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G.P.S.: No Purple, A Whole Pizza, Exploding Chargers: Cultural Differences Between the U.S. And Italy

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Scranton chapter.

Ciao mi amici! Today, I want to share with you some lessons I’ve learned while in Italy about important cultural differences that took a bit of time for me to get used to. Hopefully, these tips will be helpful for when you plan your vacation or study abroad trip so you can be prepared and avoid these gaffes! I thought I’d give you a personal perspective, so that even if you are an experienced traveler and already know my tips, you can at least laugh at some of my own humorous situations.


If you see a “bar,” don’t think it is necessarily a bar in the traditional U.S. sense. Most bars have a cafe with pastries, coffee, and alcohol. Therefore, don’t worry when you ask for the nearest bakery and find yourself staring at a sign that says “bar,” I promise the Italians know what they are talking about and that the bar will have the best raspberry tarts you will ever eat.


Usually eaten around five or six in the evening, aperitivo is a small snack, typically olives, chips, pretzels, popcorn, meats, cheeses, and breads, eaten before dinner. It’s quite common to go to this at least once or twice a week. It functions as a way for people to see their friends and socialize at bars. Most common in Milan are Aperol spirits with food! Be sure to give it a try if you are there but be forewarned to eat enough in advance; this social time can go on for hours. The first time I attended an aperitivo I thought it was a dinner and was very confused when my aunt and uncle then told me we were not going to dinner.


I have so many funny stories around food but let me begin by saying food is probably one of the top reasons people visit Italy, aside from all the tourist sites, and for a good reason! There is so much yummy goodness to enjoy. However, I will say that there are several major differences

between the U.S. and Italy, all of which were learned over the course of my stay. The first is mealtimes.

Because Italians eat a significant breakfast, which is usually sweet not savory, mealtimes are later than they often are in the United States. Lunch isn’t usually until one or two, and this means dinner isn’t eaten until seven or eight, particularly when there is an aperitivo beforehand! In addition, food is usually served in courses, so even when you visit someone’s house for dinner it will probably be this way.

Easter weekend, some friends of my aunt and uncle were kind enough to invite me over for dinner. The first course following some appetizers was an incredible lasagna, and I was full, so I assumed that we would then have dessert. There were two other courses of meat and veggies to follow, and after each, I thought “now we’re done.” No such luck for my waistline. I then tried everyone’s desserts and had a coffee. Did I mention this was following aperitivo? You will eat well in Italy, and honestly that’s a great thing, just never show up to dinner on a full stomach.

Furthermore, in case you’re wondering, according to a poster that makes me laugh in our university cafeteria, Italians recommend eating pasta, rice, or another type of carb “once a day.” My two Italian friends were confused when I tried to explain to them that sometimes at Scranton, I will only eat a salad with protein for lunch, and some chicken for dinner most days. However, a recent study by the Behavioral and Brain Lab at the Free University of Languages and Communication IULM here in Milan found that eating pasta can improve your mood, so maybe it’s why everyone here seems so happy!

The Great Divide

When you’re paying for your meal or aperitivo, don’t be shocked if waiters refuse to split the bill as we would in the United States. I have no idea why it is this way, but I quickly became accustomed to Venmoing for bills.


I have to be honest, after my first month here, I broke the “no cappuccino after noon” rule with abandon. However, for a while, I was drinking espresso in the afternoons because I was really paranoid to order a cappuccino. You are welcome to check out my other article if you want to read more about some of the other coffee options, however, I will say that there are better options. The sugar in espresso, which is usually brown sugar, takes forever to dissolve, so I would spoon it from the bottom, to make the drink sweeter. After receiving several VERY odd looks, I realized this looked strange, and started drinking it like a shot. Honestly, the only way I was able to drink it was with other people. I know this sounds trite or sappy, but espresso really

does taste sweeter when you are sitting with some new or old friends in a local coffee shop, talking as you sip the brown, strong liquid down. Laughter, it seems, is the best sweetener for espresso.


Be sure to bring an umbrella, as no one here seems to use the hoods on their jackets. Perhaps it is the fashion culture, and people want to protect their entire outfit, but umbrellas are everywhere.


While this makes me sad to write, catcalling is normal in Italy. At the very least I can warn you to be prepared for people to stare at you. I don’t know if it’s the fact that I’m American that makes older men in their forties enjoy shouting “I love you” as I walk away after asking for directions in broken Italian, but it happens once every two weeks.

One day I turned around and told a man, an employee on a smoke break at a train station, “while Americans may say we love pizza, I know the meaning of love,” before saying “es necessario per tu studi inglese molto.” It was broken Italian to tell him to study my language better, insinuating he didn’t know what he was talking about, very rudely. He didn’t reply and I’d turned on my heel to leave before he could collect his thoughts. I’ve been raised by too many strong women to be pushed around, so this behavior lights a fire under me.

More often, though, it’s an older man who shouts “Ciao, bella,” as my female friends and I walk by, and I know it could be worse, but this still feels demeaning and gross. When I told my aunt and uncle, they explained that it’s normal. While this is hard for me to accept, if this is the one thing Italy does poorly, then I can tolerate it. However, “tolerating it” may include me flipping off half of the male population of Italy above the age of thirty-five.

Garbage Day

If you have an apartment like me, you will be perpetually confused about how to take out the garbage. It’s a complicated system, with glasses, plastics, metals, compost, and tissues all separated. The plastic and metals have to be in a yellow bag for some reason, and if you sort your garbage wrong, you will get fined. Luckily, my roommates and I have managed to avoid such a fine, but it’s only because all of us go down together to make sure we’re putting everything in the right place.

Talk With Your Hands

According to my Acting professor, Italian people’s famed hand-talking comes from the fact that Italian people were invaded by so many other places that to communicate with the French or Spanish soldiers, or even Italian people who spoke different dialects, they would use their hands. Even if you don’t speak the language, try to use your hands, because according to my professor, people will probably understand you better.

Do NOT Sit on The Metro

There are exceptions, but seats on the Metro are usually saved for older people or those with injuries. If you are going a far distance, you CAN sit, but if someone else who might need the seat gets on, you should at least offer your seat. If they refuse, you’re okay, but common courtesy is that young people hang onto the handrails on the Metro.


Even if you have a converter, that doesn’t mean an outlet can handle the electrical power required by whatever you are plugging in, especially with an added charger. When I was in the Dolomites in 2022, I plugged a portable charger via a converter into the wall and the entire thing shot out in a ball of sparks after five seconds. My aunt and uncle looked at me in shock.

While I haven’t had that issue in Milan where the outlets are new, my roommates and I have blown our fuse two or three times at very inconvenient hours. Luckily, we have a sweet neighbor, Suzannah, who helped us fix it because we have no idea how to fix the power when everything is in Italian. Suzannah learned English by watching Grey’s Anatomy and has 8 children. When I showed up at her door proffering Google Translate, she came upstairs to my apartment, and then took me on an adventure through the building to get a special key needed to access the fuse box. This led us to her parent’s apartment on the other side of the building, where I apologized for intruding on their dinner, and they proceeded to offer me a meal, and when I declined started giving me cookies. It felt like something out of a movie, but as I mentioned, Italians are sweet. Then, it was super involved to reset the power, so let me just suggest you don’t plug in too many things at once.

Thank You’s

If you want to thank someone, like my incredible downstairs neighbor who helped me fix our power, or are invited somewhere for dinner, bring a bottle of wine. Much like in the US, it serves

as a meaningful thank you, and isn’t very expensive. Other alternatives include pastries from a bakery or flowers!

Be Prepared for Strikes

The number of times the Metro or trains have gone on strike since I arrived hasn’t been horrific. Nonetheless, this can impact travel plans or even getting to school. However, for the Milanese, having to wait more than four minutes for a train is crazy. Now it’s important to note that those who strike run the morning commuting Metros and then stop until it’s time for everyone to go home, a method which doesn’t seem terribly effective and means you might not know there is a strike until someone tells you at university! One time I told my friends I was heading home at 3 PM on the day of a Metro strike. They looked at me like I was crazy and said, “Why would you do that? You’ll have to wait twenty minutes for the train! We’re going to hang out until 6 when they run normally again!” I then tried to explain that in the U.S. the usual wait time is about twenty minutes.

“I don’t speak English well”

If anyone tells you this, it’s probably not true. I don’t mean that they’re lying, but very rarely when someone says this do, they actually speak it poorly. Sure, there are words they won’t know, and I don’t recommend trying to have a detailed conversation about a niche subject but having probably never spoken to an American in their life, Italians think they don’t speak English well when in fact they’re close to fluent! Now, don’t take this to simply speak English everywhere, but it should put you at ease for when you have to use English

If you do speak in English, try to speak a little slower than usual (but not crazy slow as you’ll offend people, and to be honest they don’t need you to baby them; they can speak our language) and avoid expressions (“it’s raining cats and dogs”) and colloquial sayings (“that’s cap”). One of my favorite stories from 2022 is when, at the height of “Replay” by Iyaz, my friend Macro asked me to define a “shawty.”

A – E – I – O – U (I would delete this section)

Did you know that Y is not considered a vowel? As an English major, I felt ashamed to learn that Y is only sometimes considered a vowel in English. However, it is not a vowel in Italian, and is not part of the Italian alphabet, a fact I learned the hard way when I tried to put the article “l’” instead of “lo” before yogurt. My Italian professor looked at me like I was crazy and said, “No, l’

is for a vowel.” My response, “isn’t y a vowel?” caused some general confusion, but then I explained.

However, Y is not the only wonk letter; J, K, W, and X are also omitted from the Italian alphabet, a fact I learned when I looked at my cousins’ alphabet poster and thought it looked a little wonky. Fun fact, when entertaining a seven- and nine-year-old, the stakes of Tarzan are raised when people aren’t sure how to spell the colors. The difference in letters also extends to vowels, since E and I are pronounced the opposite way, and the only time I have ever seen my friends struggle with English words is when I and E are involved.

Both last trip and this year, I have been asked about how to pronounce “beach,” because they quite often struggle to say the “E” and “CH”, so it sounds more like an expletive that begins with B. If anyone says anything offensive while you are talking about the sea, it may be that they’re struggling with the vowels.


Similarly, the Italian people are some of the most welcoming people I know. People are SO friendly, it’s honestly crazy. They genuinely mean any invitation they give, unlike in the U.S. where sometimes we invite people over and don’t really want them to come over. The friends I have made here are so genuinely kind, and I don’t know what I would do without them. Don’t be afraid to talk to random people while you wait at the bar for coffee, or if you need help with something. They will probably go out of their way to help, which is crazy.

When I was in Bologna, I asked a random Italian couple for help finding the train station. They walked me all the way there, claiming they had wanted to do some shopping in the area anyway. It wasn’t until I was on my train that I realized they’d left in the opposite direction of the shops; they’d helped me get there even though they didn’t have to be in the area. That is kindness.

Similarly, Europeans, I have found, genuinely want to learn about other cultures, and if you’re traveling abroad, you should as well. Talk to everyone, because every person has an interesting story, and something to teach you!

Medical Care

I was lucky to have international insurance provided by my study abroad program, so when I took a particularly bad tumble that left me with a minor concussion and a limp for over a week, I was able to seek out local medical care. I decided to go to the hospital alone, and my friends texted me that I should have brought someone else and a snack because I could have been there

all night. Luckily, I was only there for four hours, but it was quite a process! Luckily, they had a doctor examine me who spoke English, and instead of a $25,000 bill for an MRI and CAT scan, it was 25 euros.


If someone screams “die” in your general vicinity, it does not mean, even if they look upset, that they want you to die. “Die,” is the Italian word for “c’mon,” and is an offshoot of the verb “vie,” “to go.” I promise, no matter how much of a rush Italian people may be in, they don’t want you dead.

Age is Just a Number

If you meet a child, assume they aren’t like children in the United States. The Italian schooling system is particularly rigorous, and many of my friends at university have read books IN ENGLISH that I wouldn’t dare open because they are too complicated. In addition, they are usually very independent and capable, more so than American children. Now, you may be saying, “so what, they can speak a different language.” Well, my cousins are cooler than yours, because they can make crepes without any adult help. They’re FIVE and NINE! When I was five and nine, I was lucky if I could make toast. It never ceases to amaze me how independent my cousins and their friends are, and it imbues them, I believe, with a sense of curiosity and adventure that are invaluable.

I also think, especially for two young girls, it empowers them and enforces the idea that when they put their mind to do something, they are more than capable. This is not just the case for them, but all their friends, regardless of gender. However, I know my cousins are especially so because my aunt (and personal hero) is a strong, independent, and intelligent woman, who has taught them, in tandem with my uncle, to be the same. I honestly wish I had been that independent at their age, and think it provides valuable life experience. However, I will still watch VERY concerned while they fry things.


The first week of school, I was walking out of class, and I heard what sounded like gunshots and screams nearby. I panicked, thinking that somehow, I had ended up in the middle of some kind of shoot-out. When I realized no one was running around me, and everything seemed fine, I walked around the corner to realize that the popping sound was from a confetti popper. Graduations in Italy are held individually instead of in a group, so to celebrate many families

have confetti sprayers for photos. Initially, I was embarrassed, but then I heard stories from friends who said they ducked under a car because they were so scared, only to be asked by an alarmed Italian man if they were okay. It’s a sad truth, to live in fear of gun violence – a problem that only the Americans seem to worry about here – but if you hear popping by a university, it’s probably only a celebration.

No Middle Names

This one doesn’t really change anything, but I thought it was interesting! Italian people don’t usually have middle names, and it only occurs when a name is hyphenated.


I originally intended to write an entire article about drinking culture in Italy, but it was a struggle to write because I couldn’t seem to find the words to correctly depict my thoughts. What I will say is that despite having much easier access to alcohol, people don’t or rarely get blackout drunk on purpose. I have friends who started drinking here at thirteen, but most start at fifteen or sixteen at home with their parents, and then at 18 it is legal. Yet, regardless of age, they look after each other.

Two years ago, the day before I left to go home to the U.S., my friends gave me one of my first real alcoholic drinks at a party. They knew I didn’t drink much, so the lemonade-vodka was more lemonade than anything, however, when I drank it out of the mini-plastic cup like it was soda, they immediately had me drink water and slow down. Similarly, when I visited for St. Patrick’s Day, my friend Marco, who is an incredible chef and attends culinary school. made “cacio e pepe” and then everyone went home, barely tipsy and happily full.

I share this because, even if you go clubbing, people aren’t very drunk. Buying alcohol is also different. I recently bought a bottle of wine as a “thank you” to my aunt’s parents for inviting me to dinner and took out my U.S. ID to show the cashier. I tend to look younger, so I thought just to be safe, it would be good to show it. The locals with their groceries and the cashier laughed, and a woman said: “You are a good girl, most people don’t show their age card.”

Italian Vs. Italian American

I have found it is difficult for Italian people to understand why Americans associate themselves with their ancestral ethnicity rather than their nationality, aka: “I’m American, but I’m half-Italian, half-Irish.” Now, I have never said when asked, “I’m half-Irish, half-Italian” here, but

when people ask about parentage, and I launch into an explanation about how my grandfather immigrated to the United States from Italy, the issue comes up. Nonetheless, my friend Ricci looked at me perplexed one time when I tried to explain it. I think, for them, because they associate you with the language you speak and the country you are from, they don’t necessarily look at the history of your family, which makes sense.

Voice Memos

I’ve noticed that unlike in the United States, my aunt, uncle, and a lot of my friends like to use voice memos instead of texting things out. I’m unsure if it’s a matter of preference, but as this is very uncommon in the United States, at least among my friends, I thought it was interesting.


You’d be remiss if you didn’t go to an Italian market! Selling anything from fruit to clothes new and old, Milan has many different markets, all of which are known for special things. Be sure to check these out for a genuine piece of Italy you can take home!


As I mentioned in my previous article, jeans are the only type of socially acceptable pants aside from dress pants in Italy. Be prepared, because if you wear your yoga pants out, people will know you are a tourist and also severely judge you. Similarly, wearing ripped jeans is usually associated with going out, so don’t wear them during the day; you will get odd looks.

Stairway to Heaven

As a healthy reminder, and something I realized when I hurt my leg, Italy doesn’t always have escalators, or elevators that will be working. Be prepared to have to walk up multiple flights of steps in the Metro, through buildings, or up monuments. I learned this the hard way my first day in the country, when I lugged a giant luggage, a smaller luggage, a large purse, and a backpack off the train platform, which involved going down three flights of steep, cement steps. Most of my luggage fell down the steps, and had it not been for a nice man in his sixties who was able to help me drag it down, everything would have smashed.

Paying For the Bathroom

Sadly, you often have to pay to use the bathroom in churches, monuments, and the occasional train station. While I haven’t had to pay that often, always keep a few euros on you in case you have to use one of these! In addition, always keep tissues on you because they also may not have toilet paper…

Chocolate Eggs

While in Italy they don’t celebrate Easter with the Easter bunny and an egg hunt, they do have gigantic eggs that contain a surprise toy inside. The egg is almost as large as my head, and it was crazy to think that children can eat that much chocolate, but I can confirm that I taste tested several of these, for journalistic purposes of course, and recommend the Kinder Surprise ones.


It takes a bit of time to get used to, but people my age do smoke cigarettes here. It’s odd to watch, but their cigarettes sometimes have less nicotine, and from the grumbling of some of my roommates, so do vapes. I’m not a smoker in any capacity, so it is still quite odd for me to watch people in their twenties smoking, but I’m hoping at some point I’ll get used to it.


Surprisingly, for a country that surrounds the Papal State, a lot of people are not religious. In fact, when I was here in 2022, my friends asked why I had arrived at the park later than usual, and when I replied that I had been at church, they said: “Church is for the old, we don’t go when we’re young.” That much had been obvious, as I had been the youngest person who wasn’t a grandchild accompanying a grandparent. While this isn’t everyone, most people are baptized but not preaching Catholics, which for me was a little unexpected, but I certainly respect everyone else’s faith or lack thereof! The typical impression of Italy is that it is very religious, so it subverted my expectations.


In the United States, it’s not uncommon for my friends and I to split a large pizza. Here in Italy, however, you eat the entire pizza by yourself. I am still not completely accustomed to this, but I have found that the crust is thin enough that I can eat most of it. If you order a pizza, keep this in mind!

These Boots Were Made for Walking

Or were they? If you’re not sure if you can walk in the shoes you bring, don’t bring them. The cobblestone and brick streets make twisting an ankle all too easy! Avoid falling by wearing proper footwear! I can promise your legs will thank you, because I have way too many green and yellow bruises on my knees.

Don’t (Not) Look UP

Be sure to look up, because quite often, ceilings are incredible. The number of times I have been somewhere and then suddenly realized that the ceiling was vaulted or covered in murals and nearly collided with a wall is embarrassingly high, but worth it. Be sure to look up so you don’t miss it!

No Purple!

Italian people have different superstitions about colors, so not only should you not wear red or white to weddings, you also shouldn’t wear purple. Purple is the color of Lent, during which time actors are out of work, as acting is not allowed during Lent. So, if you’re going to an event, don’t wear purple!

Slower Pace

Things in Italy move a little slower. People here would say “work to live,” whereas in the U.S. we “live to work,” and as a result, everything moves super-fast. Here, it is calmer; a greater emphasis is placed on family and social connection. Therefore, people enjoy a slower lifestyle, and that is reflected both in gatherings that can go on for hours and restaurant customs. Not only will it take a while to get a bill, but waiters will also assume you could be at a table for hours, particularly in southern Italy.

In Bologna, I asked if I could sit outside, and the waiter agreed, but warned me that the table was reserved for 2:30, so I could have it until then. It was a little before noon. The waiter legitimately thought I would be there for two and a half hours. I was gone within the hour, but it just goes to show you how they expect people to linger.

Overall, I hope you’ve learned some things about Italian culture, and maybe even gotten a chuckle or two out of my own experiences! For now, Ciao!

Gabriella Palmer is an English and Theater major with a minor in Philosophy and a Legal Studies Concentration at the University of Scranton. In her free time, you will likely find Gabriella discussing obscure history, mock trial, or the latest show opening on Broadway. She is an avid traveler, and her favorite activities include acting, singing, and of course, writing.