Whilst reading an online article about cultural pitfalls to avoid when visiting Paris, I couldn’t help but sniff in amusement at its tales of cultural blunders and faux pas. The gaffes, which extended across various areas such as transport, eating, and shopping to name a few, were all reminiscent of those I’ve come across in Italy – my knowledge of which has been garnered purely after having made many of them myself.
Italy has many well-established habits and traditions, from the Italian people’s love of food to their air-kissing greeting call, to their pride of family and, of course, their outrageous flirting and Latin loving (the latter cultural element I’m more than happy to adopt).
And then there are the day-to-day Italian behaviours and routines, which, if you’re not privy to may land you in hot cultural waters. For example, visitors should always cover their shoulders when entering a holy space, and they should never dip their toes in a fountain in the middle of a piazza, no matter how hot or tempting it may be.
Being part of the same nation, Venice of course shares in the many Italian traditions (though there are generally no fountains in La Serenissima, so you don’t have to worry about that one). Venice, however, always likes to put its own spin on things and has served up its own dollop of cultural idiosyncrasies specific only to the Venetians…
Like its terra-firma Italian counterpart, it’s not considered polite to speak loudly on the metro. In the Venetian version of the metro – the vaporetto – any conversation not delivered in hushed tones is likely to be coming from a tourist. Likewise, nothing screams out ‘NON- VENETIAN’ more so than hanging excitedly out the window, gawking at the wonders of Venice and snapping on your camera. The best piece of advice I ever received on how to ingratiate myself into Venetian culture was this: when riding the vaporetto, try and look as disinterested as humanly possible; sniff impassively at your newspaper and never – ever – look out the window unless you’re about to get off. If you give even a whiff of interest in the outside world, you’ve given the tourist game away.
A common transport pitfall that many a Venice visitor falls foul of is paying for and using the vaporetto system. It is (usually) quite apparent to the newbie visitor that tickets for a vaporetto must be purchased before you get on. However, unlike the rest of Italy where the practice of validating one’s bus ticket is done via a ticket machine located on the bus, the Venetian vaporetto ticket must be validated before you get on. The little electronic boxes that validate tickets are situated at every water-bus stop, and yet often go unnoticed by the newbie traveller. Lord have mercy on your wallet if you get on without having validated your ticket first – if you’re caught by an official whilst on board, you’ll be fined a hefty 60 euros.
The etiquette of transport in La Serenissima extends out on to Venice’s dry land, with it being customary to walk on the right side of the pavement. As walking is the principal mode of transport in the city, it’s an institution I’ve learned is taken very seriously after being shouted at by a local when wandering aimlessly on the left hand side of the street: ‘A destra, a destra!!’ They shouted at me abruptly. ‘To the right, to the right!!’
And on that matter, if you need a place to soothe your weary feet after a day of hopping from left to right, you’ll be loathe to find one in a pretty spot. It’s a little known fact that the simple act of sitting down in St. Mark’s Square is forbidden. I like to think that this is the local commune’s way of trying to preserve the honour of its grand drawing room, but I do harbour some suspicion that perhaps the Florian Cafe has slipped the local council leaders a few euros to keep free-loading butts out of the Square and away from their cheerful restaurant orchestra.
The Art of Eating & Drinking
When it comes to matters of the stomach, the Italians have their own set of rules and etiquette. Like their Paris counterpart, the majority of Italians don’t tend to eat ‘on the go’. Sure, there are fast food restaurants and your usual kebab take-away shops, but they’re nowhere near as prevalent as in the likes of the UK. As everyone knows, the Italians love to savour their food. Eating is not something to be done simply to refuel. Venice is generally no different. That being said, they do have their own version of a quick bite in the form of cicchetti, the Venetian snack, but even that is enjoyed at the bar or counter of a cafe. You’d never see a Venetian walking along the canal side chomping into a tramezzino.
The quenching of one’s palette is also very much a Venetian cultural art form, with the partaking of the spritz shrouded in drinking etiquette. It’s a popular evening drink, but the timing of it is crucial. I’ve had a great range of eyebrows raised my way for participating in the aperitif during my meal. ‘The lady would like water, too?’ Waiters would practically insist until it finally dawned on me that water was the drink of choice during a meal, not a spritz. A spritz should live around five/six in the late afternoon as a means to stave off a meal rather than accompany it.
If anything, the Venetians like to keep their drinking strictly to the daytime. Where the Venetian persuasion to down an ombra (a small glass of wine) at 11 in the morning during a work break would cause a few pursed lips and hushed concerns of alcoholism amongst the British contingent, it is quite the norm in Venice (and no, the irony that Brits are stereotypically drunken lager louts is not lost on me). Whilst we deem it unacceptable to drink before midday, we don’t think anything of having four or five (or six??) glasses of wine or beer on any given night. Whilst the youth of Italy may be catching up with us on this cultural element, such behaviour in a small town like Venice is looked upon with much distaste. If you see anyone drunk, they’ll unlikely be Italian. To be fair, it might be me, as I am after all keen to do my bit for Venetian society and join the locals for a mid-morning aperitif. Hey, when in Rome…
Shopping till you Drop
The art of spending your cold hard cash is another area fraught with cultural pitfalls. From buying clothes to purchasing a bunch of bananas, it’s very easy to irk an Italian with your errant foreign ways. Where us Brits are fairly independent shoppers, quite content to go into a shop, pick things up, look at them, and try things on, the practice of pawing at un-purchased items and helping ourselves is something an Italian shop assistant will find hard to take.
In Venice, the act of no touching is taken to a new level. Signs dictating ‘non toccare’ – don’t touch – are situated across the city and are often accompanied by signs that dictate ‘No foto’. However the signs aren’t in the windows of clothes stores, they’re in the windows of mask shops, selling all manner of Carnevale paraphernalia and showcasing fully dressed mannequins kitted out in expensive carnival costumes. Touch or take photos in or out of any of these shops and you’ll incur the wrath of the shop owner.
Assuming you’ve decided you can’t bear not to touch and have parted ways with your money to own your very own piece of carnival history, just remember to get – and keep – your receipt. The police often do spot checks on premises to make sure they are putting purchases through their books correctly. They hide just metres from the front of shop doors, pouncing on unsuspecting consumers and demanding to see their receipt. Whilst this practice has been washed out in other areas of Italy, it is still alive and well in Venice, as Barry Frangipane will tell you after falling victim to an unsuspecting receipt bust during his own time in Venice (click here for more of his Venetian tales). The moral of the story is to always keep your receipt, even if you’re just buying a gelato.
Of course, don’t be put off by any of my cautionary tales. Venice, like anywhere else in the world, has its own way of doing things, and likewise a trip to Britain for an Italian can be equally confusing (‘what do you mean you have your dinner at 6pm??’ or ‘you mean I actually have to stand in this queue??’).
All in all, if you do fall foul of any of Venice’s cultural ways, the best you’ll endure is a bemused stare or two, and at worst, a lighter wallet.