What Bugs You About Italy: The Being Taken Advantage Of Edition

Last month, the Italy Roundtable topic of “bugs” led me to ask a bunch of people what bothers them about Italy so that I could try to figure out potential solutions to those issues. I got so many great responses that I only used a few of them in the original article – and this month, I’m tackling a couple more.

The two I’m covering today actually started some discussions on Facebook. A few people jumped in defensively with, “That’s never happened to me in all my trips to Italy” which seems to insinuate that it can’t have happened to someone else – or that (if it did), it shouldn’t be applied as a blanket statement about an entire country.

The thing is, when something crappy happens on your vacation, it doesn’t matter if it’s a rare event or if you were partly at fault or that the awful feeling in the pit of your stomach isn’t rightly about a whole culture. It just sucks. Period.

So, again, I issue the same highlighted warning I did in the original “what bugs you” article:

The intention of this article is not to start some diatribe on all the ways Italy sucks. I welcome comments on this article. If you’ve got something that bothered/bothers you about Italy, please leave a note – and if you’ve got a solution, something you did to remedy the situation, even better. Just keep it kind, okay? We all need a little more kindness.

And now? On to the two “bugs” I’m tackling today…

Mosquito || creative commons photo by Brian C

Mosquito || creative commons photo by Brian C

“On-the-street marketers (of tours or whatever) won’t take no for an answer and stalk you, even after you say that no, you’re not interested. No is no, no matter what the language.”

– Susan,

“You have to always be on guard against being cheated, whether it’s the wrong change or an undecipherable receipt at a restaurant.”

– Heather,

I’m lumping these two items together under the umbrella of “being taken advantage of because you’re a foreigner.” And, I’m sorry to say, this happens, whether you realize it or not.

(Reality check: This happens all over the world, not just in Italy. It happens in your home country, too.)

The answer for how to deal with this is to strike the delicate balance between “expecting to be cheated” and “not expecting everyone to be a cheat.” And that can be really, really hard to do.

Tackling the first issue – about tour salesmen – is a bit easier, since you can just keep walking away from someone selling a tour and eventually they’ll give up (or, more likely, find a new “victim”). This is one of the instances when looking more like a local can be extremely helpful – they’re not going to try to sell a Vatican tour to someone who lives there, after all.

What I try to do when I’m approaching a tourist attraction and the inevitable tour sellers crowding the sidewalk is:

  • Walk with purpose. I try to not look like I’m sightseeing, and I try not to stop to look at a map or pull out a camera until I’m well out of their range. Walking with purpose can convey that you either already have something booked or (at least) you’re not a visitor in need to help.
  • Avoid talking, or at least talking too loudly. Speaking English or German or French or whatever your native language is means that a tour seller has an in. They know you’re not from around these parts, and will dive in with the appropriate language. And, because you’re in Italy, you’ll probably react to hearing your native tongue, since it’s not what you expect. And then they’ve got your attention.
  • Put headphones on. Normally, I hate doing this when I travel. I want to hear the weird world around me. But I usually have my earbuds in my purse, especially if I’m traveling alone, and I’ll pop them in sometimes (I’m not listening to anything) to appear as if I couldn’t hear a sales pitch, anyway.

That all makes it sound like you should expect every crowd around a tourist attraction to be full of touts, and that I’m suggesting you shut yourself off from potentially positive tour experiences. To an extent, that’s true. I don’t always do the things on that list, either. Sometimes I’m okay with repeatedly saying, “No, grazie,” and continuing on my way. And there have been a couple times I’ve booked a tour from a sidewalk seller and had a lovely time.

So the key, I think, is being prepared for the situation and finding the behavior with which you’re comfortable. Find the space in that middle ground – the one between expecting to be cheated and not expecting everyone to be a cheat – that feels appropriate to you. Remember, finding that perfect spot may take some trial and error.

The second issue under this umbrella – feeling like you always have to be on guard against being cheated – is more of a challenge, I think.

As I mentioned at the outset, comparing your experience against statistics after the fact isn’t always helpful. When you have your wallet stolen on the Metro in Rome, it doesn’t help to know that this doesn’t happen all the time. What you know is your wallet got stolen. When you find out after the gondola ride in Venice that you were charged per person instead of per boat ride (a clear case of cheating someone who doesn’t know any better), it doesn’t matter that most gondoliers don’t do that. You got cheated, plain and simple. Having that happen while you’re traveling can ruin a trip.

Some preventive measures can help keep you from even getting into situations like this in the first place. Look up the going rate for a gondola ride before you leave home so you’re armed with the proper information before you even ask how much the ride is. Bring – and weara money belt, especially on public transit or in busy markets, because there are pickpockets in every major city (particularly those with a heavy influx of tourists who are too busy looking at monuments to mind their valuables).

You’d count the change at the store down the street from your house, so count the change in Italy. Sure, it’ll take you a little longer, because the coins and bills don’t look the same, but do it anyway, and do it before you leave the shop or restaurant. Ask the waiter if something looks unclear on the receipt, and if he or she doesn’t speak English, ask someone else.

Or? You can walk out of the shop with the knowledge that you may be out a few too many euro, deciding that it’s not worth the hassle. Just don’t continue to be upset if you choose this path.

I’d also caution everyone – every single person, really, whether you’re traveling to Italy or Mozambique or the corner store – not to paint a whole culture with a broad brush based on an encounter with a few people. Yes, there are people in Italy who suck, who will try to cheat you or rob you because they think they can. And there are people in your home country who are just like them. I believe the vast majority of the people you’ll encounter in Italy will either be wonderfully warm or forgettably pleasant (for lack of a better term).

What bugs you?

I’ll keep this series going as long as I’ve got contributions to address! If you want to chime in on what bugs you about Italy, I might just feature it in a future article. Just remember to keep it kind, y’all.

Leave a comment below with something that bugs you about Italy, or you can email me if you prefer.

Read more travel safety tips for Italy

4 responses to “What Bugs You About Italy: The Being Taken Advantage Of Edition”

  1. Leslie says:

    You are spot on with recommendations. In all my trips to Italia the only bad experience was with a cab driver at the airport. I took money out to tip him and he grabbed a 10e note from my hand spun around, jumped in his taxi and sped off. I was alone and very early am. No one to assist. Next time I have money ready to give when I get out of cab.

    • Jessica says:

      Ugh, that sounds like an unpleasant experience… It sounds like you’ve got a good plan to keep it from happening again. 🙂 Thanks for your comment!

  2. michael fallai says:

    I have spent a considerable amount of time in Italy (I literally cannot count how many trips I’ve made, especially since my wife started working at an airline!), and to this day I still struggle with the “jumping the queue” thing. That is, not letting it happen in the first place, and how to handle it if it does happen.

    (for those who don’t know, it’s virtually the national sport – just behind soccer – to cut in front of others while waiting on line. There are techniques to preventing it from happening, as it’s rare that anybody will just shove you aside. But people will definitely try to “drift” or “shuffle” in front of you as the line creeps forward. But once it does happen, you just shut up and act like you allowed that person get in front of you; to get mad about it – or worse, yell at someone about it – makes *you* the rude person. Think of it as, “you got screwed fair and square.”)

    I’ve gotten better at it, but every time I go there I have to put on a different mental hat, so to speak, once the plane lands. And on those now-rare occasions when someone does get in front of me, I sometimes struggle with my reaction because in the US one never does this!

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