The more in the south you are, the more chaotic the traffic seems to be. ‘Seems to be’, because for the initiated it isn’t. Some Italians see traffic signs not as a ‘must’ follow but as a ‘can’, for example, who has the right of way is sometimes discussed nonverbally with hand gestures which foreigners don’t notice, let alone understand and, believe it or not, Italians don’t cause more traffic accidents than other peoples.
My advice is: Follow the rules to be on the safe side but don’t be surprised if people honk their horns at you because you hinder the flow of the traffic.
If you want to cross the street at a zebra crossing and the cars don’t stop and the drivers don’t seem to notice you at all, don’t despair. Wait until there’s a gap, step into the street, look at the next approaching car, raise your hand and start walking. It works, believe me!
If you can’t speak Italian, it’s better not to take a taxi, in the north (and in Sardinia) the taximeter usually shows the price you have to pay, in the south I’d be surprised if it did or if the taxi-driver had change in case you couldn’t give him the exact fare. Of course, I’m generalising here, but from my own experience I can say that taking a taxi has become cheaper and cheaper for me the better my Italian has become.
BUSES, TRAMS, TRAINS
Drivers of buses and trams don’t sell tickets, you have to buy them at newspaper stalls or in bars which have a black sign outside with a white T on it, the T stands for ‘tobacco’, in such bars cigarettes, tickets and also stamps are sold. Don’t forget to stamp your ticket, there are automats in the buses and trams, if you’re in a train station, you’ll find the automats at the beginning of the platforms. You’ll have to pay a fine if your ticket isn’t stamped.
The typical English breakfast is the exact opposite of the Italian one. I know grown-ups who have a cup of espresso in the morning and that’s it, children may get milk / milk with coffee / coffee with milk (according to their age) and some dry biscuits. If you can’t find out on the net whether your hotel offers breakfast the way you expect it, book your room without breakfast if possible (unfortunately it isn’t always possible), usually you only get coffee and milk, some biscuits, butter and jam and have to pay a lot of money for this. Leave your hotel in the morning without breakfast and head to the nearest bar, have a cappuccino and a Danish pastry, both will be excellent and not at all expensive.
If you’re a tea drinker: Do. Not. Order. Tea. NEVER! Italy is coffee country, the coffee is very good, the tea is very bad. If you don’t follow my advice, you’ll get a teabag which has been in the drawer under the counter for ages lying on the saucer beside a glass of water which may be hot if you‘re lucky or tepid if you‘re not, it certainly won’t be boiling.
When you want to eat and drink in a bar, you must first go to the till, say what you want, pay and then go with your receipt to the counter, there you hand it to the barista (the person behind the counter) who’ll give you what you’ve paid for. Please keep in mind that Italians don’t queue (just like all the other European peoples don’t), don’t wait until the barista notices you, this may take forever or not happen at all, if you see people in front of you who’ve come in after you, say, "Scusi, tocca a me." (‘e’ is pronounced like ‘ea’ in ‘great’) [Excuse me, it’s my turn.] and people will look at you in a friendly way and you’ll get what you want.
Btw, Italians drink cappuccino only in the morning and find it very funny that foreigners enjoy drinking it in the afternoon as well. No problem, though, you’ll get what you order.
Traditionally pizza is eaten in the evening, Italians drink beer with pizza, not wine. Of course, you’ll be given what you order, I’m telling you this just in case you want to eat like the Italians do.
Should you be invited to visit Italians at home for supper, don’t be surprised if the bottle of wine disappears when the table is cleared, wine is drunk during the meal, not afterwards.
Spag bol and other pasta dishes are not main dishes in Italy as they are in Italian restaurants abroad, so don’t be surprised if you get a small portion only. If you eat with Italians, take only a small amount of pasta, otherwise you want have any room in your stomach for the main dish.
If you order, say, a beefsteak, you’ll get a plate with a beefsteak on it, nothing else, vegetables, potatoes and salad must be ordered extra. The price for meat and fish is often given for the amount of 100g on the menu, so look carefully when you order, don’t think, "Oh, that’s cheap!" and then complain that you’ve been cheated when the steak weighs, say, 400g and costs accordingly.
Italians don’t walk through their cities half naked when it’s hot, so maybe you should consider not doing it, either. In some cities, Venice, for example, the police tell tourists to put on a shirt, I love the Venetians for that! Guardians at the entrance of St Peter’s in Rome don’t allow tourists to enter if they aren’t properly dressed, fine with me. Nobody forces tourists to go sightseeing when it’s blazing hot anyway, why not do it early in the morning and spend the hot hours in a park or in a chilly church? (Friends of ours did the latter and were locked in when the custodian went home for his siesta, they didn’t panic, though, but stretched out on the benches and had a nap until he came back)
The topic Italian bathrooms is a sad one, I’ve been to towns without any public bathrooms at all, what does one do in such a case? One goes to a bar (again), all bars must have one for the customers. Officially they’re inspected regularly, unofficially they’re not, so that one never knows what one’s going to find. The last time I was in Naples I was on my own and had to use a bathroom whose door couldn’t be locked, fortunately all went well.
Passers-by should be allowed to use the bathrooms without consuming anything but not many proprietors like this, they may ask you if you‘re a client. If this happens, say ‘yes’; it helps to be of a certain age and look trustworthy. It’s also a good idea to go to big hotels frequented by foreigners and to behave as if you were staying there, if you do this convincingly, nobody will throw you out. When I’m in Venice, I use the bathroom of a top hotel for mainly American and Japanese tourists.
The bathrooms in the big filling stations at the motorways which also have restaurants are usually good and can be recommended.
Not all Italians haggle, in Sardinia (the region I know best), for example, nobody does and tourists don’t make a good impression if they do. In Florence you can find ‘Prezzi fissi’ (fixed prices) in the stalls on the street markets, haggling leads you nowhere there. But whenever I bought something, I got 10% off because I spoke Italian, so you see learning a foreign language pays.
Should you find a common language with an Italian, don’t be surprised to be asked intimate questions, e.g., what your marital status is, what you do for a living, how much you learn, your political tendencies, all no-no topics in Germany. Co-travellers I met in Italian trains know more about me than colleagues with whom I’ve worked for more than 20 years. Why? Because they asked, my colleagues don’t.