10 things you should know before jetting off to Siena

Getting accepted into a study abroad program is quite exciting and downright just a dream come true. However, there’s a lot you need to prepare for with your time leading up to the big move. Personally, my college required us to take one semester of Italian 101 and to attend weekly meetings to address questions about obtaining a visa, what the program will include, etc. That was definitely not enough for me, especially because I took Italian 101 right before winter break, which caused me to forget pretty much everything I learned!

Here are 10  tips on what you should know before studying abroad to Siena, Italy:

1) Learn basic Italian

Especially in a small town like Siena, where a lot of people don’t speak English, learn the basics and the locals will be happy to help with the rest. This includes knowing which tense to use, how to say good morning/buongiorno, good evening/buonasera, the general and widely known casual greeting ciao!, excuse me/mi scusi, please/per favore, thank you/grazie, and how to order things at a restaurant or cafe, vorrei un… cafe per favore?

Just knowing these little phrases will really come in handy because locals are more than happy to help you (unless you are in a big city like Rome). But most Italians in Siena are often impressed that you even took the time to attempt speaking Italian. I remember getting lost going home one day, I caught the wrong bus which took me way farther than I needed to be. I asked the bus driver if this was Route 10, and when he informed me that it wasn’t, I panicked. All I could say was “Dove Belverde?” “Where is Belverde? (my street name).” The bus driver looked up at me, and smiled before he saw the worry in my face and said, “che l’autobus va a Belverde?” which means “Which bus goes to Belverde?” aka exactly what I was trying to convey. He continued to tell me and gave me instructions on where to go in Italian, made sure I understood, and even announced to me when to get off his bus. I was so grateful for his kindness and patience. This experience helped me to be more confident when speaking Italian and eventually led me to be able to have conversations with random strangers, and even they were willing to help me out when I said something incorrectly!

2) Figure out public transportation

Becoming savvy at riding the city bus, trains, and knowing where to book your flights for the best price is essential to traveling around Italy and Europe in general. While living in Siena, you can walk everywhere, which was probably my favorite part because I loved getting lost in my little Tuscan hometown.

3) Get a map

Leaning tower of Pisa
Mari and I making good use of our maps while visiting the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

As much as I love getting lost, it’s also important to have a map. Mark off all the things you want to see and the places you’d like to visit, and keep it just in case you get really lost (not the good kind).

4) Personal space does not exist

Italians don’t know this concept. Get over it and learn to live with it. I’ve been stuck standing next to lots of smelly people on buses to feeling violated because someone just decided to stand right behind me. Italians just don’t know they’re being rude according to American standards.

5) There is never a wrong time for pizza, gelato, or wine

Chowing down on delicious pizza.

My favorite part about living in Italy was the unlimited amounts of world class pizza, gelato, and wine, at any time of the day. I remember Roberto (my host-dad) once telling me that he only drinks one glass of water per day, and wine throughout the rest of the day because who needs water? “c’e l’acqua in vino,” / There’s water in wine.

6) Differentiate between real and fake gelato

I learned how to do this while I was in Rome. The huge mountains of colorful, eye-catching gelato, is fake. In order to know whether it’s real, it will be a color that can be made from a natural ingredient. For example, the flavor mint would be a white-ish/very light green color -because mint extract is white – instead of bright, mint green.

7) Italians’ engagement with alcohol

Wine at Cubalibro
Sippin vino at Cubalibro in Siena.

A major difference between Americans and Italians is their use of alcohol. Sure,  Italians drink a lot, but they do not drink to get drunk. Instead, drinking is a social activity for them and no way would you catch an Italian being belligerent. In Siena, I was always able to differentiate between American students and Italians because Americans would be walking around with a handle of hard alcohol, while Italians would have a glass of wine, cocktail, or a bottle of beer.

Another interesting thing about Italy’s drinking culture is that the drinking age is only 16 for those buying fermented alcohol such as beer or wine, and 18 for those buying distilled alcohol. There is much controversy over this, but overall, I thought this was a good thing. It teaches teenagers to drink responsibly and learn how to get home by using public transportation. Whereas, in America, since the drinking age is 21, teenagers tend to sneak around and lie to their parents about what they’re doing, leading to more drunk driving and binge drinking for the thrill of it – but that’s an entirely different topic to indulge on.

8) Learn to barter

There is a huge market in Siena that takes place every Wednesday with lots of goodies that you’ll want to buy. If the workers know you aren’t from Siena, they will most likely hike up the prices, so learn to negotiate. This is even more apparent and helpful in bigger cities such as Rome and Florence. I didn’t really need to haggle in Siena, although I was able to get the cutest pair of flats for 5€ when they were originally 10€. My biggest accomplishment took place in Florence when I was on the hunt for the perfect leather jacket. The salesman noticed that I was American and with my parents so he tried to charge us 200€ more than what we bought it for. Crazy!

9) To tip or not to tip?

Tipping isn’t necessary in Italy because of coperto/cover charge, which most, if not all restaurants have. This charge covers water and bread and is included in your bill. Although some places will leave it off of your bill to try and trick you into leaving a tip.

Also, take note on the differences of services you receive in Italian restaurants. Most Americans find it rude because waiters/waitresses won’t constantly ask you how your meal it or be there to refill your drink. But in Italy, meals are a social time and can take up to at least 2 hours. The waiters/waitresses understand that which is why they don’t bother you and why you’re able to feel relaxed and not rushed during your meal.

10) Money

Lots of people suggest getting a money belt while living abroad, I did this and it wasn’t entirely necessary. Girls, you can use your purse, just as long as you don’t leave it hanging open or are oblivious to your surroundings. I also learned that it’s helpful to keep copies of your bank cards and any type of identification, just in case you lose yours; and to keep money in different places (i.e., keep some cash in your wallet, shoes, different clothing, locked in a safe at home or in your hostel, etc.)

I hope you found all or at least some of these tips helpful! What are some things you wish you knew before going abroad? Comment below!

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