Culture Shock and Reverse Culture Shock: Reflecting on My Time In Italy

Victoria Pembroke
January 17, 2022

Well, my study abroad journey has finally come to an end…and WOW am I sad. But also like, WOW was it amazing! Something had to be pretty great for me to now miss it so much, right? It's like they say, everything good must end.

What better way to tie up my experience with one last blog post? And in this one, I want to focus on reflecting on my time abroad and more specifically, the culture shock that came with it! And then even the reverse culture shock that I've experienced since being back in the U.S! 

So here goes nothing:

1. No iced coffees or even flavored coffees

You read that correctly! Finding iced coffees (or really any type of cold drink with ice in it) is near IMPOSSIBLE in Italy, and really Europe as a whole. You have to specifically ask for ice in your drinks at restaurants, and will have to get used to enjoying the classic, small Italian espresso, americano, cappuccino, etc. (you get the gist). Coffee is of the best taste and quality in Italy, don't get me wrong, it is just small and rarely comes in those 16oz or 20oz sizes we're so used to, or over ice or with any caramel, mocha, or yummy vanilla flavor shots. However, Milan is the only city in Italy with Starbucks (7 of them and 1 Starbucks Reserve, to be exact!), so rest assured you will be able to find some fun specialty coffees and iced coffees there, just be prepared to spend a little more and have a more limited menu than what you're used to back home. (I also recommend the 12oz Coffee chain which has multiple locations throughout Milan and other Italian cities, offering larger, more American-styled coffees with iced options and fun flavors/toppings).

2. Food and drink is surprisingly cheap

I'll be honest, I thought Milan (what with it being known as such a business/fashion capital and big European city) was going to be prettyyyy expensive, but in all reality, it wasn't that bad! Sure, it might be more expensive than other smaller, Italian or European cities, but compared to cities of the same size in the U.S., (or even, Switzlerand—geez it's PRICEY there), going out and spending money in Milan really won't break the bank that much. I found most quick lunch spots to only be anywhere from 4-10 euro, most espressos or cappuccinos 3 euro or less, and most times when I went out to dinner, I'd only spend about 20-30 euro, including wine/cocktails! If you're familiar with going out in any major U.S. cities like New York, Chicago, or Boston, you'll know how incredibly reasonable all of this is, considering I'll spend $12-16 on a drink ALONE in Boston! Yet in Milan, be prepared to get a beer or glass of wine for 6-8 euro, or a cocktail for 8-12 euro. Of course, there are cheaper restaurants and there are more expensive restaurants, just be sure to try out a bunch and discover all the amazing food and drink that Italy has to offer! Just pay attention to the exchange rate, because it can be your friend but also your enemy. When I got to Milan the exchange rate was 18%, so for every 1 euro espresso I was having, $1.18 was being taken out of my checking account. And of course, the difference only gets larger the more you spend, so be wary! However, the exchange rate could also work to your advantage, too. By the time I left Milan, it was down to 13%, but prices in most stores still reflected the 18% exchange rate. So, I actually bought a Dior ring that I had been eyeing for awhile in the Rinascente in Milan for only 380 euro (which equated to $430 USD at the 13% exchange rate), when it was selling for $450 in the U.S. Not a huge difference, but hey, if I was gonna buy it no matter what, I might as well get it for $20 cheaper, right?

3. Night-life is much different

The one thing I will say about the price of living in Milan is that it is much higher if you're planning on going out to clubs and drinking a lot. The thing about being a college student in the U.S. is that, we're typically used to stocking up on cheap liquor or beer from the store, pregaming with that, then going to frat parties or friends’ houses where drinks or even kegs of  beer are usually provided. Maybe you'll have a designated driver, or maybe a cheap uber you can split the fare home with, but either way, you're not spending too much money on drinking or partying at college if you're living the traditional college experience/life. However (and I'm sure many young adults who go out to drink in U.S. cities like New York can relate to this), in Milan, and virtually every European city, the party culture is clubs, where you have to pay a cover of about 20 euro (sometimes even 50 or 60 euro, if it's a really popular club) to even get into the place, and then you'll have to spend money on expensive drinks once in, although they usually give you one free drink coupon with your entrance fee. So that's definitely something to get used to, but if you play it smart, drink responsibly, and pregame with your own stuff then don't drink at the club, you should be just fine! Just always be safe, know your surroundings, be with friends, and drink responsibly when going out! You also might have to pay for a taxi fare back home after going out since Europeans party so much later (11pm-4amish) and public transit like metros and stuff usually stop running for the night by 12-1am. But, taxis usually aren't too expensive, especially if you split them with friends!

4. EVERYONE dresses up to go absolutely ANYWHERE  

I know you were expecting this one cause everyone says it…but it's SO TRUE! This is a huge thing for Europe as a whole, but is especially noticeable in Milan since it's such a huge fashion capital. One of my friends studying abroad in Florence even said she noticed the difference in style/the more formal attire of people when she visited Milan. Which was honestly great for me, since I love dressing up to go just about anywhere since I love fashion/shopping and showing off all of my outfits!

So, my advice: you'll want to wear nice jeans/pants or skirts and dresses to class with cute tops and sweaters/jackets, and always wear fancy pants/tops or a dress/skirt with heels/heeled boots to the club (collared shirts and dress shoes for the guys), or else you might risk getting turned away at the door! No, for real! However, there is a lot of talk about how you should never wear sneakers out in Italy or Europe cause they're too casual blah blah blah, and don't worry, that's a total myth! I've seen soooo many sneakers, but maybe just wear a dressier shoe if you're going out to dinner or to the club. But other than that, sneakers will be just fine! Afterall, you'll be doing A LOT of walking in Milan.

So naturally, it will definitely be an adjustment going back to my campus in the U.S. this semester and getting second glances from peers when I'm wearing something nicer than leggings or sweats, LOL! It's crazy because, even if you're just running a quick errand, in Milan, if you're wearing leggings or sweats YOU'LL be the one receiving the second glances. Trust me on this, I hardly saw anyone dress casually in public, and even when I did, they looked so out of place that I found myself, an American, giving them second glances, wondering why they were dressed like that. Which actually brings me to my next point…

5. People like to stare, and will stare

No, seriously. I guess staring isn't considered rude in Italy? Whether you're sitting in a restaurant, riding the metro, or just walking the streets of Milan, be prepared for people to watch and stare at you a lot. It may feel like they're judging you, or know that you're an American from a mile away, and both are probably the case! But in all honesty, people are just blunt and like to observe in Italy, but the great part is, you get to stare back just the same without coming off rude! And going off that blunt part…

6. People are much more blunt, in a weirdly nice kind of way

Have you ever heard people say that people in Northeast USA tell it like it is, but are real and nice deep down? Or that it's easy to tell who likes you in the Northeast, but people down South sugarcoat things, and will definitely be judging you all the time, yet still super sweet to your face? Well, I like to think that the Milanese (and Italians as a whole, really) are like the Northeast USA in that way. They don't really care enough about your life to compare it to theirs or judge you, but they are genuine people who will like you even though they'll also be honest and blunt with you just the same. I had teachers in classes that would openly talk about drinking culture with the students (although it is legal for us 18-20 year-olds over there) and would even be very honest with students just in general, but in a sort of funny way that I could really appreciate. One teacher in my Managing Fashion & Luxury Brands class would openly talk about how much her outfits or accessories would cost her (as examples for the class, mostly), while another actually said to a friend of mine who was complaining about all the mosquitos, “Ugh, I hate those little f***ers.” And while I’ve definitely noticed that back in the U.S., college professors in general are more blunt and nonchalant than high school teachers, there’s just a certain honesty about Italian culture that I had found particularly refreshing and grown to love.

7.  Italians are always late…and love lecture

If you’ve read my blog post about taking classes abroad, then you might remember me mentioning this one. Nonetheless, not only are professors more blunt in Italy, but they are also always late and loveee to lecture. Other than my Italian class that was pretty interactive and discussion/participation-based, all of my professors would just lecture at us the whole time, asking us minimal questions and not providing many in-class activities or even very engaging lecture notes/slides. This, coupled with their Italian accents, made it dangerously easy to zone out during class, or do other things than type notes on my computer, so be prepared to stay locked in!

But then there’s the kind of nice bonus (unless you’re a super punctual person which I am definitely not), which is that Italians, including professors, are always late. I showed up consistently late to my 9am Italian class every morning and was never really even scolded or given a second glance, whereas in the U.S. I might be pulled aside or emailed by my professor after the second or third time to tell me how it’s disruptive and rude behavior, and that if I kept it up I might be docked for attendance or participation points. But nope, not in Italy. There were many classes where us students would even have to wait a few minutes for our professors to show up. And if an Italian says to meet them for dinner at 8pm, prepare to get there at 8:30pm and still be waiting a few minutes for them. For example, we had a nice holiday dinner one of our very last nights that the Collegio di Milano staff put on for us, and they told us the dinner would commence at 7:30pm. So naturally, all of us American students showed up at 7:30pm, only to be the first ones there. People didn’t start showing up until around 8pm when a concert by some of the Italian students started, and then horderves were served finally at 8:45pm. So yeah, Italians are not punctual.

8. Late dinners and even later night-life

Going off that last part about the dinner starting so late, well, that’s honestly typical of Italian culture. Back home in the U.S., I'm pretty used to eating dinner between the hours of 5:30-7pm. However, in Northern Italy and Milan, average dinner time is between the hours of 7:30-9pm, and the further south you go in the country, the later dinner gets (more like 8:30-10pm). I personally think this might be due to the fact that the Italian workday is typically 9am-6pm, whereas in America it’s 8am-5pm, so most Americans get home earlier and can therefore eat dinner earlier and give themselves time to digest the food before heading to bed earlier to wake up earlier for work. So yeah, naturally, everything is earlier in America! And likewise, prime nightlife in the states is usually from 9pm-1am I’d say, whereas in Italy and Europe as whole, it’s really more from 12am-4am.

9. Longer meals

And not only are the meals later in Italy, but they’re also longer. Service at restaurants and such is much slower because you’re expected to enjoy your food for an hour or even two-three hours while really conversing with your company. In fact, eating out in Italy is almost much more about the social aspect of the event rather than the food, even though food is very important to Italian culture. But seriously, you won’t be rushed or constantly checked up on by the server like you are in the states, and expect to go out of your way to ask for the check, or else they won’t bring it to you and will rather assume that you just want to sit there and chat some more!

10. People are more fun-loving and seem to take life slower

And with slower dinners comes a slower pace of life overall. While I think Milan is somewhat fast-paced for Italy with it being a large city, it still definitely has that “stop and smell the roses” vibe that Italy is so well known for. While Americas always seem to be in a hurry and on “Go” mode, Italians seem to not mind to take a slower approach and really enjoy and appreciate the present moment.

11. Everyone is much more friendly and kind

While I had said earlier that Italians are more blunt than Americans, I want to clarify that I don’t mean that they’re rude. Quite the contrary, in fact. Many Italians (especially the Italian students my age that I met at the Collegio di Milano) were very kind and always saying “Ciao” to everyone whenever they passed by them, entered a room, or left a room. Even at dinners, if you were sitting alone, someone was bound to sit down next to you and chat no matter if you wanted them to or not. They also really seemed interested in our lives as Americans and our abroad experience, which I found really refreshing since back home I felt like I never went out of my way to meet or take an interest in the exchange students at my university, which is something I definitely want to do more of now. I also would have never sat down next to someone in the dining hall that I had never met before, and I usually avoid eye contact and don’t say “hi” to strangers that I pass in the hallway or street, but I guess Italains are just friendlier and more outgoing in that way.

12.  Public transit is much easier

I mean, it’s EVERYWHERE. I could take a 6 euro train to Lake Como from Milan in 50 minutes, and travel all throughout Italy and Europe relatively quickly and cheaply by train. All large European cities, including Milan, also have excellent under and above ground public transit options that are easy to use and much cleaner than the ones I’ve experienced in New York City and Boston. Taxis are also ubiquitous, but ubers not so much. And when there are ubers in Europe, they’re typically much more expensive. And don’t even get me started on flights—12 euro ROUNDTRIP flight from Milan to London (2.5 hours)?? Say less. RyanAir is your friend, just remember that.

13. Not many public restrooms

And the public restroom that you do find will be very much tailored to men. Expect to only find restrooms in  buildings or businesses where you have to buy something to eat in order to use it. And many of the ones I used didn’t even have toilet seats, and some were even just holes in the ground! Not the best for ladies, that’s for sure.

14. Limited eggs

For someone who is obsessed with eggs, this was a struggle. Sure, there are some American-styled breakfast places in Milan, but not many. Italian breakfast is usually small, if eaten at all, and consists mostly of pastries (croissants, toast, etc.) and coffee. Good luck finding some good eggs, bacon, sausage, donuts, or bagels.

15. No fall festivities

As someone who is from the wonderful New England state of Vermont, apple picking, pumpkin carving, leaf peeping, and pumpkin-spice lattes are essential elements to our culture from September until Thanksgiving. However, with the leaves changing in Italy in early-mid November (pretty late), and not even getting super colorful fall foliage, coupled with the fact that Italians don’t really celebrate Halloween or Thanksgiving, these fall festivities are virtually obsolete. There will be no apple orchards or pumpkin patches, but don’t fret! You can always head to Starbucks to get your pumpkin-spice latte and still enjoy Milan crisp, autumn air during this season (although it’s still a little humid/warmer than New England). Plus, no one does Christmas like European cities, so you’ll have Christmas markets, trees, lights, and Santa to look forward to come December.

16. Italians don’t use screens in their windows

No, seriously, I saw and opened a lot of windows during my time in Italy, but I don’t think I ever once saw a screen in them, especially back at Collegio di Milano where we ended up having a hugeeee mosquito issue from mid-September until late October. During this time, I would constantly wake up in the middle of the night to buzzing noises around my head and dozens of bites all over my body. I would be killing over ten mosquitos a day in my room! I felt like screens in the windows would have been an easy solution to this, but I think Italy just has a big mosquito problem overall. My advice: buy an LED bug electrocutor tennis racket thing and the Vape outlet plug-ins. Once I installed these in my room, the mosquito issue disappeared.

17. Your menstrual cycle might become irregular…

This one's for the girls reading (obviously), but don’t freak out if your period is really late while you’re abroad, or even disappears altogether! I got my period on time the very first week I arrived in Milan, and then didn’t get it again for the 3.5 months I was over there! I was so scared that I even saw an Italian gynecologist, who said I wasn’t pregnant and that I was fine. Upon more research and talking to the gynecologist, I learned that losing your period for a few months is actually a somewhat common experience for girls traveling abroad for an extended period of time as the time change you undergo as well as the drastic lifestyle change, increased stress, and excessive travel can all affect your hormones and menstrual cycle. And then, low and behold, after about a month of being home back in the U.S., I got my period! Nothing in my weight or health really changed during those four months, so I really think it was just the change in lifestyle and increase in travel! 

And while there were definitely other culture shocks I experienced abroad and that I’m sure you will too, these were just some of the big ones that came to mind. However, I did get used to all of them eventually and even came to love many elements of Italian culture more than my culture back home. In fact, upon returning home, I experience quite a few elements of reverse culture shock (both good and bad), including but not limited to:

1. Not being able to legally drink (bad)

2. Getting to drive my car!! (good)

3. Not having to spend money every day (good)

4. Less fun things to do/look forward to (bad)

5. Missing the friends I made abroad (bad)

6. American food (bad) but being able to cook for myself and have foods like bagels and eggs that I did miss (good)

7. Much harder and more expensive to travel (bad)

8. English kind of sounded…ugly and Americans kind of…annoyed me (bad)

9. Not saying “ciao” or “grazie” all the time…what?? (confusing)

10. Not as many people actually cared that much about my abroad experience or listening to my stories as I thought they would, and some even seemed to resent me for it or get annoyed (bad)

11. And lastly and most surprisingly, I wasn’t as excited for iced coffees and coffee flavoring as I thought I would be! I actually missed my Italian espresso so much that I bought an espresso machine for myself! I think it’s just one of those things that you crave when you know that you can’t have it. One of those “you only appreciate it once it’s gone” type of things that you take for granted when you have it. Which is honestly how I would describe my whole abroad experience…

I miss being in Italy and studying abroad so much. While there’s a lot of cultural differences I had to experience going to Italy and then coming back 3.5 months later, it was truly an amazing experience. There’s so many things I wish I would have had more time to see/do, and so many experiences I wish I could relive all over again, but you know what they say, if you love her, set her free. And if it's meant to be, she'll come back. So here's hoping you come back to me real soon, Milan. I have a feeling we'll be seeing a lot of each other.

Victoria Pembroke

<p>I'm Tori and I'm from North Bennington, Vermont USA. I'm currently a third-year student at Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts studying Finance with minors in Spanish and Information Design and Corporate Communication. At Bentley, I'm treasurer of the Ski and Snowboard Club, Scholarship Chair of Phi Sigma Sigma Sorority, and a member of the Women's Leadership Program, Bentley Literary Society, and Habitat for Humanity. After graduating Bentley I hope to work in corporate finance or investor relations for a few years before eventually following my life-long passion of starting my own fashion brand! I'm therefore so excited to study abroad with IES Abroad in Milan through their Business Studies and Internship program because I'll not only be able to grow as an individual, meet so many new people, and experience an entirely new culture/see new places, but I'll also be able to have hands-on experience in this huge financial district and fashion capital of the world! In my free time I love to alpine ski, read &amp; write, explore new restaurants and visit Boston, have fun with friends, and of course, shop!</p>

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