For the Love of Time : Why Living in Florence Can Drive an American (A Little) Crazy by Bobbie Watson

In this globalizing and dynamic world, one thing is certain: you cannot move across the world without encountering a few cultural differences.

It makes sense then, that being an American living in Italy, I’ve seen several cultural differences and varying perceptions. One of the biggest: the way we view time. Why is it that Italians show up 10 minutes late to an appointment and feel like they are on time? Why do Americans frantically run to work and always feel so late even though we are normally on time? In college I learned that different cultures have different perceptions of time. A culture can have a monochronic or a polychronic orientation of time; neither is good or bad, right or wrong. They are just different.

America is a monochronic culture. We believe that time is a precious commodity; it is meant to be made, used, wasted, spent, given, allotted, and saved. Our lives are a series of rigid schedules and each day is chopped up into time blocks. 9 – 10:45 AM : eat breakfast. 11 AM – 7 PM : work. 7 – 8 PM : dinner. Repeat.

Italy, on the other hand, is a polychronic culture. People with this time orientation see time as a flowing river; it is smooth and one minute flows into the next. If something isn’t done this minute, it can be done the next. These people do not see time as tangible or controllable. There are things to be done, but they’ll get done.

Okay, so what the heck does that mean? How does it affect you as an American living in Italy? Here are some differences I have found:

1. Italian businesses open and close whenever. In America, businesses have set business hours. If you come between those hours, you expect the business to be open. But, here in Italy, that’s not always the case. I have gone to restaurants at 8 PM on a non-holiday Tuesday night to find them closed and locked up tight. There was no note explaining the reason for the closure, no anticipated time of reopening, and no sign stating what the normal business hours are.

eatingonthego2. Say goodbye to to-go food. Americans are constantly running around. We drink our coffee as we are sprinting to work and stuff our face with food as we walk or drive. Almost all businesses are equipped to handle to go orders; they hoard stockpiles of cardboard boxes, plastic silverware, and plastic cups. But, it’s not like that in Italy. Getting to-go food here is very hard, and the places that do offer it are extremely touristy (AKA not the authentic Italian food or experience you are probably looking for). Get this – Italians actually like to sit and enjoy their food. They don’t skip their lunch break to get more finished and they drink their coffee in a “bar” (coffee shop) and enjoy it. They don’t eat on the streets. I know, it sounds so….pleasant and relaxing. Try it!

late-for-work-300x2003. Italians walk, Americans run. There is nothing more frustrating than trying to get to work when there are a bunch of people slowly meandering down the street in front of you. The streets here in Florence are tiny; you can barely fit two people side by side on the sidewalk. So when there are people leisurely walking in front of you and there is no room to get around them, it can be quite the difficult task to stop yourself from shouting “Move with a purpose!!” But, instead of being frustrated, just try looking up. I know that sounds ridiculous, but try it. When you hurry you get caught up in trying to get somewhere and you forget to stop and look around. If you’re studying abroad, you’re not going to be in Italy forever, so what will you remember when you get back to America? Running to class or that amazing old building that had really intricate design that was on your way to class?

couch4. Americans tend to burn themselves out. We, as Americans, think that every minute must be milked for all it’s worth. There is always somewhere to be, something to be done. This constant pressure we put on ourselves can only be maintained for so long before we break down and/or burn out. So what do we do when we can’t take it anymore? We spend two days on the couch in a trance watching really bad TV. We tell ourselves its our reward for being so productive and for getting so much done in the past week. So we give ourselves permission to completely veg out, eat junk food, forego cooking real food or leaving the house. But, after one of these weekends, we feel guilty because we did absolutely nothing except rot our minds with hours of Walking Dead or How I Met Your Mother. There is not one shred of evidence from the whole weekend that we were a living, breathing, intelligent person. The whole thing is a blur in our minds, leaving us unable to differentiate one hour (or episode) from the next. Sound familiar? Perhaps this isn’t the best method of being. Perhaps an afternoon nap everyday to rest our worried minds and achy bodies isn’t the worst idea…In Italy, dinner is closer to 8 PM and clubs don’t open until midnight or later. This can be frustrating for us when we are used to eating dinner around 6 or 7 and most clubs (at least in the rural areas) close by 1 or 2 AM. But instead of going nonstop from when you wake up until you fall asleep, try to use the break between classes and the Italian dinner time to relax and unwind. It might keep you from burning out as quickly.

On time5. Italians value relationships,  Americans value promptness. Just to be clear, I am not saying Americans don’t value relationships. Obviously we do. But, we show respect in our relationships by being on time. If we’re supposed to meet at 8, be there at 8. We have a mutual understanding that if  we’re hanging out and I’m late for work, I have to go. And if I’m the only one at the office, I can’t close it to have lunch with you. Italians, on the other hand, will put a note on the door saying “Out to Lunch” (maybe that’s what happened when I went to those restaurants??).  It is okay to be late as long as it was in the interest of maintaining a friendship with another person. Of course Americans understand if something came up, but for the most part we expect time commitments to be binding, whereas Italians do not.

Of course these are just generalizations. People are complex and every person forms different perceptions; to assume everyone fits neatly into one category is a grave mistake. One of the worst things you can do (especially as a traveler) is to form predispositions about people from other cultures and mistake those as facts.

As with all cultural differences, it is important to remember that different does not equal bad. Different is different; it requires an adjustment. There are pros and cons to both sides. Polychronic cultures may seem more chaotic and unpredictable, but there is less pressure and you have more time to stop and enjoy the little things.

While you’re studying abroad, do everything you can to embrace the culture. Stop trying to run the people in front of you over on your way to class. Learn to block off (oops – that was the monochronic orientation speaking) enough time so that you can go to a bar and enjoy a cup of coffee. Stop running yourself at the highest level of functioning you possibly can until you can’t do it anymore.

Did I miss something? Leave it in the comments! Check out some of our other blog posts: Packing for Study Abroad and Student Discounts in Florence. For more helpful information on studying abroad, visit When In Florence’s website.

Packing For Study Abroad by Bobbie Watson

So you’ve decided you want to study abroad. Congratulations! But as moving day approaches, you start to realize that a big feat lies between you and your dream destination: packing. Whether you are going for 6 weeks or 3 months or 1 year, it is not easy to pack your life into a suitcase or two. I am an American student studying in Florence, Italy. I have listed a few things I learned from moving here.

One Suitcase or Two?

Unknown-8If you can reduce the necessities in your life to the bare minimum to make them fit into one suitcase, do it! I am usually horrible with overpacking but I somehow managed with one large suitcase, one carry on suitcase, and one very large “purse” (okay, okay it was an overnight bag). But, if you cannot live without 9 pairs of shoes, figure out the smartest way to take them. Many international airlines give you one free 50 pound bag, but the second will cost you between $50 and $200, depending on your airline and final destination. Start thinking about this before you book your flight!! Some airlines may offer a cheaper ticket but the extra baggage fees are outrageous. Taking a second bag is likely a better option than trying to ship your things though, as I found out a 16 pound package to Italy may cost you more than $270. Also, check the overweight fees for your airline. Maybe you can live with 60 pounds and it may be cheaper to do that. But, remember you will want to buy clothes and souvenirs at your new home.

I’ll Just DIE If I Don’t Have…

What can you not live without? Start asking yourself this now. Be realistic. Chances are you will have to learn to live without certain things. This will sound scary to my fellow packrats, but as hard as it is, there is something refreshing about weeding out some of the clutter in your life. When you start packing your clothes, start with that mound of dirty clothes on your floor. If they’re dirty, that means you’ve worn them. Don’t waste your time going through your closet pondering about that shirt you always think you’ll wear but never do. Take the clothes you’re most comfortable in and the ones you know that you will wear. If you pack a bunch of things you won’t wear, you’re really going to feel like you don’t have anything to wear.645423e598136e0c4df05ebe8d21ffb9

Master the Art of Mixing and Matching

Your best bet for packing your clothes: bring plain solid colors that can be worn in layers. Shirts with really cute patterns are great, but they are hard to match with bottoms and are too recognizable to be worn consistently. But, plain solid shirts can be disguised in many ways to create new looks, making your wardrobe feel much bigger. For example, a plain black fitted v-neck can be worn under a button up or with a long necklace or with a sweater. These types of shirts are easy to dress down for the day but with some cute accessories you can wear them out at night. Also, if it is going to be cold, make sure to bring some plain long sleeve cover ups. You can change out tank tops under them or wear them over short sleeves or dresses. This gives you several warm outfits without having to pack a bunch of bulky sweaters. Same goes with plain long sleeve shirts – you can put them under just about anything. As far as bottoms go, really dark jeans and plain black leggings and pants go with everything. But, don’t be afraid to get creative! There are some really great ideas on Pinterest (see picture).

I Need MY Shampoo!!! 

shampooI am a child born from American consumerism; I am used to having a choice between 37 different kinds of shampoo and toothpaste. But, I am very brand loyal; I will find one product that works and stick to it. My best advice: get over it. I tried to pack 3 months worth of every product I use, but I quickly realized a bitter truth: I could either pack those OR I could pack more clothes. Brands are global these days, so chances are you’ll be able to find something familiar to you. Here in Italy, I’ve found Dove, Pantene, Garnier Fructis. Colgate, etc. I can’t believe I’m writing this, but shampoo is shampoo. If it cleans your hair, you can live with it for a couple of months.

Leave the Hair Dryer. Yes, Really. 

I know, I know. The thought of not having your hair dryer is unbearable. I was told to leave mine behind, but I simply couldn’t. On my very first day I plugged my high wattage hair dryer into my converter and within two minutes I blew up my hair dryer, my converter, and I blew the breakers in my whole apartment. It was the dead of winter and everything shut off, heat included. Seriously, leave the hair dryer at home. The plugs in Europe are not meant to handle them. Buy a hair dryer when you get to your new home; they are not that expensive and it is worth it to save the space in your suitcase. The same goes with straighteners and curling irons. If the watts are not properly converted you can ruin your straightener or fry your hair.

Mind the Weather! 

Do your research before you pack! Are you going during the summer? The winter? I had heard the Europe has “wet winters,” but I never imagined that it would rain here in Florence as much as it does. I made the very big mistake of leaving my rain boots at home. Luckily I did pack a waterproof coat.

If You’re Going in the Winter, How’s the Heating??

Another surprise: Italy does not heat buildings the way America does. In America, I was fine with wearing short sleeves under a heavy coat because the buildings were so well heated. Here I sleep under 3 blankets with sweatpants and a fleece and I’m still cold. If you are coming to Europe in the winter, make sure you bring slippers or warm socks. It’s not as cold here as it is in my hometown, but I am cold all the time, which I am not used to. I’ve had to buy several sweaters here because if I don’t wear long sleeves everyday, I freeze.

images-3Pack a Bag.

I know this sounds counterintuitive, but it’s important. If you plan to go on day trips or weekend trips, you need to have a bag big enough for you to get what you need in it, but smaller than your full-sized suitcase. I recommend a backpack or something with wheels. I went to Paris a couple of weekends ago with Ryan Air, which is a cheap airline here in Europe. They only allow you to have ONE free carry on bag. Your purse, camera bag, laptop bag, etc. must all fit in the same bag. And they are very strict about what size the suitcase can be. It is definitely something to consider before embarking!

images-2

Should I Bring My Heels???

I like wearing heels out as much as the next girl. But, Florence is mostly cobblestone. My program advisor told me not to bother bringing heels and that Florentine women don’t wear them. I thought, yeah right…they’ve all probably just learned to walk on cobblestone in heels. But she was right – the women here do not wear heels. And, if they do, people certainly do notice, but not in a good way; more in like a “I really think she just broke her ankle” kind of way. And, I kid you not, as I was thinking about writing this post last night on my walk home, I saw an American girl walking barefoot down the streets in the pouring rain carrying her 5 inch stiletto heels. Do some research to see what the streets are like!

The Money Situation.

images-4I have found that the best way to exchange currency is by using an ATM. Take out the maximum amount they allow you to each time and then you just have one fee. It depends on your bank, of course, but you may get charged an international fee every time you use your card. But, don’t forget to tell your bank you are moving and will be using your card in different countries. Be careful with currency exchange places on the street and in the airport because they will rip you off (I learned that only after losing about $50). If you have cash, your best bet is to go to a legitimate bank to change out your money.

Things I Am Glad I Packed..

1. Leggings and Tights – Again, it is cold here. Sometimes I will wear two pairs of leggings or I will put a pair of tights on under my jeans. Works wonders. Plus, they don’t take up nearly as much room as jeans do.

2. Leg Warmers – This may sound silly, but they work very well and they allow me to wear dresses with tights for my internship without freezing.

3. Scarves – Not only are they warm, but they can really liven up an outfit and expand your wardrobe.

Unknown-24. Extra Rechargeable Camera Batteries – My camera (Canon SX260) is amazing, but when I turn the GPS on it kills my battery. There is nothing worse than being on a day trip with a dead camera battery.

5. A Waterproof Coat – Big wool coats are great until it starts pouring down rain. Then you’re just wet, cold, and miserable. I brought a coat that has a liner you can take out and wear by itself. It has been great because it acts as a winter coat, a light raincoat, and a zip up fleece.

6. Copies of My Passport – They want a copy of your passport for everything here; I needed one for my landlord, my school, my internship, a company booking a flight for me, and to get a SIM card for my phone. Plus, it’s much safer to carry copies than the actual thing, because if it is stolen you will be in a very bad situation.

Some Things I Wish I Had Packed..

images-51. Coffee Thermos – Drinking a cup of coffee while you’re running to work is an American thing. The Italians prefer to stop and enjoy their caffè, which is great unless you’re not used to factoring that extra time into your morning and can’t for the life of you make it out the door 15 minutes early to do that. To go cups are very hard to find, and if you do find one, it would be considered a child’s serving in the US. If you enjoy sipping coffee on your way to work, bring a thermos. I haven’t even been able to find one here to buy.

Unknown-12. Refillable Travel Sized Bottles – If you go on any flight within Europe where you won’t be checking a bag, you have to make sure the liquids you are taking comply with the flying regulations. It was very unnerving traveling to Paris with no way to pack shampoo, lotion, etc.

3. Tennis Shoes – I was so concerned with getting three pairs of boots and flats here that I forgot to pack a pair of tennis shoes. Although people don’t really wear them here, if you plan on working out or playing a game of soccer you’ll definitely need them.

4. Rain Boots – I’ve ruined two pairs of boots by wearing them in the rain here. Rain boots are a pain to pack, but they might be nice to have. If you don’t want to pack them, get a pair when you land.

The best advice I was given when I found out I was coming here: Don’t try to pack your life in a suitcase; but pack enough of you to start a new one. 

Did I miss anything? Leave us a comment and let me know! Or you can email me at bbwatson4@gmail.com with questions.

Check out our other blog posts: Studying Abroad? Best Free Apps to Have Under Your Belt and Student Discounts in Florence, or visit the When In Florence Facebook page for more information about studying in Florence.