How not to fulfill everyone’s tourist stereotypes.
NOT BEING A JERK IN ITALY:
Bingo was his name-o.
If you don’t speak Italian, don’t just add an ‘o’ to every English word and think that will make sense. We can’t tell you how many times we’ve seen this happen (e.g. “Can I have some dessert-o?” Seriously.) Take 30 minutes on the flight over to learn a few basic phrases. This small effort will change the way you are perceived and will definitely make for a nicer trip. Also, if you don’t speak Italian, speaking very loudly and slowly in exaggerated English will only indicate that you need medication. Simple things like not using contractions, using small words and smaller sentences, gesturing or pantomiming, and in general being polite and grateful for help, will serve you well.
Don’t expect McFood.
Italians care deeply about their food, and food is a major part of the culture here–after all, the Slow Food movement had its start in Italy. You didn’t spend thousands of dollars and dozens of hours on planes to go there and find burgers and fries. Take a moment to learn how a meal is structured there, which will help you make better food choices for yourself, and also avoid embarrassment and awkwardness in a restaurant. Take a break from Diet Coke (which is poison anyway) and enjoy the local wine, or if you prefer not to drink alcohol, drink water. Flavors like those found in sodas will not pair well with the food here–you’ll miss out on a lot of the flavor experiences if you drown your taste buds in Dr Pepper. If you show respect and admiration for the food and the culture, the people who love it too will guide you to the best items, the most unusual or prized things, and give you memories that will last a lifetime.
It’s the Euro, stupid.
You cannot pay for items in Italy with American dollars. Don’t ask. End of discussion.
When in Rome...
Americans are used to going to restaurants and asking for all kinds of food substitutions when ordering a dish. Not so in Italy. At restaurants offering ‘cucina tipica’ (traditional local cuisine), they have prepared the dish the way it is meant to be eaten in their area, according to their local traditions. Americans have their traditions too–remember when John Kerry got eviscerated for ordering a Philly cheesesteak with swiss cheese, or Mitt Romney (also in Philly) asked for a ‘sub’ rather than a ‘hoagie’? The point being, just get the item the way they intended it in that area.
Upscale restaurants creating dishes that are a modern twist on traditional dishes are similar to upscale American restaurants that do the same. Either way, it is not standard practice to have diners request lots of substitutions. Notable exceptions to this are allergies (there are a lot of gluten free items – “senza glutine” – on offer now); and children. Restaurants generally don’t have kids’ menus, but if you ask them to make a dish for little ones they will happily oblige, as Italians are very fond of small children in general. Even upscale restaurants like Locanda Pietracupa will make a special dish of pasta with cheese sauce for little ones, as they did for some friends of ours who enjoyed lunch there with their children.
If you don’t like an item on the menu (e.g. truffles, liver, eggplant), best not to order it. Immersing yourself in a place means experiencing it the way it actually is. When you get home you can adjust the dishes to your liking as you recreate them.
Use your inside voice.
If we can hear you from 5 tables away, you’re overdoing it. This especially applies to complaining about the food/culture/people of the country you are in. Sometimes we’ve seen Americans in a restaurant realize that the next table over also has Americans, and it turns into an embarrassing bitch-fest that the entire restaurant is privy to. Not everyone may speak English, but they will understand you!
NOT BEING A JERK IN IRELAND
and THE U.K.:
We put Ireland and the U.K. together in this section since, from a US perspective, they have so much in common, including a (more or less) common language and the same driving patterns. However, don't make the mistake that they're interchangeable. Irish are not Brits; people in Northern Ireland are citizens of the U.K. (but also not Brits); England is not the whole island but only one country within the U.K., along with Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. You wouldn't refer to someone in the U.S. as a Southerner if they were from, say, Ohio; so don't call a Scotsman English. Make sure you know the geography a bit.
Here are a few other things to keep in mind when traveling in the U.K. and Ireland.
There’s English and there’s English
When you hear the locals speak, keep in mind that they were speaking English long before the U.S. even existed. It’s we as Americans that speak with an accent, not they. If you have difficulty understanding people in some regions (and you will, occasionally), you have two choices: Ask them to say it again, or just nod knowingly and hope you haven’t just agreed to buy their lorry or babysit their kid. Not an option: Telling them that you can’t get what they’re saying because their accent is too strong or too funny.
Remember, too, that in many places (Cornwall, Ireland, Wales), they speak their own language altogether, as well as English – it’s fun to read the signs in Wales, for instance, which are posted in both English and Welsh.
Gestures Mean Things
One particular gesture to know about: Winston Churchill’s famous “V for Victory” sign was an uplifting wartime gesture, and it was adopted later as the hippie peace sign in 1960s America. But if you give this gesture with the palm faced inwards rather than out (as is done in the typical “peace out” gesture), this is an ancient equivalent of our modern-day middle finger, a.k.a. “the bird”. Don’t do it unless you mean it.
You Don’t Drive Right
Speaking of gestures: If you find that you’re the recipient of any unpleasant gestures and/or verbiage from other drivers while you’re driving, know that it may well have been your fault. We’ve always found that, upon being chastised for some accidental driving discourtesy, an apologetic nod and a wave soothes even the most vociferous critic. Their attitude will change from “Bloody Yank tourist!” to “Oh, he’s sorry – well, that’s all right then…” (See our page on Driving in the U.K. for a few basics of driving on the left side of the road.)
Eating and Drinking
As with traveling anywhere, focus on experiencing what’s local, and what’s locally done. Drink the local ale or cider, not Coke; eat the local food, and don’t go looking for a Big Mac and a shake. Less adventurous eaters can always find sufficient options without making a fuss at the dining establishment. Asking what’s local will often net you the best that’s on offer, and as a bonus you may even make a friend.