Auguri! Congratulations! It’s finally arrived: your dream vacation to Italy. Your chance for a Roman holiday, like the old Hollywood classic featuring Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck. Just as Princess Ann (Hepburn) dismisses her royal schedule to experience all of Rome, you can have your own Italian escapade. By settling in to Italy’s carefree and passionate culture, you might just leave a little bit more Italian.

For the Love of Food

Giulia Cacciatore’s grandmother almost called the police because her granddaughter was 10 minutes late for lunch. In Italy, mealtime is family time—no questions asked. But even though lunch is a big deal, it pales in comparison to dinner. Cacciatore, a native Italian, explains that her family’s mealtime routine includes setting the perfect table, cooking the precise amount of food, and eating right on time.

If you’re lucky enough to get invited to lunch with an Italian family, take it as a compliment, but don’t offer to make them a meal in return. Ryan Weller, who lived in Italy for two years, tried to make an Italian dish for a native Italian. “It turned into the biggest disaster I’ve probably ever experienced,” he says. The standards of cooking are so high in Italy that “even when you think you’ve learned how to cook, they still wag their finger and say, ‘That’s not Italian.’”

What if you’re not lucky enough to be a guest at dinner? Then local restaurants will save you the embarrassment of trying to cook Italian food yourself or of explaining to the polizia why you were 10 minutes late. But don’t be offended when the servers seem to be ignoring you. They are really just expressing Italian hospitality by helping you slow down and relax. Take time to look over the menu of mouthwatering Italian dishes, relax during your meal, and enjoy the company around you. Italian restaurants expect their guests to stay long after dinner is over to chat and enjoy themselves. 

Later, walk around the piazza and ask the locals where to find the best gelato. Consider savoring your dessert on the Spanish Steps, where Princess Ann’s Italian adventure took flight.

For Gestures of Friendship

Don’t be surprised if you see an Italian on a scooter passionately using his hands to communicate on a phone that is shoved up his helmet. As Cacciatore matter-of-factly states, “Sometimes, we seriously are unable to speak if we keep our hands at our laps.” When Cacciatore’s mother speaks, her hands elaborately reflect the tone of her voice.

Try embracing Italian culture by respectfully imitating Italian gestures in your conversations. Be sure to copy the locals, no matter where you go. Be aware that northern and southern Italy have very different gestures and greetings. For example, hugs are welcome down south, but they are reserved for family and best friends up north. Kisses on the cheek have similar boundaries. Watch the locals for social cues before you start a conversation.

While older Italians generally expect you to be fluent in Italian, younger Italians usually welcome a relaxing chat, even if you’re not completely fluent. Take a chance to enjoy the spontaneous conversation, but be prepared to be asked some personal questions. Friendship is highly valued in Italy, and chatting openly is expected. Questions are meant to strengthen friendship, not invade privacy. While not every Italian will try to become your best friend, it is easier to make friends if you are outgoing and ask questions. Don’t hide in a corner—be bold! Ask locals where to find their favorite pizzeria, architecture, or art gallery. Learn from your conversations how to truly discover Italy. 

For Safe Transportation 

Venturing past the popular tourist locations to other sites recommended by your new Italian friends may seem romantic on a vintage Vespa. But if you’re not an experienced driver on a scooter or motorcycle, Italy is not a good place to learn. Italian traffic follows a no-rules approach, and law enforcement often plays to the locals’ advantage. Renting a car can be dangerous, too. Public transportation is a much safer way to enjoy Italy, especially in the popular cities.

 Juliana Cox