Sunday, August 10, 2014

Some practical advice before you leave for Italy

Expect the unexpected.

Sounds like silly advice, but it's true. The differences you expect, or intuit, are manageable. It's the ones you don't expect that blindside you.

Next...try to find out as much as you can before you go, but, once there,...More......

...put the surprises in perspective. (Somehow, we've gotten to the ridiculous place where our lives have become unbearable if we can't find our favorite shampoo just right to make our hair curly / straight / fluffy / soft / resistant / stand up / lie down / stick out / fall into place.)

So here are a few hints about daily life in Italy that might help you encounter fewer unpleasant surprises while visiting. Forewarned is forearmed.

If you've never used a train, bus or subway before, here's a hint that will help a lot, wherever you find them: note not just where you need to get on and off, but also the final destination of the line you need to take. You'll need this info when checking which platform (binario) or stop (fermata) to use to take the right means of transport going in the right direction.

For trains, if the ticket has a seat and day and time reservation printed on it, you don’t have to stamp the ticket before getting on (but just to be safe, I do it, anyway). The little yellow machines are at the head of the train platforms. Slip one ticket end all the way into the horizontal slot, and, if it’s working, the machine will stamp it, and maybe even bite a little chunk out of a corner.

To decide which bus/tram/subway ticket to buy from the ticket machines (which have screens in English), you'll have to know if your destination is inside, or outside, the standard zone. Look for a note on the overall map: "Limite tariffa urbana / Urban fare limit". If it's inside that limit, you're set, and you only need a "biglietto urbano" (urban ticket). Anything beyond that, and you'll need a ticket with a supplement (THIS ALSO GOES FOR THE NEW FIERA/TRADE FAIR SITE AT RHO-PERA JUST OUTSIDE MILAN). The calculations can be complicated. Ask the ATM rep, "Vado qui [point on map], che biglietto devo comprare?" (I'm going here, which ticket must I buy?) or "Vado a [say the stop name], che biglietto devo comprare" (I'm going to PLACE, which ticket must I buy?), and then "Potrebbe aiutarmi, per favore?" (Could you help me, please?) If you don’t do this properly, the automatic turnstiles might not let you out at the other end, and if the controller stops you, you will get a fine. (Moral of the story: always buy not just a ticket, but the right ticket.)

For the subways and trams, the credit card-sized ticket probably will have a magnetic strip on the back. On the front, there probably will be some kind of arrow-like design. With the design facing toward you or up, as the case may be, slip the ticket into the slot on the machine in the direction of the arrow. The machine probably will grab the ticket, swallow and stamp it, then spit it back out so you can take it. If you have a stiff credit card-like magnetic card, instead, it might be sufficient to place the card up against the machine's active surface (often marked, though on this machine it's not). There probably will be a pleasant "beep" and a green light, if all went well. If it didn't go well (the card or the time left on it is expired, or you need to take the card out of its protective holder before pressing it up against the machine), you'll probably get a red light and a buzz. If there is a digital screen, it might say something like "scaduto" (expired).

In Milan, more and more subway lines and train stations also require you to use your ticket to get OUT, as well as IN. Typically, though, it may be posted plainly, and not be in force, or at least not 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Don't let that fool you. The moment you toss it out, you will need it. Insert it, or hold it up to the machine, as just described.

Oh heck, why not just take a taxi, instead? They're white in Milan, and on their doors they will have an official taxi service company sticker, or the (very small) logo of Milan. They can be taken at taxi stands, sometimes marked with an orange sign that says, surprise surprise, "taxi." Sometimes, they are at a column outfitted with a special intercomm for the taxi drivers. Technically, they can't be hailed on the street, but if you see someone getting off right in front of you, and can jump right in.... Be on the look out for pirate taxis, that is, people who propose you private transport service in their private cars, with no insurance, no guarantees. Read this.

Tips for taxi drivers and waiters usually suffice at a Euro, or two.

Out and about, and need to go to the toilet? Since malls and large department stores are few and far between, what to do? Go into a bar, pay for a water or a coffee, and ask to use their bathroom. You might need to get a key from the barman. Other options? Pay toilets are sometimes available in the metro and train stations, but they don't always have a human helper to take the money, and make change. You will have to use exact change in the gate machine. Don't count on there being a money-changer, or that, if present, it works. Moral of the story: carry spare change. (The last time I needed one, recently, it was 80 Euro cents.) Second moral of the story: carry TP.

Squeamish? I empathize. Italian toilets are usually filthy. Excuse my bluntness, too, but if you can't do anything without sitting, you'll either need to learn to squat and hover, or you'll need to bring your own seat covers. In my nearly 20 years in Italy, I've seen them in maybe TWO bathrooms. I was so flabbergasted, I snapped a photo of it. UPDATE: Forgot to mention that you just might not have any choice, but to squat...what the Italians call "Turkish toilets"--a ceramic hole in the floor--are becoming more widespread. The flushing mechanisms are similar to those already described.

By the way, the flushing mechanism is different, too, and can cause momentary panic. Old toilets still can have a chain from a suspended little tank of water. The mechanism can be a pedal or a large floor button. It can be a wall button of various kinds. It can be a press-down spot on the top of the toilet tank. It even can be a wall handle to turn on...AND OFF. It can be automatically activated by a sensor, and scare the pee-diddly out of you while you are tugging up your pants. It never will be the little lever on the front of the toilet tank that you expect.

Don't expect a little flip-down purse shelf in the stall, either. Maybe I've seen ONE in all these years, or maybe it's a dream. You'll be lucky if there is one flimsy coat hook. Moral of the story: leave your bulky stuff with a trusted friend, while making the trip to the john.

Love eating the local food, but it's also nice to have just some fresh fruit, now and then? Old style fruit and vegetable stores are beautiful, but DO NOT TOUCH THE STUFF, YOURSELF. Get help from the worker. Large supermarkets are getting to be more and more common in Italy, so they are navigable, for the most part. As you are wandering in the fresh fruit and vegetable section, you'll have a new experience (which I wish they would duplicate in the States): little plastic gloves for the hand you use to touch the exposed fresh fruit and vegetables in order to put them into the little plastic bags. Don't forget to weigh and price tag the bagged fresh fruit and veggies, too. The price/ID-ing sign will have a number...that's the number you need to punch on the weighing machine (they don't all have pictures associated with the numbers) to generate the price tag to slap on the bag.

All done? Time to go to the check-out lines. My first time, though, the clerk stared at me as I waited for someone to come to bag my groceries. That was twenty years ago. Last time I was in the States, I noted that that has gone the way of the dodo there, too. You'll have to ask for bags (for which you are charged a per bag fee) and, as the clerk passes the tags through the price recognition scanner then hands the stuff to you, you'll have to bag it yourself, rapidly. When it's time to pay, whip out your ATM card ("bancomat"), or cash ("contanti"), or even credit cards ("carta da credito"). If you whip out a card, the clerk will ask, "carta da credito o bancomat?". Forget checks ("assegni").

Oh, and some last minute advice. Stay on the right hand side (“tenere la destra”) of escalators (“scala mobile”) or moving sidewalks (“tapis roulant”…a la francese, so don’t say the “s” or the final “t”), so people wanting to go up or down faster than you can pass by you more easily.

Hot and thirsty? Seen these waist-high green columns with running faucets around town? It's (delicious and safe) drinkable water. These columns are scattered around Italy, but in Milan, they've drilled holes in the top of the faucets, so by plugging up the flow, you get a nice drinking fountain-like squirt of clean cool water. Make sure that no one is standing in front of the fountain the first time you do it, or in your efforts to control the squirt, they might get a shower.

DON'T TAKE YOUR SHOES/SANDALS OFF IN PUBLIC AND DON'T DON'T DON'T PUT YOUR FEET UP...ON ANYTHING...EVER. Been there, know what it's like to travel your dogs off, and need to put your feet up ("Heck, I've got newspaper under my feet to protect the seat, don't I?"). It's considered very very disgusting and very very rude.

Oh, yeah, keep your voice down, even during normal conversation. Americans have very loud voices, and it’s very annoying to those around you. Even to me, an ex-pat.

And finally, you just might have to dress better than you do at home when you're out and about, if you don't want to look like a scruffy tourist not worthy of respect (because you're not respecting local traditions). Beach wear is another matter, but when in town, don't go half naked (no strap dresses, ladies; no open shirts or narrow shouldered t-shirts and no going bare-chested, guys), no short shorts, in fact, not even Bermuda shorts. Especially if you want to get into a church to look around, you'll need to be decently dressed (not even sleeveless wear otherwise considered decent is allowed). (P.S., some churches charge a modest fee to enter as a tourist; this helps to pay for the lighting and maintenance, don’t begrudge it; furthermore, look for the “Mantenimento della Chiesa” / “Restauro della Chiesa” alms boxes, and put some spare change in them.) And although having nothing to do with decency, it does have a great deal to do with good taste: no flip flops and no sayings and pictures printed on your T-shirts. Yuck.

Traveling is a mind-opening experience. If you don’t find a better way to do something or look at something, then at least it will be a different and equally valid way. Respecting local cultures not your own is a good habit. (Don’t like the local culture for whatever reason? Don’t go.) Challenging yourself with new situations is stimulating. Relaxing a bit and doing fun stuff is, well, relaxing and fun.

I hope these hints can help you enjoy your travels in Italy, even more!
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