Talk among people who love to travel often includes the sentiment that it is mind-broadening to see what life is like in other places. Often it is not the monuments that make travel stimulating, but the opportunities to reflect on mundane parts of life that are otherwise under our attentional radar . . .what is in the category of breakfast food? What’s a polite way to introduce yourself? How do you answer the phone?

Whenever I land in a new place, my first impulse is to make comparisons between life at home and elsewhere. And even a brief trip offers this possibility. But my opportunities to live in other countries for extended periods of time have afforded something very special. That is: having those salient differences begin to feel like a normal part of daily life. I recently became aware of ways in which that has happened to me this year.

I was waiting to pay at the grocery store, when the woman in front of me began to pay her €8,60 tab by taking out a €20 bill. The clerk at the cash register looked at her with unabashed distain and the people behind her waiting to check out—myself included—groaned. And I realized how acclimated I was becoming to life in Italy.

Here are some examples of ways that we’ve really started to “settle in” here. Let me explain the grocery store incident, and some other examples. . .

Paying with Exact Change

People in Rome pay cash for almost everything, and they pay in exact change. When we first arrived, I hardly recognized cash. Back home, I use my credit card for even the smallest purchases, even swiping my campus ID card for cups of coffee. When I do break bills, I dump the leftover change into a bowl on my dresser each night and cannot remember ever leaving my house in the morning carrying coins. (When we were packing for our move to Italy I was pleasantly surprised to find my bowl contained almost $500 in loose change).

But in Rome, I carry change in a small leather pouch, and my “change bowl” has only about .37 cents in it. If your purchases come to €8,60, shopkeepers here expect you to hand over €8,60—though it is perfectly acceptable to pay €10,60 and get a €2 coin in return, or €11,10 to get a .50 coin back. Early on, I was perplexed because with everyone else paying in exact change, it seemed easy for shopkeepers to make change. And I felt awkward when clerks gave me a dirty look for handing over a new bill from the ATM. Even when a meal is occasionally charged to a credit card here, the gratuity is left in cash. When we first arrived, I was so used to having only my credit cards that I ended up needing to return to restaurants later in the evening to tip the waiter. Now we automatically pay with exact change and game when we are making a purchase that would allow us to use larger bills to ensure that we have plenty of exact change on hand. (“This place is fancy,” Jenny will whisper as we approach a cashier, “break a 50”).

No Food On the Go

I can hardly remember a meeting, class, or kid soccer game back home when people have not arrived carrying water bottles or coffee cups. But I have not seen anyone walking or driving through the streets of Rome consuming beverages (only smoking). Students here do not show up for classes carrying beverages, either. (And a can of Diet Coke costs more than a carafe of house wine). It is very unusual to see Italians eating or drinking in contexts other than sitting down to a meal or at a bar, and doing so now feels weirdly inappropriate. I don’t think I have consumed anything (other than from a water fountain) outside of my home or a restaurant in months. Though I often stop for a drink, I no longer think of taking it with me.

Sparse Breakfasts and Leisurely Lunches

I had ingrained this idea that “breakfast is the most important meal of the day”. But the morning “meal” is an afterthought here. From what I can tell, most Italians have an espresso at home and then, en route to work or school, stop for another coffee and a small bit of really sweet pastry. That about covers the range of food options for breakfast, even on weekends. Interestingly, in Italian, meals are verbs, not nouns. So I would say to someone, “do you want to lunch” or “let’s lunch” rather than “do you want to have lunch.” But not so for breakfast, which seems too unimportant to verb. . . people don’t really consider their morning coffee and pastry a meal anyway; it lasts about 3 minutes.

Back home, I do not usually eat lunch.  Because my university colleagues all have different teaching schedules, lunch is viewed as a time when people will be available to meet or attend lectures (the dreaded “brown bag” seminar). But here, lunch is sacrosanct and runs from 1 or 2pm until 3 or 3:30pm. And businesses close at lunch time, you can’t run any errands or get anything else done. . . there is basically nothing to do other than go and enjoy lunch. At first I didn’t think I could take a big meal mid-day or spend that kind of time.

Now I’m all flipped around. My morning “meal” consists of a cappuccino, followed by a late morning espresso. Lunch, beginning just after 1pm, often includes a white table cloth, a crisp Italian white wine, pasta, and fish. If lunch is as late as 2 or 3, I’ll grab a quick triangular half sandwich filled with fresh vegetables with the crust cut off in a coffee bar, or a rectangle of pizza rosso (focaccia with red sauce, no cheese) cut to the size I’ve requested, in a crowded bakery.

The Formal You

Initially I worried a lot about forms of address in Italian. In English, we just say “you” as in “nice to meet you” or “do you have this in a larger size.” But in Italian, there are three ways to say “you” when addressing someone directly. People use the most formal form of address Lei (lay) with business people, officials, persons of higher occupational rank– and professors! To be polite to people you don’t know (unless they are children or it is a group of young people talking together), people use voi (voy). And when you get to know someone better and with members of your family, you use tu (too). This social hierarchy felt weird given how casual American culture is. I mean undergraduate students whom I have never met begin emails with “Hey Seth!” and waiters approach my table to tell me their first names and chat like we are all great friends. But now I find that having options for addressing others is a comfortable way to be polite. I can ask a stranger for directions or thank a shopkeeper with my verbs conveying a deferential courtesy. I expressed surprise when Eli told me that he uses the informal tu when addressing his teacher at school, but he dismissed me with a wave of his hand exclaiming, “voi is SO old-fashioned Dad.” Among many Romans it is (though they do use Lei), but down in Naples, voi usage is still taken seriously.

I still cannot quite get used to the Lei form, though, because you are referring to someone in the third person and it feels so stilted. I will be leaving a shop and will say goodbye and thank you to the salesperson, and that person will respond by saying to me, “Thanks to Him.” I collided with a waiter one night and said, “Excuse me, are you alright?” (using the formal voi) and he replied, “No, excuse me. Is He alright?” (Using Lei). When people find out that Jenny and I are professors, they address us in the third person—but we are expected to respond using a less formal form of address with them. Although it feels unfair to me, when foreigners try to level the social playing field, it just makes people uncomfortable because we are asking them to behave rudely. I went to meet some colleagues at the Italian Health Ministry and a very high-ranking physician (who had a picture on her desk of herself chatting with the Pope) kept using the Lei form with me (“Would He like some coffee?” “Is He enjoying Rome?”) until I finally had to say, “May we use tu?” That worked, but as the distinguished visitor, the ball was in my court to make that offer. My friend Jana, an American professor who works a lot with Italians, told me that if I tried that with students, they’d find it inappropriate and awkward. My students back in Madison may be amused to think that here, they’d knock on my office door and say “Is He free to meet? When does He think He will be able to give me comments back on my paper”. This is just something weaved into the social fabric, but it just isn’t my culture. When our lovely and socially skilled housekeeper asked us directly what form of address we wanted her to use, we said, “We’re Americans, please let’s just use tu!”

Ungarnished Plates

Soon after arriving here, we began our recognizance to ferret out the best places to eat. The best eateries here are small and so scoring a table—let alone finding these unmarked buildings in winding alleyways—was a real thrill. But it took us a while not to feel an initial let down when our food arrived at the table. It all looked so . . . .plain. Not a garnish to be found, no fancy plates, no vertical vegetables. Authentic restaurants here present food as if you are eating at someone’s house (not affluent suburbanites who watch the food network and streak balsamic vinegar reduction across the rim of the plate, but how regular families would eat together on a weeknight). Pasta usually arrives on a small white plate unadorned. And by white plate, I don’t mean a shimmering huge plate with sloping sides that makes a small mound of food in the center pop. I mean a small 8” plain restaurant supply dish. Grilled fish will have a wedge of lemon next to it, but there is nothing on the plate that is not meant to be eaten, nor are things added to provide a little color or condiment. Case in point: gnocchi is often served with butter or a goat cheese sauce–  white pasta with a white sauce on a white plate.

We would think: “Is this it? Is this really the restaurant that locals raved about?” Then we would start eating and realize that Italian cuisine is all about the quality of the ingredients. In fact, if you are being served anything that has been previously frozen, the restaurant has to indicate that on the menu. It’s not technique or novel ingredient combinations, just the taste of a key, fresh, unadulterated flavor. There really is nothing more comforting than biting into pasta where one high note of flavor just soars. Now we find ourselves exclaiming that the spinach is the best we’ve ever had, that the sea bass is amazing, that the gnocchi are like pillows, etc. Somewhere along the line, we’ve totally changed our expectations about how restaurant food should look when it arrives, and I bet it will be weird to return to a culture where presentation is half the fun.


I have never visited a place other than Italy where people do not use the same word for “hello” when they answer a phone, greet people, and open a door. But when they pick up a ringing telephone, Italians say pronto!, which means “ready!” Pronto is used as a greeting only when answering a phone; its not an adjective in this context and just means hello.

I found this so odd, and reasoned that if I answered my cell phone saying “ready” then I really should be. . .and I wasn’t prepared to have someone launch into rapid fire Italian. So I stuck with my trusted “hello” to signal to callers that I’m an Anglophone.

But Romans are fanatical about their cell phones and all day long in bars, along the street, on the metro, I hear choruses of pronti.  One day it just happened. . .I wasn’t even thinking about it. My phone rang and I distractedly brought it to my ear uttering an automatic pronto. Jenny shot me a bemused “you can’t be serious” glance. Truth be told, I’m still not ready, but the greeting feels instinctive and hello just doesn’t seem right for the telephone.

— Seth