It is noisy and overwhelming; the people are loud and boisterous.  These people wear their hearts on the sleeves and this is what makes Italy so unique and so passionate.  Just be ready for it and learn to enjoy the organized chaos of it all!

Remember:  Use a money belt, be aware of your surroundings (especially in the major tourist areas and train stations) and keep the important things at home.

How to prepare for your trip to Italy | Foot Care Advice and Getting into Shape

There are many steps you can take prior to leaving that will make your trip more enjoyable and successful.  Some things can be as simple as watching a few Italian theme movies or reading up on the areas you will be visiting.  Over the next few days I will be talking about my must do’s prior to departure.


You will be walking a lot in Italy, up and down hilly villages and over cobble stone roads.  Walking is the primary mode of transportation and you will see people of all ages out and about.  With everything so central and easy it really makes sense.  I tell everyone to start a walking program at least one or two months prior to leaving.  Believe me, you don’t want to be that tourist getting passed by an 80 year old woman carrying her bags home from the market!  Taking 30-45 minutes several times a week to walk at a brisk pace will help prepare your legs for Italy, a steep area is even better.  I walk daily after dinner and still feel it in my legs after arrival.  Streets are uneven, there are hills everywhere and stairs are in abundance.  Elevators are rare and those that exist can be scary.  If you do one thing to prepare, this is the one.  I have never met anyone who came back saying that they were in too good of shape for their trip.  DO NOT UNDERESTIMATE HOW MUCH YOU WILL BE WALKING AND HOW HARD THAT WILL BE.


This was only the first flight.

This goes hand in hand with walking.  The most important thing to do months before you go is find a good pair of walking shoes and break them in.  You should be wearing these shoes for at least a month if you consistently work out in them or more if you are only wearing them casually.  The last thing you want to do is limp around with blisters or aching arches.  I look for shoes that have good arch support, a sturdy sole and are comfortable.  Stay away from flip flops, tevas and crocs.  While these are easy and initially comfortable, your feet will be aching after a day’s walk across cobblestones.  I do bring a pair of flip flops but never wear them all day long.  I made that mistake long ago in Venice and ended up struggling with the pain for over a year.  Don’t feel like you have to wear Nike’s either; there are plenty of great shoes that won’t make you look like a tourist.  But expect to pay a little bit.  If you have a Walking Company near you, this is a great place to start.  I swear by Josef Seibel.  Again, even the best shoe is going to cause you pain if not properly broken in.  So put on those shoes and get walking!

I love feedback, so leave me comments!

copyright 2014  Andi Brown, Once in a Lifetime Travel

Understanding Italian Culture | Breaking the Ice and Saving Money


The Italians are incredibly warm and friendly people who will try hard to communicate with you, but they can be a bit shy to start a conversation.  I have found many tricks to get an interaction going that often ends in a warm embrace.

The easiest way to break the language barrier is through pictures.  I always carry a small photo album with me filled with pictures from around my home town and lots of photos of my family and even my pets.  Sometimes I will just bring the album with me to dinner and set it on the table.  You never know who you might sit next to and it is a great conversation starter.

Italians love their children and I make sure to play with kids and smile at babies all the time.  I’ve kicked balls around the piazza and even strolled up and down the village square with a grandma proudly pushing her newest grandchild in a stroller.

They also love their dogs and if you are a fan go ahead and give them a pet.  Cats on the other hand are not considered pets and you will be looked at strangely if caught petting any of them (except in the Cinque Terre).

Sharing your food if you happen to be on a train or out for a picnic is a good way to create an impromptu feast and gain friends.

It is always hard to make the first move and there have been times I have shied away from an opportunity, but I always regret those decisions.  The times I have taken a deep breath and stepped outside of my comfort level are the times that have given me the best memories.


There are a few simple ways to make your dollar go further in Italy without taking away any of the enjoyment.  Hotels often offer a so-so breakfast but what they don’t tell you is that you can skip it and save yourself as much as 10 euro per person.  Italians aren’t big into breakfast, but for half the price you can enjoy a cappuccino and croissant.  Lunches can be made from items bought earlier in the morning market or you can find a little pizza shop and get a slice to go or eat at the bar.  I usually wash it down with a gelato or caffe.  This way I can eat a nice dinner without the guilt.  Look for places to eat that are out of the main tourists areas, avoid places that advertise that they speak English and accept credit cards.   At dinner drink the house wine ‘vino di casa’ which is good.  Split or skip the secondi course, which is always the most expensive.   Don’t over tip and don’t feel guilty about it.

Take advantage of the international calling cards if you need to call home and even better would be using just the Internet to keep in touch.  Using public transportation in the cities or even just walking versus taxis will save you a ton.  Walking is easy to do in Italy, even in the biggest of cities.  Most of the important sites are central and city centers have always been set up for residents to walk around easily.

Longer stays at your accommodations will often give you better prices as will paying in cash.  You also get to know an area and have a better chance of finding good deals and creating relationships with the locals.

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Copyright 2014   Andi Brown,  Once in a Lifetime Travel

Understanding Italian Culture | Manners, Bella Figura, Siesta and Passeggiata

Part of enjoying Italy comes from understanding and embracing the differences in our culture.  I have tried to put together my impressions from an outsider’s perspective to help you really enjoy your experience.

I find that Italians are one of the most welcoming group of people around and they will try their hardest to help you and communicate with you.  Following my living locally guide will make you stand out from the demanding and draining tourists and open up so many doors for you.  I have been personally escorted to a restaurant more than once, given extra scoops of gelato to make sure that I didn’t miss out on the ‘perfect combination’ and even had mini impromptu historical lessons.  As a general rule, the people are very intense and very dramatic.  You will see heated conversations end in warm embraces.  They live life in the moment and with zest.  I always get swept up in living and loving life when I’m there.


Italians believe in presenting themselves well; taking care of the way you look is a priority for them.  This concept is called the Bella Figura, but it goes even deeper than just how you look.  For example, an Italian would rather miss the bus and be late to an engagement than become disorderly and sweaty by rushing madly to try to make it on time.  Once at the beach, I noticed I was the only mom playing in the sand and getting just as dirty as their child.  All around me, Italian women lay pristinely on their clean blankets.  You will notice that even the most simple of Italians will have at least one nice suit which they take pride in wearing each day.

The women.  What can I say here?  Now matter how good I think I might look, I pale in comparison to them.  They just exude sexy.  You will be hard pressed to find any one of them ever in sweats, even if they are just running to the store.  I try to bring one sassy outfit with me and play it up with a necklace or scarf as my feeble attempt to keep up.


Even the street performers are formally dressed.

Italians remain very formal.  Even in their language they have two separate tenses, one for those that are close friends and the other for everyone else.  While they would never expect you to be able to speak in the proper tense, I find that addressing the person initially with a Signore or Signora goes a long way.  I also always begin my requests and questions with a simple Per Favore (please).  Italians think that Americans are too brash because we tend to cut right to the chase without taking any time for small talk.  This is a great example of our fundamental differences.  We tend to operate on ‘time is money’ while Italians live completely in the present.  Just remember that you can never say please or thank you too much.


Again, a big difference between us is the concept of time.  It is considered completely acceptable to be late for an appointment.  I’m not talking 5-10 minutes late either.  This can be frustrating if their tardiness is affecting your trip, for example one time I spent 40 minutes waiting for the car rental office to open after lunch.  While I admit I was not excited, I spent that time enjoying not one but two gelati.  When you find yourself frustrated because you have to wait for someone, try to take a deep breath and find some sort of distraction.  Everything always ends up working out in Italy, just in its own time.


Wouldn’t you love to be able to stop your work day to head home or to the local trattoria for a nice meal or reviving nap?  While many business have begun to adopt a more formal 9-3pm work schedule, the mid day siesta is still going strong.  This is the time during the middle of the day from about 1-4pm where everything shuts down.  I mean everything, villages look like ghost towns.  Take advantage of this routine and use the time to refresh and recharge yourself.  I will often grab goodies at the market earlier in the day and spend this time in a quiet spot with a view.  The most important thing to remember is to prepare ahead so you aren’t stranded.  Make sure you have already bought any necessities earlier that day and in small towns that your car has fuel.  Caffeine addicts need not worry; there is always a bar somewhere open for a shot of espresso.


Every evening before dinner, everywhere in Italy people turn out just to stroll around, check each other out and catch up on the latest news.  This is the Italian version of cruising.  You will find people of all ages out, from the littlest of tots to old ladies linked arm in arm.  I love this time of the day.  It’s when the tourist buses have left and the real Italy comes out.   So grab a gelato and enjoy!

Everyone out and about in Rome

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Copyright 2014   Andi Brown,  Once in a Lifetime Travel

Understanding Italian Culture | Toilet Basics


I could probably dedicate a whole book to my adventures with Italian bathrooms.  It could almost become a game of ‘How do you flush this toilet?’  I have listed the most common types you will find, but always be prepared for anything.

Chain Pull:  usually from the tank hanging just above the toilet, but can be off to the side

The One Button:  located on the top or one of the sides, comes in various sizes

The Double Button:  found on the wall next to the toilet, the small one is for little jobs and the big is for…well you get the idea

Foot Pedal Flush:  found anywhere on the floor, this can also be how you turn the sink water on

The Push Up:  a little lever hanging from the bottom of the overhanging tank

Bottomless Pit:  just stand over the hole and aim, no flushing required and thigh workout included

Take aim

Full Service:  a self cleaning and flushing toilet that takes care of everything once you’ve left

The Bucket:  a full bucket of water poured into the toilet, used for emergencies when the toilet paper tips are not followed

Don’t count on finding one of these anywhere.

Public restrooms can be hard to find in Italy.  Most are pay toilets, usually under 1 euro.  Sometimes you will be giving your money to an actual person, other times inserting it into a machine.  I find it is easier to march into a local bar acting like I own the place and go directly to the bathroom, usually located in the back or downstairs.  If you feel guilty, just order an espresso and use the bathroom afterwards.  Always take advantage of the restroom while dining.


Italians are skimpy in this department for a few reasons.  The toilets and sewer systems simply can’t handle too much.  They also think it is silly and wasteful the way most Americans (my family included) use a mitt of TP each time.  Until my daughter was restrained, I had to use the above mentioned emergency flush to unplug several toilets.  Flush twice to avoid embarrassing situations.  The toilet paper itself leaves a bit to be desired, so don’t expect triple ply Charmin!  If you are near the end of the supply you may have to ask for more from your host.  I always carry a bit with me at all times in case the supply isn’t restocked right away and never use a public restroom without back up.  They seem to be out most of the time.

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Copyright 2012   Andi Brown,  Once in a Lifetime Travel

Understanding Italian Culture | Dining, Tips, Gelato and Coffee


In Italy, the food is an experience.  Lunches and dinners last at least two hours; you linger over your meal.  When you sit at a table, it is considered yours for the night.  A restaurant would be considered awful if it tried to turn tables like we do in the states.  The waiters are all ‘slow’ by American standards and they do not rush for anything (except keeping wine on the table for the locals).  Your waiter will only bring the bill when you ask for it, to do so before is considered rude.  When you are ready to leave, simply catch their eye and say ‘Il conto’ for the bill or make a motion of writing something out on your palm.  Many restaurants have a ‘pane e coperto’ charge (bread and cover) of a few euros per person and/or ‘servizio incluso’ (tips) built into the bill.  You will find both of these on the bill with the ‘servizio incluso’ usually on the bottom.  If that is not included in your bill, round up by a few euros (or less than half of what you would do at home).  I know it feels wrong not to leave a big tip for a great meal, we Americans are notorious for over tipping while some Italians never do.  Rarely I have run into annoyed waiters who were expecting me to tip like a typical tourist, but that reaction is not at all normal.  Another time I tipped an excessive amount because I had drank an excessive amount , and the owners made sure I left with a bottle of wine on the house.   An example for a meal that cost 37.50 would be to round up to 40.  Try to always leave a cash tip on the table, even if you are paying with credit, otherwise your server may never see the money.

Dinner service usually begins around 7:00pm and lasts well into the night.  If you want to dine with tourists, be there when they open.  Linger until around 8:30 and you will dine with the Italians.  Food is served in courses, but you are not expected to order one of each.  For example, I often order my own pasta (primi) but share an anitpasti (appetizer) and secondi (meat or fish dish) with my friend.  Just remember that the food will be brought out in order and if you skipped a course you will spend that time watching others eat.  I find I never go wrong with the house wine but if you want to try a bottle, ask the waiter what would pair well with your meal.  While you can’t always trust the bill you can trust them with their food and wine recommendations!  I personally find that you can never go wrong with the daily specials.  Italians eat with the seasons and chefs pride themselves in finding the best and freshest ingredients.  I will often go with their suggestions as well.  Europeans love fizzy water, so if you don’t want bubbles you must ask for ‘acua naturale.’

A few dining tips to make you look more like a local:

Don’t use a spoon to twirl your pasta and NEVER cut the noodles with a knife.

If cheese or other toppings didn’t come with your dish then it was not meant to go with it.  It is considered insulting to add anything to a dish that the chef prepared as they pride themselves in knowing exactly what ingredients pare with each dish.

By all means, use your bread to sop up the extra sauce.  This is considered a great compliment to the chef.

End your meal with an espresso (you can request a decaf).

Take your time to enjoy the meal, each one is an adventure in itself!

I caution everyone to pace themselves or you will find yourself groaning in bed with an overfilled stomach.


It’s the only place on earth that is more crazy about coffee than Seattle.  For about one euro, you can get a teeny cup of pure heaven.  It’s probably the easiest thing to do in Italy.  Head right into any bar and ask for un caffe.  You might be asked to clarify that you want an espresso and not an American cup of coffee.  Just use your fingers to show a tiny cup and they will understand.  Watch the locals.  They pour in about as much sugar as coffee and sit stirring it for some magical amount of time, then sling back the liquid in one sip and out the door they go.  This is not a Starbucks society where you savor your espresso or even take it to go.  I also love my morning cappuccino (which I do take my time with) but only tourists drink them after 10am.  Some bars have you pay first and then take your slip to the counter while others do the opposite.  If you are unsure just watch how everyone else is doing it and copy.  It is a courtesy to leave a small coin to ‘hold the paper down’ for the server.  You will also pay more for your coffee if you sit down to drink it, about twice as much as the same cup enjoyed at the bar.  The cost can be well worth it if you’ve found a cozy little spot for people watching.  The bars usually have quick and easy snacks as well; panini’s are a favorite type of sandwich and great for on the go.


Italian ice cream is another national addiction, and a personal one.  I challenge anyone to beat my consumption record:  6 double scoops in one day!  Just remember that not all gelato is created the same and if you aren’t careful you could end up disappointed.  Follow my advice below and you are sure to never go wrong.

There are a few important things to look for when choosing a gelateria.  Only places that make their gelato fresh each day on the premise are legally allowed to display the sign ‘fatta in casa.’  This is a good start but that is not all you want to watch for.  A long line is one of the best signs of great gelato.  If you see more Italians than tourists, even better.  Italians tend to avoid tourists at all costs but will stand shoulder to shoulder with them for a good scoop and you know that your gelato will be worth the wait.  If all looks well, step inside and make sure that the gelato is in metal containers and not plastic ones, this will confirm that the ice cream was made in smaller batches and of a better quality.  The final check is in the gelato itself.  If you notice tons of bright unnatural colors run away.  Banana will be your gold standard.  If it is gray you have found the perfect spot, if it is any shade of yellow don’t waste another second there.  Gelato should be made from fresh ingredients with the primary concern being taste not color.  Be wary of any shop that has a big area with table and chairs.  While we are used to this set up, in Italy gelato is meant to be consumed on the go and a gelateria trying to encourage you to stay is focused on tourists.

No day is complete without gelato and there is no reason to feel guilty.  Gelato’s fat content is at least a third less than our ice cream because it is made from milk and not fresh cream or butterfat.  Ordering gelato is similar to getting your coffee.  Most places have you buy your gelato ahead of time and the cashier will give you a ticket to take to the counter.  Take your time looking around while you decide, but for the server’s sanity make sure that you are ready with your order when it is your turn.  You will be ignored if you do not have a ticket.  If you are having trouble getting his attention just hold your ticket like a torch and push your way to the front.  Be exotic and try different combinations; everything is good.


You will be able to find little grocery shops in every town and even some larger more modern ones in the cities.  In the produce section there are a few different ways to handle the vegetables.  Sometimes the checker (or another employee) will select the produce for you, bag it and weigh it on the spot.  All you do is point to what you want.  More commonly, you will bag it yourself and then put your selection on a scale.  There will be about 100 different buttons with pictures of fruits and veggies.  Find yours and simply push, the weight and cost in Euros will be printed on a sticker you attach to the bag (make sure you aren’t LEANING on the scale when you push!).  Don’t forgot to wear the disposable plastic gloves, otherwise you will draw many disgusted looks from the local shoppers.

Every city, town and village has a market on a certain day and some are daily.  Go early to get the best choices and have the most fun with the pushy old ladies.  Markets aren’t limited to just produce; usually you will find trucks full of cheese and meats.  If you see someone selling Porchetta sandwiches get one!

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Copyright 2012   Andi Brown,  Once in a Lifetime Travel

Understanding Italian Culture | Handling Money, Shopping, Computers and Staying in Line

**I will be re-blogging my Understanding Italian Culture Series this week.**


Italians love correct or almost correct change.  You know that old lady at the grocery store digging through her coin purse while everyone behind her rolls their eyes?  She is everywhere in Italy and they love her.  Although they are used to us Americans slapping down a 20 Euro note (or *gasp* a 50) for bottled water, I try to get as close to exact as possible.  ATM’s seem to be out to sabotage your best efforts and tend to only give out the largest bills possible, so you can’t help but have to break a larger bill at times.  Just try not to do it first thing in the morning and be prepared for some heavy sighing.  I have once been denied the transaction.

Italians also don’t hand over the money directly as we do.  You will find at every counter a little dish or tray next to the register.  This is where you should set your money down and where they will put your change.  Do not try to hand them the cash.


Italians shop with intention.  If they walk into the store, they are ready to buy.  Just watch how the women window shop, it is not with a casual interest.  The window displays are set up with great care to show off the merchandise and many are changed almost daily.  If you walk into a store (except the obvious tourist shops) the clerks are expecting you to buy.  Of course you don’t have to, but don’t be shocked if they are a little snuffy with you when you don’t.  Instead of being turned off by this, relish it because you become the center of attention in the shop when you are ready to purchase something.  You will have all the shopkeepers fussing over you while they ignore the meandering tourist.  I have a favorite handbag store that I spend quite a bit of time in each visit, even though I usually know exactly which purse I am going to buy at the very beginning.  I enjoy the whole experience and never rush through it.


Should you have to wait in line for anything, be prepared to defend your position with your life and be wary of the side-cutter.  You will be able to pick out all the American and British tourists immediately; they will be the only ones standing in a straight and orderly line.  You will have to let go of your manners in this situation and be assertive.  Look for an opening and take it, if you don’t someone else always will. Make sure you have good eye contact and you are ready with your order/request.  On a visit to Rome, I spent 45 minutes standing in a line for train tickets with someone breathing down my neck…literally.  Every time they would try to sneak up to the side of me they got the elbow.  Not the most comfortable situation, but I stood my ground and felt victorious when I managed to block every attempt thrown at me.  Now, don’t get me started about those sweet old ladies you see around town because they are lethal in the market stalls.


Americans always get stumped when it comes to finding the @ sign.  On an Italian keyboard it is found by pushing the Alt and the key just to the left of the Enter button (this key will have 3 different symbols on it).

I’m obsessed with feedback, let me know what you think.

Love it??  Pass it on!

Copyright 2014   Andi Brown,  Once in a Lifetime Travel


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