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Studying Abroad: Culture Shock

I’ve just had my third full week here in Rome, and it’s been the busiest three weeks I’ve ever had! I’ve eaten a lot of good food, seen a lot of beautiful places, and done my fair share of touristy activities (shamelessly, of course). 

This week I’m going to talk about some cultural differences that I’ve experienced while they’re still fresh and new to me. Italy is a liberal and modern country, so I wasn’t expecting to go through the same amount of culture shock that some of my friends who’ve gone to places like South Africa have, but even so, Italian culture is very distinct and there are things I’ve had to get used to.

The first thing that surprised me right away was the reluctance of shopkeepers and cashiers to give change. In the States, you can pay for a $1.50 soda with a $50 and while the cashier might not have enough singles in the cash wrap, if they have the cash they’ll give you the change without balking. Last week in a grocery store I rang up 8.07 Euro worth of groceries and tried to hand the cashier a 10 Euro note. The cashier refused to give me 1.93 Euro back and insisted I give her at least 7 Euro cents so she could give me a 2 Euro coin back. Exchanges like this can be hard when you have to pull out cash from ATMs and only have 20s or 50s. How do Italians always have exact change?? It’s probably useful to note here that you won’t run into this problem at the more touristy places because they are very used to people getting cash from ATMs and only having 50 Euro notes.

Speaking of money, tipping is very different here too. In restaurants, you only tip when the service was exceptional, and when you tip it’s 10-15%. It’s not expected and the waiter won’t spit in your food the next time you show up at the restaurant if you didn’t tip the first time. Same goes for haircuts and other salon services. A safe rule is that for the tourism industries, a tip is polite (bellhops, hotel staff) or even mandatory (taking a picture with a gladiator in front of the Colosseum).


Just your average, friendly neighborhood gladiators.

Restaurants were a whole new culture shock of their own. Italians go out to eat around 8 PM and will often stay the whole night at the same table talking and drinking wine. On weekends, they then go out to bars and clubs around midnight. If you enter a local late-night venue before 11:30, expect it to be pretty much empty. In restaurants, water is not free and neither is bread. Even if you ask for tap water they may charge you for it, so if you’re going to pay for water make sure it’s bottled when they bring it out. Bread will often be brought out without asking for it, and it is expected that you eat it with your meal or after the meal with the dressings leftover on your plate. It’s considered very rude to bring the check before it is asked for, so if you’re in a hurry be sure to ask for the check once the food arrives so you get the check in a timely manner. It’s also considered very rude to not finish your entire plate, especially in family-owned smaller restaurants. I was once told that if I didn’t finish my entire meal I’d have to wash dishes in the back!

The culture of drinking is also very different. Italians here drink together to enjoy each other’s company, and it’s very looked down upon to get so drunk you lose control of yourself. I have yet to see an Italian throw up on a sidewalk from drinking too much (thank goodness). Binge drinking is not a common activity here in Italy, frankly because it’s not efficient to binge drink to the point of total intoxication on wine and beer which is what most people drink. Of course, there is a very vibrant nightlife scene in Italy and Italians love to dance and pop champagne bottles left and right. In the States there would be times that I’d be too tired to shower after a night out, but here if you don’t shower after you go out you run the risk of waking up with dreadlocks.


There are SmartCars everywhere, and they like to hide in blind spots.

On a totally different note, the driving here really is as bad as everybody says it is. Almost everybody I know here has a story about a friend who got hit by a car in Italy, and jaywalking isn’t so much a crime here as it is a way of life. Cars don’t necessarily stop for, well, anything. And the pedestrians don’t stop for anything either! It makes for very chaotic street navigation. I’m finding that I enjoy the freedom to jaywalk a lot. I walk everywhere here, which is very different from my life in Los Angeles. They say here that you work your leg muscles by walking and you work your arms by cutting up pizza.

I hope this blog post has been sufficiently amusing and informative and that everybody is having a great start to school! Leave a comment and let me know what else you want to hear about. Until next time!


Photo Source: Madi Tsuji

Madi Tsuji is a former Campus Correspondent for Her Campus Occidental. She is originally from Seattle, WA and now lives in New York City, where she works in PR. 
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