The 10 Words Travelers Hate To Hear In Italy

We were standing on a train platform in Ancona, Italy, waiting for a train, when my 4-year-old son, Leo, made a surprisingly prescient comment.

“I hope our train’s not ritardo,” he said, using the Italian word for delayed, which he’s heard many times on our trip.

Leo knows only four words in Italian but it occurred to me that two of them- ritardo and chiuso (closed) are two of the dreaded words that travelers in Italy become all too familiar with if they spend enough time in the country. Here are some of the others.

Chiuso. I’ll say up front that I’m an Italian-American who is extremely fond of Italy and the Italians but even the most ardent Italy-backer has to admit that the arbitrary and capricious opening hours in museums, shops and restaurants can be maddening. For an American used to supreme convenience, things seem to be chiuso more than they’re aperto. One could cite thousands of examples, but here is just one I noticed in Parma: the museum attached to the Church of St. Constantine is open from 9:30 until 11 a.m., and then again from 3:30 to 5 p.m.La Pausa. Italy’s siesta can be a real hassle for travelers, especially if you’re making day trips and have no choice but to arrive in a place smack in the middle of the day, when the entire place is shut down. What I find most annoying is how varied the mid-day break is from one town and one business to the next. I’ve found places that are open for lunch that close promptly at 1 p.m., others that stay open the whole day and some that advertise one set of hours but change on a dime if the mood strikes. Shops might reopen at 4, or it could be 5, or some get back in gear as late at 6:30. Your guess is as good as mine.

Sciopero. (Strike) Yes indeed, the Italians know how to strike. They’ll strike if someone suggests that perhaps it isn’t quite right for them to have 18 weeks of paid vacation, 22 weeks of sick leave and 59 public holidays per year; they’ll strike if their quota of espresso breaks is reduced from 11 to 9 each day; and they’ll strike if the price of gelato is increased in their workplace cafeteria.

The only certainty in Italy is that at any given time, someone, or perhaps almost everyone, will be on strike. A month ago, we encountered two strikes in one day – once in Savona, when striking port workers blocked our bus from exiting a parking lot and again later in the day, when we encountered a rail strike in Milan.

Coperto. Most restaurants and many cafés that offer tables charge a coperto or cover charge that is usually about 1-2 euros per person. I’ve noticed that most restaurants charge my 4-year-old son the coperto, but only some charge my 2-year-old. One audacious restaurateur in Perugia charged us the coperto for my younger son even though he remained asleep on my lap throughout the meal and didn’t eat. (I balked and he agreed to remove the charge.) As Americans, we’re used to tipping 15-20% but in Italy, if you want to stick to a budget, you need to get used to tipping less, depending on the size of the coperto, and the quality of the service.

Aspetta. (Wait) Italy isn’t a great country for the impatient. In the U.S. we use the term “run” errands, but here you don’t “run” errands, you crawl through them on your hands and knees. The only Italians who seem to be in a hurry are those you find behind the wheel of a car or moped, speeding at you as you try to cross a street.

Burocrazia. (Bureaucracy) If you want a good example of how not to streamline what should be a routine procedure, try mailing a package home from Italy. I’ve done this twice recently, once from Perugia and once from Lecce, and I swear putting a man on the moon was less complicated. Aside from the myriad forms to fill out, and the dizzying array of questions you have to answer, you also need a passport (no your driver’s license will not suffice).

People often say that the U.S. is a police state. Really? In the U.S. you can vote without even showing any photo I.D. whatsoever, but in Italy, you can’t even use a computer without a passport. A couple weeks ago in Lecce, I went to an Internet café and asked them to scan a document for me but was told they needed my passport.

“But I’m not even using the computer,” I protested.

But it didn’t matter; they wanted my passport. I asked why and got the classic Italian shrug of the shoulders from an African immigrant who was assimilating into Italian culture seamlessly.

Brutto Tempo. (Ugly/Nasty weather) The Italians love to use the word “brutto,” which means ugly but is used more liberally than in English. When you encounter brutto tempo in Italy, you’ll be assured that the inclement weather is very unusual and that it was beautiful just before you arrived and will very likely be great as soon as you leave.

Supplemento. (Supplement) Italy has a bewildering array of train services, ranging from lightning fast to exceedingly slow and if you aren’t careful, you’ll buy the wrong ticket and be assessed a supplemento on the train.

Stranieri. (Foreigner) If you hear someone referring to you as a stranieri, there’s not necessarily a cause for alarm but be on your guard because you might get overcharged. Italian restaurateurs are famous for adding items onto bills, so ask for a ricevuta dettagliata to make sure you’re not getting hosed.

Other Italian words you don’t want to be familiar with:

Rotto- broken
Imposibile- impossible
Finito- finished/it’s done/ there is none left
Torno fra 5 minuti- will return in 5 minutes (or perhaps tomorrow)
C’è Coda- a long line
Non c’è posto- sold out/there is no place
Occupato- reserved/taken
Riservato- reserved
Munirsi di biglietto prima- pay for your coffee/snack/etc first and come back with the receipt to get your item.
Marco da bollo- dreaded revenue stamps, which are needed to secure official documents.
Pieno/ Esaurito- sold out

[Photos via Alex Scarcella on Flickr and Pietro Ferrari]