Having completed two semesters of Italian before coming to Rome, I was looking forward to practicing my new language skills with native speakers. I found, however, that the Italians are even more eager to practice their English. I repeatedly walked into gelato shops preparing my Italian request in the back of my mind (always hazelnut) only to be met with a confident “what do you want??” from the young woman behind the counter.
Disappointed, I began to wonder how everyone seemed to know that I was an American before I even opened my mouth. For the next few days I spent time in Roman parks, museums, and restaurants (and shops, of course) trying to figure what set me apart from native Romans. What resulted was the following list of traits that had me blending in, in no time.
Wear your coat. Romans will wear heavy down coats and furs even when the thermometer reaches into the balmy 60s. For those of us from Ithaca, this was particularly difficult, as we have been conditioned to break a sweat anytime it’s warm enough to melt snow.
Look people in the eyes. At first, I interpreted this Roman quality as hostility. I quickly learned that making direct eye contact with total strangers on the street is actually polite. I myself am more familiar with the sunglasses-on, ipod-in, eyes-on-the-floor mentality of the NYC subway, so I found this extended eye contact extremely uncomfortable. But with a little practice, I am now able to stare down the best of them.
Shhhh! Italians are much, much quieter in restaurants than Americans are. I also have yet to hear any Italians burst out laughing. So that’s how they know I’m American…
Never mix your fruits with creams. An ancient cashier at my favorite gelato shop gave this helpful hint to me. In world of gelato, Italians NEVER mix fruit flavors with the creamy flavors. Dead giveaway.
These tactics, in addition to my nondescript black wardrobe and large sunglasses, have helped me blend into the Roman ways of life. While these are largely generalizations and not absolute truths by any means, I have enjoyed taking a moment every now and then to observe a culture totally different than my own and give a new experience a try. Today a young Italian woman asked me for directions- in Italian! It looks like my hard work has been paying off.