University of Wisconsin–Madison

Blog di Bologna Culture Shock! Out and About

In this episode, I wanted to talk a bit about some of the cultural differences between the US and Italy that one experiences while navigating daily life.

Public Toilets

Not a thing, really. I mean, they exist, but they are locked at bizarre times. If you’re out and nature calls, your best bet is to find a bar (café), buy something, and use their facilities. Though, they don’t always have them. And if they do, they aren’t always stocked with the necessities like soap, toilet paper, etc. Pro tip: bring tissue packets with you.

The Pace of Life

In the States, most of the time when people are walking, they are walking somewhere. With a sense of direction and purpose. And conviction. And some perceived intention of arriving there. In Bologna, however, I’ve noticed that pedestrians tend to traverse the sidewalks at a slow, leisurely pace. Sometimes in pairs. Sometimes four abreast, with arms linked like Dorothy and her friends off to see The Wizard, but in a lackadaisical fashion that monopolizes the whole width of the sidewalk.

Supermarkets

Checkout lines are something of an anomaly with comparison to the aforementioned la vita lenta. In general, lines in Italy are not super-structured, especially in bars and government buildings. They’re basically just crowds of people. There’s no guarantee that you will be served in the time you arrive. In some stores, however, check-out is a fairly streamlined, assembly line process. It’s a little stressful to be honest. The cashier doesn’t bag the items. That’s the customer’s responsibility. Also, in some places, the bags aren’t free, so if you don’t have cash and want to put it all on your card—bear in mind, a lot of places won’t let you use your card for transactions costing less than €10—remember to ask for a bag before you pay. If you’re buying a lot of stuff, it’s best to bring your own tote and start bagging as soon as they’re scanned. In many cases, the cashier will start ringing another person right after you pay, while you’re still struggling to cram items into your bag.

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Umbrellas

Maybe I exaggerate or have simply been blind to this faux pas in the US, but I never experienced this before coming to Italy. Perhaps there are places in the States where umbrella canisters and bags are commonplace, but wherever I’ve been, no one has instructed me to use them. In Bologna, on the other hand, if you walk into a place with a folded umbrella on a rainy day, the staff will immediately direct you to either put it in a bucket or get a plastic bag from the dispenser. Zero tolerance for wet floors.

Customer Service

This is another one of those conflicted situations. A lot of Bolognesi I’ve met are really nice, super-chill individuals. They greet you when you come into an establishment (sometimes), they let you look without hounding you (having worked retail, I hated having to badger customers, so I enjoy the freedom afforded to shoppers here), but they are willing to help. As long as whatever task you are asking of them happens to fall within their job description. On one hand, it’s freeing. For them, at least. In the States, I’ve worked a lot of jobs where my job was to make other people’s lives easier, be they the other employees, the boss, or the customers, and I know others who have experienced this as well. That is to say, when you’re below a certain paygrade in the States, you are often never afforded the privilege of saying, “That’s not my job.” Not even politely. A customer asks you to help them find something, you drop everything and help them. Immediately. Here however, cashiers and people at customer service stations have no problem telling you to go talk to stocker or a floor salesperson when you’re looking for an item. Even if no other customers are in the store. I like it because it gives workers more freedom to do their job without getting bogged down by peripheral tasks. However, more than once I’ve been passed through a seemingly endless bureaucratic chain of, “My colleague over there can help you.”

Just about everyone is eager to offer directions, though. Provided they know the place you’re trying to go. If they don’t know, a lot of the time, they try to find someone who does.

Dogs

I mentioned pet culture in Bologna in a previous blog, but I feel the need to talk about it again here, because it is a pervasive feature of life here. You’re almost as likely to see someone walking a dog as you are to see someone smoking a cigarette (as an animal lover, I notice the former, and as an ex-smoker, I notice the latter). Dogs are allowed in most establishments. Bars, restaurants, retail stores, etc. However, there are a few places with signs out front that clearly designate that dogs are not permitted inside, but those are about as common as places open on Sundays.

Business Hours

With the exception of bars, a lot of places aren’t open before 9 or 10 in the morning. Lunch is a serious thing here, so most places will close down for a lunch or afternoon break. Except restaurants, most of which open at noon and close after 2 or 2:30. Dinner diners eat later here, so restaurants typically aren’t open before 7pm. If you’re out and about and you want something to eat at 3:30, you swing by a bar and order a panino. As was previously stated, a lot of places are closed on Sunday and I have yet to find a 24-hour establishment that was not a pharmacy.

Outlets

Make sure to charge your phone before you go anywhere, because, unlike the US, a lot of these buildings were built before electricity existed and any and all outlets seem to have been put in to serve very specific purposes. Occasionally, you can find outlets in bar or restaurant lavatories, of all places, but don’t count on it.