Sunday, August 12, 2007

Top 10 things you NEED to know: That Italians assume you already DO know, should know and are stupid for NOT knowing!

#10 If you drink your cappuccino at the bar, it costs 1 euro, if you drink it while sitting at a table (even if you bought it at the bar), it costs more, usually double, and in some 'refined' places like in Piazza Signoria or Piazza della Republica, you pay enough for one cafe, that you should be able to take the table home with you.

#9 If you rent a place with a washing machine, be prepared to wait hours for a wash, most machines take 2 hours, then you have to hang it on the line to dry because dryers are scarce.

#8 At any time, for whatever reason, or without reason, there may be a 'sciopero' , the Italian word for 'strike'. I once had to take a train to Rome, and I was told that there would be a strike but a few trains would still be running. I went to the station, the train was on the board, and then 5 minutes before the train was due to go, the word 'sorpresa' was displayed. This meant, 'surprise, we got you, too'.

#7 Taxis: You watch the fare and get your money out as you drive up to your destination, then you look up and the driver has pushed the button. The fare had read 8.95 and suddenly, with a push of a button, it now says, 11.50. This is because a) you called the taxi, which is an added charge or b) it's after 10 or 11pm at night (which can be a different time, depending on the season, day of the week, and whether you are a woman or man) c) you have gone or come from the airport, train station or d) a new tariff applies or e) all of the above

#6 Hours: The rule about hours is that there is absolutely no rule, but some of the following 'customs' may or may not apply. And from whatever anyone tells you, no matter if it is the official website, the mayor, the owner of the store, or a government decree, you can always add the words, 'except not always.'
On Mondays, many stores are either closed or don't open until after 2:30pm. Restaurants often are closed on Mondays, or Tuesdays, and some just for dinner or just for lunch, or one of my favorites closes only on Saturday.
Some stores (usually those in the centre have continual hours, meaning they don't close for the afternoon 'siesta'. When they re-open is anybody's guess. Some at 4:00, or 4:30 or 5:30 or never. The last place you usually will find out, is from a sign on the door. There are many of these signs but usually not filled out. Same holds for Sundays. The supermarkets are usually closed on Sundays, except for the last Sunday of the month.

The wonderful antique and flea markets around Italy have a similar way of scheduling. Arezzo has it's famous antique market on the first weekend of the month (on Sat and Sunday). But if the 1st falls on a Sunday, then it's still considered the first weekend.

Regarding museum hours, I have recently concluded that the creativity that was used to make the amazing art that is housed in these museums is now applied to the scheduling. I recently read a xeroxed sign at the Medici Chapel, a much-visited state museum, with the schedule that went something like this: Open every 3rd Monday in summers from 11;30-1:30 except for August, Tuesdays and Thursdays from 9-5PM, Friday afternoons in winter, and weekends had different hours every 2nd weekend depending on when the Uffizzi was open. And this wasn't a joke!!

I asked the concierge of a major hotel to check the Sunday hours for the Prada Outlet. He checked the website and it said that the outlet was closed on Sunday. I knew it was open, he kept pointing to the website, and then I asked him to call, he grudgingly agreed, and of course it was open. It was always open on Sunday, everyone knew but their own website.

#5 While we're talking about numbers, we should speak about addresses. In Florence, they follow the standard, even numbers on one side of the street, odd on the other (again, except not always). But then there is the matter of the 'rosso' or red numbers. These in times past, were in red for residential versus a business address. Now that has all been assimilated except the numbers, i.e. 32r, remain. And the red numbers have very little to do sequentially with the black or blue numbers. So in your search for 32r, you might pass a black 30, and a black 34 (and often even a black 32 which places you at a hotel when you are looking for a bike repair) but the place you are looking for is 2 blocks further up next to a black 58.

#4 Once you are thorougly stumped by numbers you are ready to drive in Italy. My judgment is that Italians don't do signage well. For example, you are driving to Siena from Florence. You follow signs that gets you into a roundabout. And you think it's simple, you just find the exit off of the roundabout with the sign to Siena. Except that 5 out of the 6 exits all of signs to Siena. Now, I don't have any advice on what to do, but I have discovered that the Italians don't seem to have any problem with this, the signs work just fine for them.

#3 Taking the train: You are in Florence, you want to go to the wonderful antique market in Arezzo, and it's the first weekend of the month. You go to the train station, buy a ticket to Arezzo. You are given a ticket that says Arezzo, the train number and the time. Then you look at the reader board to see which binario (track) your train is leaving from. Arezzo is not on the board. Rome is on the board, Milano is on the board, Palermo is on the board, but no Arezzo. You look at your number to see if it matches one of the bigger destinations, but no numbers except times are on the board. Then of course you try to match times: but the trains for Milano and Roma leave at the same time. Finally, you ask a train employee, who looks at your ticket, the reader board, and then at you, because he can't believe he's met such an idiot. Then he scolds you for wasting his time on such an idiotic question, because obviously you take the train to imbecile!!

#2 Tipping: Wait staff in Italy get paid wages so do not depend on tips. And there is a charge, called 'coperta' which is added to the check for water and bread, and service. Still tipping is appreciated, it just doesn't have to be a percentage of the bill, but based on the quality of the service and work done. Most taxis do not expect tips, but again, it doesn't hurt to be generous and kind.

and the
#1 thing you need to know, that every Italian knows, and thinks you're stupid for not knowing is:
'Sconto?' You can always ask, any one and any where for a discount. In the major stores or if you are buying a peach in the market (though I can't imagine why you would care about the peach). You do not need to ask for it like you are driving a tough bargain, but rather that you are asking for a gesture of friendship. And it is given in the same spirit. Enjoy!