My problem living in Italy is I’ll never blend in. I have a face so American I look like an extra in a Chevrolet commercial. I couldn’t pass for Italian if I was fluent and a gondola pilot.
However, there are ways to look less like a tourist. Living in Rome where more than 10 million of them pound the cobblestones every year, I’ve observed their nasty habits, kind of like “Animal Planet” filmmakers watching migrating wildebeests. Many of them do everything in their power to stand out, as if they just stepped off an American Express bus. Yes, you can tour the Colosseum without wearing a neon sign reading “NAIVE TOURIST WITH WALLET IN BACK RIGHT POCKET” to resident pickpockets. Remember, Rome has the second most pickpockets in the world behind Barcelona.
As a public service to anyone planning a Rome vacation, I am providing a valuable guide to what not to do as a tourist here. Don’t feel bad if you’ve visited Rome and read yourself below. You have plenty of company. So clip it, save it, slip it in your money belt you must wear inside the waistline of your pants and I promise you’ll look less like a complete geek.
You can thank me later. So, for future reference, do not:
* WEAR A FEDORA. Do they hand these out at the airport? Seemingly half the tourists in Rome wear these white or straw-colored fedoras with little brims. The tourists in Piazza Venezia look like they all share the same closet. If you need to protect your face from the sun, wear a ball cap. Italians wear those, particularly Adidas or Nike. But in winter? You have no excuse.
* EAT IN A MAJOR PIAZZA. Think about it. The restaurants around Piazza Navona and the Pantheon and others cater to thousands of unsavvy tourists a day. They must mass produce their food. The emphasis is on quantity rather than quality. The pasta isn’t likely handmade and the ingredients aren’t nearly as fresh. The pizzas are often frozen. Go ahead and take a table and gaze at Bernini’s fountain or the Pantheon’s 2,000-year-old church. But just order a coffee. The sit-down fee will cost you about 5 euro but you can save your money for the fine, family cooked meal just around the corner down one of the adjacent alleys. One exception: I do recommend Obika’ in Campo de’Fiori. It’s an antipasti restaurant specializing in bufala mozzarella. It’s delivered fresh every day from the Campania region and is the best I’ve ever had. Try the smoked version.
* GO TO BOCCA DELLA VERITA’. This is the biggest tourist trap in Rome (see photo top). It’s as moronic as anything you can do in the world. It’s Rome’s equivalent of posing in a photo pretending to hold up the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Basically, the Bocca della Verita’ (Mouth of the Truth) is a big, round piece of marble shaped like a face, complete with openings for the eyes and mouth. It was once part of an ancient fountain — or maybe a manhole cover — and is in the 8th century Chiesa di Santa Maria in Cosmedin, just down the street from Piazza Venezia. According to legend, if you put your arm in the mouth and tell a lie, it’ll bite your arm off. People line up for a hundred yards waiting to pose with their arm in the mouth. Some husbands inevitably say something stupid to their cell-toting wife, like, “I won’t sleep with your hot sister.” Now they charge you 2 euros for one photo. It’s not worth it.
* COMPLAIN ABOUT SLOW WAIT SERVICE. It’s different here. Dining in Rome is an experience; it’s not a fuel stop. People linger over lunch, dinner, an aperitivo. Waiters leave you alone. They don’t intrude. They give you privacy. In America, you could be proposing to your girlfriend or discuss what position you’ll do that night and a waiter will come and refill your water glass. I’ve written that Rome has the best wait service in the world. But some Americans eat here thinking they’re in a short-order diner in Queens. They must wolf down that pizza before their Forum tour. Shut the hell up. If you want a waiter, raise your hand. They hover and will come when motioned. They just won’t come up after five minutes asking if your food is OK. You’re in Rome. Of course it’s OK.
* GET DRUNK. The biggest social faux pas you can commit in Rome is public drunkenness. Romans are the ultimate teetotalers. They’ve been drinking wine at the family table since they were 15. Getting hammered and throwing up in a Renaissance fountain is not a passage to manhood. I’ve lived here twice for nearly five years and I’ve seen one Italian get drunk. He was a student in a dive pizzeria. His embarrassed friends herded him out. Except for some discos for kids’, bars don’t have bouncers. I’ve cut my drinking here in half. This tip is mostly for college backpackers. An infamous bar in Campo de’Fiori is named The Drunken Ship. It’s 80 percent North American students and 20 percent Italian men waiting outside for the North American women inside to get too drunk to walk home. Then they come up and say in their practiced, syrupy Italian accent, “Oh, senora, let me help you.”
* WEAR COLLEGE T-SHIRTS. Italians don’t know Penn State from State Pen. Nor do they care. They think March Madness is a shoe sale. When I lived in Denver I had a college T-shirt collection that numbered more than 100. When I returned to Denver in October to clear out my Public Storage space, I painfully gave that collection to Goodwill. I knew I could never wear them in Rome. I have a fellow University of Oregon graduate whom I scolded for wearing an Oregon shirt in a photo from Salzburg. He said he gets many “GO DUCKS!” comments in cities and airports. No. Your aim is to leave an impression with the locals, not other tourists. I have one Oregon T-shirt, and I only wear it to water my plants. It never leaves my apartment. This is Rome. It’s not a frat party. If you want to fit in, buy a T-shirt of AS Roma, the local soccer team. Romans wear those. Just don’t buy one from Lazio. You won’t look like a tourist. You’ll look like a fascist. That’s worse.
*ORDER CAPPUCCINO AFTER NOON. Italy has a coffee culture. It doesn’t have as many coffee choices as Starbucks but the etiquette is longer. Cappuccino is for breakfast. Espresso or macchiato or schiumato is for lunch or afternoon or dinner. Most bars are used to these requests from tourists. They’ll serve you. But try it in a working-class bar off the beaten path and they’ll throw you out on your Yankees cap.
*STAND IN LINE FOR TICKETS AT MAJOR SITES: This is courtesy of Caron Guillo, an American friend who designs itineraries around Italy with her Caron Guillo Travel company (CaronGuilloTravel.com): “The idea of walking back in time 2,000 years to visit the Roman Colosseum should in no way be construed as a ticket purchase wait time. Unprepared tourists can wait for hours in line to reach the ticket windows of major sites like the Vatican or Colosseum. Instead, buy tickets online at the site’s official webpage, and for something like a 4-euro surcharge, you’ve got a reserved entry time or skip-the-line ticket. Don’t know how to find the official website of the site? Try Googling ‘Vatican official website.’ It’s not rocket science.”
* SAY “THANK YOU” INSTEAD OF “GRAZIE.” This is a personal pet peeve. The best way to respect a culture is through language. You’re in Italy. They speak Italian in Italy. Speak Italian, just a little bit, enough to know you’re trying and care. When in Rome just learn a few phrases like “Thank you,” “Where is …” “How much?” and “I want to father your child.” With those phrases, you can get through almost any situation. Seriously, saying “Grazie” instead of “Thank you” or “Grazie mille” (Thank you a thousand — instead of a million. The economy here is smaller.) goes a long way with locals. They won’t scold you for saying “Thank you.” This isn’t France. But they will appreciate you.
* ASK FOR BUTTER OR PARMESAN. Italian cooks take pride in perfectly seasoning their dishes. Asking for parmesan is like saying, “This has no flavor. I’m going to bury it in the one Italian condiment I know.” Don’t do it. And don’t even think about asking for butter with your bread basket. Italians don’t eat butter. They eat olive oil. Look around you. How many fat Italians do you see? Case closed.
* TRY PAYING WITH DOLLARS. This is also courtesy of Guillo. This one surprised me. I’ve never seen it. I couldn’t imagine it. It’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. But she says she sees it all the time. “My job is to lead travelers through Italy, and even though they’ve been told not to, they bring USD and expect to either exchange it easily (banks often won’t, by the way) or pay/tip with it. They ALWAYS think I’m wrong when I tell them that USD will not be accepted or well received. Italians do not want USD. Good grief.” Here’s another reason why not to bring dollars: Seen the dollar’s exchange rate with the euro lately?