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Local Do's and Taboos
Customs of the Country
Social behavior in Tuscany and Umbria tends to be more conservative and formal than in other parts of Italy.
Upon meeting and leave-taking, both friends and strangers wish each other good day or good evening (buon giorno, buona sera); ciao isn't used between strangers. "Please" is per favore, "thank you" is grazie, and "you're welcome" is prego. When meeting, strangers will shake hands. Italians who are friends greet each other with a kiss, usually first on the left cheek, and then on the right.
Italy is full of churches, and many of them contain significant works of art. They are places of worship, so care should be taken to dress appropriately. Shorts, miniskirts, tank tops, spaghetti straps, and sleeveless garments are taboo in most churches; short shorts are inappropriate anywhere. When touring churches—especially in the summer when it's hot and no sleeves are desirable—carry a sweater, large scarf, or a light shawl to wrap around your shoulders before entering the church, and always remember to take off your hat. Do not enter a church with food, and don't drink from your water bottle while inside. If a service is in progress, don't go inside. And if you have a cell phone, turn it off before entering.
Out on the Town
Table manners are formal; rarely do Italians share food from their plates. Flowers, dessert (in the form of a cake or torte from a pasticceria), or a bottle of wine are appropriate hostess gifts when invited to dinner.
Wiping your bowl clean with a small piece of bread is considered a sign of appreciation, not bad manners. Spaghetti should be eaten with a fork only, although a little help from a spoon won't horrify locals the way cutting spaghetti into little pieces might. Order your espresso (Italians don't usually drink cappuccino after breakfast) after dessert, not with it. Don't ask for a doggy bag unless you really have a dog.
Showing up on time for business appointments is the norm and expected in Italy. There are more business lunches than business dinners, and even business lunches aren't common, as Italians view mealtimes as periods of pleasure and relaxation. Business cards are used throughout Italy, and business suits are the norm for both men and women.
One of the best ways to avoid being an Ugly American is to learn a little of the local language. You need not strive for fluency; even just mastering a few basic words and terms is bound to make chatting with the locals more rewarding.
In the main tourist cities, such as Florence, most hotels have English speakers at their reception desks, and you can always find someone who speaks at least a little English otherwise. Remember that the Italian language is pronounced exactly as it is written. You may run into a language barrier in the countryside, but a phrase book and the use of pantomime and expressive gestures will go a long way. Try to master a few phrases for daily use and familiarize yourself with the terms you'll need for deciphering signs, menus, and museum labels.
A phrase book and language-tape set can help get you started. Fodor's Italian for Travelers (available at bookstores everywhere) is excellent.
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