Survive Culture Shock
A guide to Italy’s surprises, contrasts and chaos
“Italia! Oh Italia! Thou who hast the fatal gift of Beauty”: Byron’s tribute to il bel paese still rings true
today. Italy’s magnetic charm has been attracting visitors for centuries and it is easy to see why. It is
almost impossible not to fall in love with this uniquely seductive country, justifiably wellknown for its
scenic beauty, artistic treasures, incredible food and wine, and iconic historical and cultural heritage.
Italy is full of surprises, contrasts and chaos; not least for those who are visiting for the first time.
Many aspects of Italian life – ranging from eating times, ‘rules’ about drinking coffee, trying to cross
the road, and dealing with unwanted attention – can be a real culture shock.
Culture shock can be defined as ‘emotional disorientation caused by continuously unexpected
reactions to the new culture.’ Culture shock can manifest itself in various ways, including anxiety,
depression, loneliness, migraines and lack of energy. It is described as having four stages: the
Honeymoon Period, Crisis Period, Adaption Period and Stabilization Period. Psychologists say that
all fours stages must be lived through to achieve intercultural competence.
Apart from being overwhelmed by the exquisite food and wine, musical language, natural beauty and
(mostly) lovely weather, the newcomer to Florence also risks being infected by ‘Stendhal Syndrome’,
socalled after the 19thcentury writer: a psychosomatic condition that causes rapid heartbeat,
dizziness and even hallucinations after an individual has been exposed to an ‘overdose’ of beautiful
art. Doctors at Santa Maria Nuova regularly admit tourists suffering from ‘mental imbalances’, often
after visiting the Uffizi, which is considered a particularly ‘dangerous’ spot. One theory is that viewing
so much culture can bring on feelings of anguish and insecurity.
On recovering from an overdose of art, beauty, ice cream and fine Chianti, reality starts to kick in. As
the ‘romantic’ Honeymoon period comes to an end, less positive aspects of Italian life will start to
become more obvious. Feelings of anger and frustration are quite normal at this point. Nowhere is
this more obvious than dealing with anything connected to any kind of documenti, work permits,
banking or transactions at the post office. You will just have to get used to standing in queues for
hours (make sure you check that you’re in the right one) before being practically ignored by a bored,
powercrazed official with no concept of service. Bureaucracy is quite simply a nightmare. You need
an enormous amount of patience to deal with these situations, no matter how long you stay in Italy.
Once you begin to get used to rude shop assistants, insane driving, triple parking, not drinking
cappuccinos after dinner and shops closing over lunchtime, the Adaption period begins and Italian
life will begin to seem normal. After adjusting and adapting, it is usual to begin to feel at home.
Learning Italian is a crucial step in fitting in and understanding the culture.
After going through culture shock, psychologists say that you develop greater empathy for your
surroundings, are able to think in a new cultural frame, have greater cultural patience and develop a
more critical mind to see through myths and prejudices.
As a foreigner living in Italy, you are allowed, or even expected to be different and even a little
eccentric. In the words of American writer Erica Jong, “What is the fatal charm of Italy? What do we
find here that can be found nowhere else? I believe it is a certain permission to be human, which
other places, other countries, lost long ago.”
Italics: (Source: focus.it)
Bold: what is bold…
Ten Things Illegal in Italy but Not in the US
1. Artificially colored sodas: These are very common in America, but are forbidden in Europe and Japan because
they can cause thyroid problems and have neurological effects.
2. Buying steroids: In Italy the sale of steroids is forbidden, even in pharmacies, while in the US it’s even possible to
find them at the supermarket.
3. Incandescent lamps: Invented by Thomas Edison, these light bulbs have been banned in the EU since
September 2012 because they are expensive and dangerous for the environment. In California, for instance, they will
banned in 2018.
4. Plastic bags: These kinds of bags were banned in most European countries in September 2012 to be replaced by
biodegradable ones. In the US, many states continue to use them.
5. Topless tanning in parks: Allowed in those of New York, topless tanning is forbidden in Italian parks.
6. Build up your own weapon: Homemade weapons are common in the US.
7. Spanking students: Corporal punishment for students is banned throughout Europe and in most US states, but
still permitted in some American state such as Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma,
Tennessee and Texas.
8. Name kids bizarrely: Italian law forbids names that are “ridiculous and shameful” for children. The government
may reject an application to name a child “Google” if it is considered breaking the law. In the US, there is complete
freedom of names for children.
9. Possessing a flamethrower, laser gun or a swordumbrella: No federal law forbids possessing one of these
weapons. Some US states have no restrictions about this, while others regulate the amount of flammable liquid for
10. Keep a tiger, a lion or an alligator as a pet: Exotic pets are forbidden in Italy, while in the US each state has its
own regulations. Some states forbid them completely; others require a license, while some – such as Idaho,
Michigan, Montana, Nevada, North and South Carolina – allow anyone to have a personal zoo at home.