51 Things I Learned in Italy

8 Mar

I’ve been jotting these off on Twitter lately, and thought I’d collect them all together just for fun. A bit of my hard-earned Italian and Roman wisdom on display for you. If you have things you’ve learned in Italy too, add to the list in the comments section! (Numbered for legibility, but in no particular order of importance. All Italian lessons are worthwhile.)

  1. Your wallet is always filled with useless receipts.
  2. You can drink alcoholic beverages at a work lunch. Score!
  3. You can eat potato chips with a glass of white wine. Not considered white trash, considered cheap aperitivo.
  4. Showing boobies in a commercial for bath foam is totally legit in prime time.
  5. Cars officially have the right of way over pedestrians. 
  6. Crossing the street feels like that old video game Frogger.
  7. Milk goes bad after like 3 days.
  8. Run the washing machine and the hairdryer and the dishwasher all at once and you get an instant blackout.
  9. Real people actually drive the old Fiat 500, it’s not just for clowns in a circus.
  10. My landlord thinks it’s ok that the Zoppas oven in my apartment is from 1974. (It still works).
  11. Men drive around in cars with a loudspeaker to sharpen your knives. Or on bikes, just yelling.
  12. Pizza can be served with hot dogs and french fries on top.
  13. Teeny tiny electric cars exist and are basically for rich teenagers.
  14. Sunbathing is good for you, makes you look healthy.
  15. God forbid you sweat and then sit in front of a fan to cool off. (But if your children sweat, there are drying units available for them).
  16. Hell no, don’t throw spaghetti on the wall to see if it’s done! Who does that?
  17. Add salt to the water only AFTER it boils. (Adding it prior just raises the boiling temp).
  18. When getting over the stomach flu, eat white rice with parmesan and olive oil.
  19. Roman taxi drivers have the best stories.
  20. Copying on tests is an acceptable art form.
  21. Cesso means “shitter,” not simply ‘bathroom’. Tried that one out on the MIL when I met her for the first time. Oops.
  22. “Preservatives” (as in for food) does NOT translate to “preservativi.” Use “conservanti” instead.
  23. Smoking two cigarettes a day doesn’t even qualify you as a smoker.
  24. The song “It’s Raining Men” has a strange perennial success. Seriously. It just keeps popping up on TV and the radio for no apparent reason.
  25. Wearing a t-shirt in February in Rome is considered half-naked.
  26. Cookies are breakfast food.
  27. Lane lines are simply road decorations.
  28. Eating horse meat is acceptable. Even in baby food. 
  29. In Rome “what ass!” actually means “what luck!” (che culo!)
  30. There are specific pasta shapes that go with specific sauces.
  31. Kids talk with pacifiers in their mouths at 3 years old.
  32. Men wear red pants.
  33. Getting in line is a concept, not a practice.
  34. If you “break my boxes” it means you’re getting on my nerves.
  35. 17 is bad luck and 13 is good luck.
  36. Don’t ever cross over arms with people when you’re toasting or shaking hands.
  37. American pasta is overcooked.
  38. Pizza comes with toppings pre-arranged, you don’t choose them individually.
  39. Never put parmesan cheese on penne all’arrabbiata.
  40. 99 degrees is considered a fever for which you should stay home from work.
  41. There’s some kind of pain or illness called “cervicale.”
  42. The liver is where all your anger is stored and it’ll hurt if you’re angry.
  43. All American kids carry guns to school.
  44. Don’t ever go out with wet hair.
  45. Butter is the “killer of the kitchen.”
  46. Salad comes at the end of the meal because it “helps you digest.”
  47. Never drink a cappuccino after a meal.
  48. Your earache was caused by a “wind gust.”
  49. Wait, no. Your earache was caused by a spiffero, like a mysterious drafty window somewhere.
  50. Air conditioning is “bad for you.”
  51. Bell peppers are “hard to digest.”


 Shelley Ruelle is a freelance writer, translator, former study abroad professional, and language teacher from Seattle, WA, and has lived in Rome since 2001. She writes about life in Rome at her blog Un’Americana a Roma (An American Girl in Rome). Follow Shelley on Twitter at @shelleyinrome.


40 Responses to “51 Things I Learned in Italy”

  1. Lara March 8, 2012 at 3:07 pm #

    Funny! But #51 is correct: green bell peppers ARE hard to digest because they aren’t ripe yet.

  2. Francesca Maggi March 8, 2012 at 3:09 pm #

    Great list!

    Parmigiano (basically, a cube of fat) also “helps you digest” at the end of a meal

    And, you can qualify the Men in Red Pants as … Even straight men where them! 😉

    F Maggi, Burnt by the Tuscan Sun

  3. Un'americana a Roma March 8, 2012 at 3:09 pm #

    In fact, these are simply things I learned living here, from Italians. Not saying any of them are true or not, most of them I never really looked into, I just love the Italian culture and learning about the cultural norms and beliefs. A lot of them I had never heard of. ITALIANS ARE OBSESSED WITH DIGESTION!!!!

  4. Un'americana a Roma March 8, 2012 at 3:10 pm #

    I had no idea that parm was supposed to aid in digestion. Just more proof that once again ITALIANS ARE OBSESSED WITH DIGESTION!

  5. Un'americana a Roma March 8, 2012 at 3:10 pm #

    PS Salad is also supposed to help you digest at the end of a meal, as are all forms of liquori, hence their name as a group: digestivi.

  6. rosann March 8, 2012 at 3:23 pm #

    I LOVED these. They are all true. I especially relate to #27. The first time I ever drove in Rome I was freaking out that I wasn’t safe in my own little lane! Now I love the way driving is a freeform art. Too funny.

  7. Un'americana a Roma March 8, 2012 at 3:28 pm #

    When my ex-husband was teaching me to drive in Rome, I asked him one question: 1) If no one follows lane lines, how do you know where to go. His response? “Shelley, do you see that space over there?” Me: “Yeah?” Him: “Go there.” Me: “Whaaa?” Him: “That’s the rule. If you see a space, go there.”
    Let me tell you, years later, still works like a charm! 😉

  8. amyadamo March 8, 2012 at 4:35 pm #

    I was instructed by a Roman friend in my passenger seat to “vai come l’acqua”.

  9. Nerys March 8, 2012 at 4:47 pm #

    I’ve been sitting here laughing as I’ve been reading that list, they’re all true!!

  10. Un'americana a Roma March 8, 2012 at 8:29 pm #

    Ah yes, that is so Zen, I love it. “Be like the stone in the stream.” When in Rome, just let your car flow into the traffic.

  11. Un'americana a Roma March 8, 2012 at 8:29 pm #

    I know aren’t they though? Years of hard work acquiring these maxims.

  12. Audrey in Milan March 8, 2012 at 11:00 pm #

    Wonderful! The wind/sweat or wet hair thing is so true.

    Can I add:
    -You must touch your balls when you see a nun because they’re bad luck. Touch balls anytime to avoid bad luck.

    – Foreigners eat ketchup with pasta.

    – Don’t park with your hand brake on so people can move your car if you’re double parked.

  13. Un'americana a Roma March 9, 2012 at 10:39 am #

    Ahahahahaha! Totally forgot the balls thing. So true. Or…”let me scratch” meaning “I need to scratch my balls to ward off the bad luck of that thing you just said.” Example conversation:

    Shelley: “Say for example one day one of us were to get cancer…”
    Italian male: “Oh whoa, wait, wait, let me scratch”

    Will then discreetly scratch or touch balls. Seriously. Might even make devil’s horns with hand. Then all is well. Apparently the ball scratching ensures that cancer will never befall either of us. Thank God the Italians have it all figured out! But what can we poor women do? Leave that one alone.

  14. Sarah Wallace March 9, 2012 at 11:06 am #

    What about breast feeding? Every female species has breast milk for their babies, but Italian mothers are considered lucky if they have it!

  15. Un'americana a Roma March 9, 2012 at 11:16 am #

    That’s a whole ‘nother blog post, isn’t it? So weird how Italian moms are always saying “I didn’t have enough milk” and Italian grandmothers ask “Did you have enough milk?” etc. etc. etc. so weird. There is so much culture and strange differences that surround the breastfeeding topic here in Italy! Plus the way they discourage “latte artificiale” you’d think it would deform your baby for life. Big eye roll. Note to self: must write at least one American-in-Italy mommy post, especially now that I have three little kids.

    Phrase Shelley hears most often when walking around with twin 2 year olds in stroller and son 4 years old: “Are all those YOURS?”

    Like, whose would they be otherwise? Am I like a “kid walker” instead of a dog walker? WTF?!

  16. Tina March 9, 2012 at 3:01 pm #

    Oh, I have one!
    Never go outside in the cold after having eaten a meal, or you’ll get la congestione!!

    Loved this list, especially the useless receipts. 🙂

  17. Eleonora March 9, 2012 at 3:31 pm #

    As italian – by birth, not by heart… – I have to admit that everything Shelley’s said here is true. Shame on us!
    But I’m learning this is true in every country: we all have our special oddities!
    I’m now reading a blog about dutch oddities 😉

  18. Beth Sanders March 10, 2012 at 7:44 pm #

    #39 I did not know about penne arrabbiata and parmesan but seafood and parmesan is a real mistake many Americans make.
    #11 In my village, fruit and vegetables are sold from a truck with a loud speaker.

  19. Tea&Biscotti March 10, 2012 at 10:54 pm #

    I have not stopped laughing at this for the last hour!! hahahaha I’ve just read every single one out to my husband who is now creased up with laughter – he’s Italian! Good work… keep it coming! 🙂

  20. moscerina March 13, 2012 at 3:27 pm #

    Brava! I can’t wait to hear what else you learn!

  21. followmethereandbackagain March 13, 2012 at 6:17 pm #

    It’s another world 🙂

  22. Abhishek March 13, 2012 at 7:06 pm #

    Really great list………strange but funny things to know about Italians and Italy.. Hope some day i will experience all this……….

  23. Catherine March 14, 2012 at 11:40 am #

    Fantastic. Awfully true. I’d like to add that men wear white jeans too. Straight men. And that men of 40+ can refer to each other as ‘ragazzi’.

    And pity the child who runs around barefoot in summer. Her feet will be deformed!

  24. Un'americana a Roma March 14, 2012 at 11:49 am #

    Wow, Catherine, yes, the whole pants debate is fascinating. I’m assuming you participate in Moscerina’s Red Pants Club? Well it’s not officially a club, per se, but you should start taking stealth photos of all these weird pants in all colors of the rainbow, because it’s fun.

  25. type1traveler April 21, 2013 at 9:05 pm #

    Cool post!!
    #20 Copying on tests is an art form
    As a high school English teacher in Bergamo. I just laugh at the lengths my students go to cheat in class. cell phones between their legs…
    I would also say:
    Drinking 4 espressos in a day is normal, and it’s rude to refuse when someone offers
    If you’re late blame it on the bus, but you’re never too late anyways
    Pasta makes you skinny
    Peanut Butter is the reason Americans are fat
    there’s always time for a cigarette

  26. Un'americana a Roma April 24, 2013 at 2:58 pm #

    PEANUT BUTTER! The magic words!

  27. Licia September 3, 2013 at 10:34 am #

    I am not Italian but work in Italy since 1998 in a big hotel in Florence. 90% of our guests are Americans and, yes, I believe that, at this point, my experience about American behaviours is quite big. Beside many points already considered in the comments above, I\’d like to point on a basic aspect that many American tourists have in common: they like to point on situations they dislike about other countries (in this case Italy) and keep forgetting the real situation of the country they are coming from. The first example coming to my mind is when a lady from Texas complained with my director that in the country she was coming from you don\’t have to pay for water at a restaurant, ever! She totally forgot, however (but not so my director), that her sweet husband had to go the the hospital in Florence after a bad fall he had walking downtown. His wrist had to be put in a plaster cast and, believe it or not, at a cost of 7 euros (ER fees) all included. Try to do the same in the US… The father of a good friend of mine (American from upstate New York, Buffalo), had to sell his house to pay for part of the hospital expenses after he was diagnosed with brain cancer (insurance, apparently, did not cover that disease!?). He died in 2009… He had to go to live with his son in the last period of his unlucky life, but, my friends, at the restaurant the water, from the faucet of course, was FREE!!!! Another thing, and this happened to me during my last trip to the US, which is apparently common among Americans flying abroad, is the sense of safety they feel just in their homeland. The thing could be considered quite normal, I know, since it is obvious to have more confidence in areas and situations we know perfectly and we are at ease with. But to get to the point, and this is what I have seen with my eyes, to kiss the tar of the airport\’s runway (we were just landed in Boston) to show the happiness of being back to \”supersafe\” USA from an American couple (quite funny, btw, since they were pretty huge people indeed and had a few problems to kneel), it makes me think that, maybe, many Americans (I am saying many because i heard the conversations of many other Americans tourists talking about this particular subject) are partially unaware of the country they are living in. Maybe, just to refresh their mind, they should go here sometimes: I\’ve never, never, never seen such a warzone neither in Italy, nor in Greece, where I am from. Maybe, if they considered more also the negative aspects of the country they come from, and not just the positive ones (like the free water at the restaurants), the Americans would get along much better with the rest of the world. No offense people. Be positive! Licia

  28. Shelley Ruelle September 3, 2013 at 10:43 am #

    Thanks Licia! No offense taken! Your comments are very apt. I’ve worked with Americans abroad here in Rome for the past 10 years or so, and so I’m well aware of a lot of the stereotypes that abound. I don’t think that the complaining is so much directed at Italy being inferior, as it is just a part of the natural comparisons that come up as part of discovering a new country and new places. Although some people are so xenophobic that they would probably do well to just stay in their own countries, I have to say that despite the complaining I do commend Americans who travel abroad. Not many people know that the percentage of Americans with passports is less than 50% (but not as low as often quoted at 10% or less).
    At least exposing themselves to a foreign culture is better than staying home and not ever seeing other cultures personally. I realize too that not everyone is fortunate to be able to afford travel abroad, so that is obviously a factor as well.
    My advice is always “be an observer, not a judge.” And readers of my site know that this is the philosophy I try to live by as well. With a sarcastic and humorous twist.

  29. caruso January 24, 2014 at 5:07 pm #

    13 is a very bad and unlucky number too. The same for Tuesday and Friday 17th is the worst.

  30. John DeVincentis February 6, 2014 at 4:59 pm #

    13 is only unlucky when it comes to number of people at the dinner table (think of the Last Supper) – otherwise, it is a very lucky number – Picking all 13 outcomes in toto-calcio (fare i tredici) is the luckiest thing anyone can do/

  31. February 11, 2015 at 7:18 pm #

    nice blog.
    I’m italian and I found us in this “article”

  32. Maddie March 10, 2015 at 12:27 am #

    On #17, adding rice to water for cooking pasta does raise the boiling point by a few degrees, but its purpose is to make the pasta cook more quickly (as well as keep it from sticking).

  33. Patrizia June 3, 2015 at 12:22 am #

    Just curious why americans live here in Italy if they have so many things to complain about? And to even discuss it, shows how Americans think their way us the only way!

  34. Bob West February 19, 2016 at 8:41 pm #

    I really liked your list. We were in Ciampino with NATO from ’76 to ’79 and experienced almost every item you listed. We had such a great experience and would like to return but my wife is wheelchair bound and we think there would be too many problems traveling.. I look forward to more of your observations…


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