What To Expect When You Travel Abroad: How To Mentally Prepare In 11 Steps

Obviously when you travel to another country you know that things are going to be different. You’ve most likely read about your destination, you’re excited, you’ve packed, booked tickets and learned how to say a dozen words or so. If you’ve done any research you know the food will be different, you know you’ll find different art and different houses of worship, but have you mentally prepared for the other things? The things that nobody prepares you for. Those things are the ones that travelers don’t always prepare for and those are the things that will often make or break a trip. What can you do to mentally prepare for your vacation abroad?

Napoléon Bonaparte by Andrea Appiani (1754&nda...

Napoléon Bonaparte by Andrea Appiani (1754–1817) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

1. Get rid of the notion that you’re country is number one. This is important for everyone, but especially those of us from the United States. No other country has accepted that their country is inferior to the US. Everyone takes pride in their own country for one reason or another. If you go abroad expecting to get treated like a God because you’re from ‘Merca, you’re trip is going to suck. If you want to enjoy your trip, leave your ethnocentrism at home, and accept that all countries are equal in their differences. And please, try to avoid saying things like, “We saved your ass in World War II,” because not only do you sound ignorant, you also sound like an asshole.

2. Space. Culture doesn’t only impact food, religion, art and architecture, but it also dictates mannerisms, space, eye-contact, and the way people approach one another. In Italy, for example, you’ll notice that there is a lot of eye contact, and people will step right in front of you to grab something they want. People don’t say, “excuse me,” for walking in front of one another in a store aisle. Americans are hyper aware of space and if you invade someone’s bubble you sure as hell better apologize for it. In Italy, it’s not that way. Be aware that if someone steps in front of you to grab a dress they like in a store, they’re not being “rude,” they’re just not as hyper aware that they’ve stepped into your sphere as you are.

English: The eastern part of Midtown Manhattan...

English: The eastern part of Midtown Manhattan as seen from the Empire State Building. Photo credit: Wikipedia)

3. Leisure will be different. If you go to New York, everything happens in a blur. Want to relax? What the hell did you take a vacation to New York for? People walk fast, talk fast, text fast, eat fast, and even get drunk fast. In other places in the US it’s a bit slower. In much of Europe, and especially Italy, time is experienced almost in slow motion. You’re not going to receive your food within five minutes of ordering, and you’re certainly not going to get a check thrown at you while you’re still eating. The wait staff isn’t trying to ruin your life, they’re simply doing things according to their culture and their timeframe. Everything is slower. There’s no rush.

4. Customer service. In the US we’re obsessed with customer service. We expect waiters to practically dance for us, hotel concierge to kiss our asses, and store employees to follow us around like lost dogs. Employees are happy to do it in the US because they’ll be fired if they don’t and also because they’re probably working on commission or tips. In Italy, it’s not easy to fire someone, it’s not easy for people to “move up” in any given company, and they’re not making commission or tips. They’re not going to kiss your ass. They’re not being “mean,” usually, they just don’t often see what’s in it for them to break their backs over you. If anyone does give you amazing treatment, they’re probably an owner, the owner’s family member, or they’re just an insanely nice person who’s doing it out of the kindness of their heart.

5. Eye contact. When I first moved abroad I was pretty sure that everyone was trying to fight me all the damn time. In the US, staring into someone’s eyes is really aggressive or rapey depending on the situation. Sociologists have even conducted studies on different cultures and how long they can make eye contact before it becomes violent. In the US it’s like 2 seconds. In Italy, I imagine it’s about three weeks. They make more eye contact than we’re used to, especially when they’re having a conversation with you. Do your makeup extra fancy or put on your super cute glasses because your eyes are gonna get a lot of play. If you’re traveling to the US, mind your eye contact. Staring into someone’s eyes might get you punched or kissed.

6. Staring. When in Italy I feel like a movie star. While buying tampons, apples, walking down the street, or eating in a restaurant, it’s almost for sure that people are watching me. They’re not being mean, they’re just curious, or bored, or they like your shoes. Whatever, it’s not like in the US where you would never let someone catch you staring at them because it’s considered aggressive and creepy. In Italy, people stare, and they stare, and they stare. It doesn’t mean anything necessarily. If you’re traveling to the US from Italy, don’t stare at people. It’s considered rude. And again, someone might punch you.

7. Dating. The culture of dating is complicated everywhere. It’s even more complicated when you’re in country that isn’t your own. If possible, try to get some advice from locals on how to approach someone that you’re interested in. 9 times out of 10 it’s different than how you’d do it in your home country. Americans are super aggressive. “I like you. Let’s go on a date.” Whereas Italians are used to a sort of “dance,” and game. Our directness is super bizarre and can even be interpreted negatively in some cases. Direct women are obviously “super slutty,” and direct men “must be lying.” My husband thought that there was something “unsavory,” unfolding when I asked him out. You can’t just ask someone out like that, right? There has to be some other motives. My honesty about things was even more confusing. He couldn’t understand why I would just tell him my shortcomings or about my family directly. I did the usual American “over-sharing,” when he expected some kind of other approach I still can’t understand. Some people find our directness refreshing. Some will find it bizarre. Better to find out what the locals find acceptable or polite before you attempt to ask someone out. And remember, “no,” means no pretty much everywhere. Don’t be a psycho.

8. Size. Sometimes when traveling in Europe I’m convinced that the entire continent was inhabited by Dwarves for the better part of the last two-hundred years. Doorways, beds, and even dishes are compact and dainty. When my European friends come to the US they are in awe of the hugeness of it all. Massive cars, huge beds, giant coffees, an entree that could single-handedly bring a starving country out of hunger. Keep in mind that the size of things will change where you travel. People aren’t out to get you, or to steal from you or short you, or fatten you up. There are just different expectations depending on where you are. In the US, aside from NY and San Francisco, you’ll find an obsession with quantity over quality. People want a lot of something even if it tastes like ass. In most of the world, especially in Italy, portions are smaller. You’ll notice that people are also thinner. The restaurant isn’t trying to ruin your life, they’re just not used to “super sizing,” someone’s dinner.

9. Take a look in the mirror. When abroad it’s easy to spend most of your time observing other people. Take a moment to step back and observe yourself. See how the locals might view you and your behavior towards others. Should you have really worn basketball shorts to a five star restaurant? Try to behave in a way that would make your mother proud. Unless your mom is an asshole, then do the opposite.

10. Photography. Every culture has different views on photography that you should be aware of. In Jamaica, they believe that a photograph can steal a part of themselves. They’ll be offended and once someone screamed at me for snapping a pic of them. In Italy it’s illegal to snap pics of children. In some countries you could be jailed for photographing women. Make sure that as you’re abroad snapping away you know what’s acceptable and what isn’t.

11. Manners. What is offensive in the US might be what is polite somewhere else and vice versa. Just because it’s “polite,” in your home country doesn’t mean that it’s safe to assume it’s polite everywhere. There have been plenty of times in Italy that I’ve been horrified to find out what I believed to be polite was actually extremely rude in Italy. There’s an equal number of times that my Italian friends were being incredibly “rude,” in my culture but were totally unaware of it. If someone offends you, consider that it was an accident and they weren’t aware of it. If you offend someone else, just apologize. These things happen. Unless you’re a woman and someone grabs your butt or something. Then punch them. That shit shouldn’t fly anywhere.

The best way to prepare for your trip abroad is to watch movies made in the country you’re visiting, read a book by a native author, listen to music, and obviously read guide books. The best way to experience your trip abroad is to go with an open mind and without expectations. If you expect something you’re bound to be shocked, disappointed or at least terribly confused. Here’s my store of badass resources before visiting or moving to Italy. 

What else am I missing? Any advice for people taking their first big trip abroad? Any funny stories about your first big trip?

45 thoughts on “What To Expect When You Travel Abroad: How To Mentally Prepare In 11 Steps

  1. As always, I love your rantings! Is it really illegal to take photographs of children in Italy? Are you talking creepy photos or just candid shots?

  2. Number 1, number 1, number 1!!! So important and so true, we in the US need to realize that and live it every day, even in our own country. By the way, I absolutely love your writing style! Best line of this post is “Unless your mom is an asshole, than do the opposite.” Love it!

  3. Salve!
    My name is Min and I have been a constant but silent guest in your blog for a year. I love how your write and imagine what comes across in your life. This post was, as always, AWESOME!
    I am constantly waiting for you to write another post and I was so happy to find this when I woke up today:D

    This is a question off topic but I have been trying to send you a e-mail to m.e.evens101 but I am keep getting rejected. Is it my account doing something wrong or did you deactivated it?

    Hope you have a great day!

    PS. Also, I wasn’t planning on being a grammar police but you have a spelling error on #1: you wrote “You’re” instead of “your”. Sorry:p

  4. Oh good GOD! I love that I found you and love that I get to read what you write. You’re the real deal M.E. Keep it real girl!

  5. Number 3 is so true, customer service is a lot slower and take a seat if you are in front of 2 Italians having a conversation while waiting to be served.

  6. Hi M.E.,
    I am Canadian and I have been reading your blog for months as part of the prep work for the Italy trip I am 2 weeks into now. You have nailed it again. From your observation of Italian family dynamics, especially with mamma and their sons,(my mom is Italian and I have a twin brother) to your current post of North American/Italian cultural differences. I also get such a laugh-you write was most people only think. Thanks for the great insight!

  7. Love it! Especially number 9 – good point. You are totally my window to southern Italy! The staring/eye contact thing is incredible. That just doesn’t happen up here in Milan/Como. Sounds really intense! I’m also still turning over the peeing in public thingy from one of your older posts… I haven’t seen anyone do that up here…except for my 3 year old son when he can’t make it to the loo…which is, um, pretty much all the time. haha Who does it there? All ages? So curious!!

    • I actually think the peeing in public thing is mostly a Florence thing. That’s because there is a lot of drinking, and absolutely no public bathrooms. Most of the drinking in the summer happens outside in parks, piazza, etc., but there’s nowhere to use the restroom. I’ve seen it much, much less in the South-South, but daily in Florence. Definitely all ages, both American and Florentine alike. The staring, I’ve noticed that all over Italy with the one exception being Milan. I think that Milan is usually the exception to a lot of this “Italian culture” stuff because it’s a major progressive city. The same way that NY is often an exception in generalizing about the US. It’s like the difference between NY and Alabama, Milan and say, Naples. HAHA. My husband and I are actually talking about relocating to Milan eventually.

      • On my first trip/nightmare to Europe over twenty years ago with my son’s school (five countries in five days…good lord!), one of the parents on the trip was the archetype of the “Ugly American”. Loud, obnoxious, and demanding that English be spoken everwhere we went (see #1 on the list). Hey, asshole, you’re in THEIR county. What a jerk. A small bunch of us, all guys and including Jerko, came up from the Metro and needed a toilet as soon as possible. He found an outside pay loo next to a bar and after going in first, proceeded to hold the door open for each guy after him to avoid paying the toll. Well, a little middle-aged French lady came flying out of the bar and all hell broke loose, yelling and no doubt, swearing at the top of her lungs with thrity-somethings scrambling everywhere to get out of her way. We high tailed it out of there in a hurry and I made sure never to make that mistake again in any country. I can still picture the look of rage on her face. She wanted to kick our asses for sure!

  8. I’m an American and I moved to Italy (Torino) about 3 months ago. I love reading your blog. Question… You said in #11 that there are things you’ve done that you thought were polite but found out were very rude in Italy… could you maybe list a few? I’m starting to wonder about myself…

  9. I’m an American and I just moved to Italy (Torino) about 3 months ago. I love your blog! Question… you wrote in #11 that there are many things that you thought were polite but found out were extremely rude in Italy… could you be more specific? I’m starting to wonder about the things I do…

  10. Don’t forget the national pastime of tailgating (NASCAR calls it drafting), where drivers-riders come from outta nowhere in their cars, trucks and motorcycles, getting so close to you that you can actually see the remains of their last meal on their teeth, now gritted, as they hug you like there is no tomorrow, pushing you to speed up or get off the road.

    • Adding to Palladian’s comment: AND not just when you are in the left lane on the highway. It happens on the city streets as well. If it pisses you off enough, just slow down and make them even more miserable.

  11. Always. Love. Your. Writing. Thanks for another great post! We have lots of guests from America coming this year, maybe I should send them all a link to this blog post before they come… ha ha!

  12. LMFAO! Every new # brought another burst of laughter. This is an especially good list for anyone who hasn’t been to Italy before. I can say from experience that I’ve done or been “done to” everything on your list. You just have to observe how the Italians act and then go with the flow…the Italian way. I’ve been to Italy a number of times (but not enough) and will be returning to Florence next year. I’m having a debate between July (to celebrate my birthday month) when it will probably be much too hot with too many obnoxious tourists (isn’t there always?) or September, maybe October, with cooler weather and less of those pesky tourista. Although, after seeing all of the crazy weather on Girl in Florence’s blog, the fall is sounding kinda scary. Well, maybe not scary but definitely iffy or is that icky?

    Keep me laughing and thanks!

    • Haha! Glad you liked it, love! We’re happy to have a new addition to our batshit crazy community here. Enjoy!

      My favorite month in Italy is October. It’s often still sunny during the day but chilly at night and the rains haven’t usually started yet. Obviously, some years are colder than others but that’s my favorite month by far. It’s also about the time they make wine so that can be a lot of fun, too.😉

      • Correction to my previous post. should read Five countries in SEVEN days, not FIVE. I wouldn’t want anyone to get the wrong impression and think it was too much to do in too little time. Wasn’t hectic at all…..ha!

  13. These are too funny! Having grown up with Italian parents, I thought I knew all these little tidbits of cultural knowledge, but as usual, we made an embarrassing faux pas when travelling in Italy back in 2004 with my American husband and daughters. During that year, making an “L” on your forehead was a popular thing to do if you wanted to let someone know that either you, or someone else, was a loser. So we thought we’d be just as “cute” by having my husband make a makeshift “A” on his forehead whenever he acted like a stereotypical American during our trip in Italy. Well, you can’t really make a real “A” with your hands so he used both hands and made a triangle on his forehead instead. We took lots of pictures with him doing this all over Italy. When we showed our pics of our trip to my Italian cousin, he asked us what Mark was doing in those pics. I explained it to him and he promptly told me that that was an unappropriate gesture in Italy (evidently it symbolizes a part of the female anatomy – of couse it does, doesn’t everything??). Well, needless to say, we felt like the stupid Americans but I’m sure we amused half of Italy whenever he did it! Lesson to self – learn hand gestures, too!

  14. i am really really enjoying reading your blog. it’s nice to see views of people from other Countries. I’m Nigerian and number 2,5,6,7 are absolutely normal circumstances here. loool… Good job.🙂

  15. I came across your blog because I read your comment on Dave’s blog from Buenos Aires, and I was curious to see what expats from the US seek in Italy nowadays. You should come down here in BA, you’ll miss Italy.

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