Culture Shock in Italy: My Personal Bubble Invasion

This month the #DolceVitaBloggers are talking all about culture shock! Whether culture shock delights us or drives us up the wall, it’s undeniable that getting out of our element and discovering a new way to look at life is EXCITING, and that’s why so many people love to travel or live abroad.

There are so many culture shocks that I’ve experienced in Italy over the years that in order to avoid bouncing all over the place like a ping pong ball, I decided to focus on THE BIG ONE, the mother of all shocks.

And that is…ITALY POPPED MY PERSONAL SPACE BUBBLE! (Many times, actually).

Let me start out by saying that generally speaking, Americans are known for having a big personal bubble: “That’s MY SPACE! Don’t get in MY SPACE.” We claim the space around us as OURS. We OWN our space.

If that’s true for Americans, then being born and raised in Nevada, I’d say my personal bubble is even greater than average.

If you’ve never been to Nevada, it’s one of the least densely populated states in the US. Most of the population lives in Las Vegas , about an 8 hour drive from my hometown of Reno in the North. There’s more sagebrush in Nevada than people. It’s still the Wild West. Most of the state is wide open spaces where you can see for miles and miles. I grew up with no houses behind mine, where we could hike and play without ever running into another soul. It’s rugged. It’s remote. We have SO.MUCH.SPACE. In fact, I could barely handle living in San Antonio, TX, the 7th biggest city in the nation, and I get heart palpitations in California traffic.

Nevada Wide Open Spaces (click to watch video)

Nevada Desert

So, you might be able to argue that I have this population density shock in the U.S. too, but there’s a few key things that make my jaw drop in Italy….and even after over a decade of visiting Italy, I STILL GET SHOCKED.

Let me tell you a few stories…

2006: Torino, Italy

I’m at the airport, waiting for my flight to Sicily. I find my gate and sit down amongst rows of empty seats to peacefully read my book. Next thing I know there’s a pint-sized nonna sitting right next to me trying to chat me up. My first thought is “Seriously?! Out of all the empty seats you have to choose the one RIGHT NEXT TO ME and disturb my peace?! Haven’t you ever heard of personal space, lady?” I’m definitely miffed that she has invaded my bubble. But she keeps talking to me, despite the fact that I’m trying to hide my nose in my book, but it turns out she is an angel

If there are empty seats in a public place, such as a movie theater or an airport, Americans will most often choose the the empty seat farthest away from strangers. I couldn’t imagine why in the world this nonna would want to sit right next to me when there were so many empty seats available, but talking to her ended up being one of the most heartwarming experiences of my life. I will never forget her kindness when I most needed it. If you’re curious, you can read that story here. That’s why doing something differently can be so rewarding. I can’t imagine missing out on that interaction with my angel nonna. I will always remember her and be so grateful that she sat next to me, and even more, made an effort to talk to me.

2015: Positano, Italy

I’m enjoying the peaceful sea view from our apartment perched on the cliff above a narrow road that wraps around the mountainside between the cliff above, and the steep drop off to the sea below. There’s no sidewalk, no shoulder, and no room for error, yet there’s a mother casually strolling down the road pushing a stroller as taxis, vespas and buses careen around the curves within inches. I grip my coffee cup a little bit tighter. 

Mom pushing a stroller in Positano
Oh you know, just a casual stroll into oncoming traffic next to a cliff

Positano traffic

Then, as we are leaving Positano, our driver pulls in his sideview mirror as we narrowly scrape past a bus. Just a casual drive along the Amalfi Coast! 

Positano Strada Statale

The American personal space bubble includes the road too! It’s very rare to have a road without a shoulder…in fact, just this week the shoulder on the freeway saved my life. Traffic was merging into one lane due to construction, and a charter bus started pulling into my lane despite my honking. Pulling off to the shoulder is literally the only thing that saved me.

And let’s not even mention the Circumvesuviana…(the regional train from Naples to Pompeii)…100% chance your nose will be crammed into a sweaty armpit.

2017: Veneto, Italy

I’m at the mall, in line to make a purchase. Behind me there are some teenage girls practically breathing down my neck. Why are they so close? HOW RUDE. As soon as I leave the store, I rant to Alberto about their rudeness. That’s normal, he says. Italians stand close in line because otherwise someone else will take their place in line. Ohhhhhh. 

2017: Monterosso, Cinque Terre, Italy

There’s a line a mile long to buy a train ticket. There’s a gap about a foot wide, so I slide in, toe to heel with the person in front of me. Oops. The girl behind me actually is in line. She’s American. I feel like less of an outsider because I know the Italian secret to standing in line – don’t leave a gap. I finally get it. 

Cinque Terre Monterosso Italy

Not to mention every inch of sand is occupied in the summertime…

2018: Rome, Italy

Crossing the street, I feel like I’m playing chicken. Roman drivers rev their engines, impatiently inching into the crowds. I feel like I’ve won the lottery getting across with all my toes. 

Cross if you dare…the Romans are ready to gun it once you get an inch past their tire…

Roman Streets

Now we’re in a taxi circling around Piazza Venezia. It’s a free for all. Lanes are non-existent, yet somehow drivers weave seamlessly in and out. It’s like poetry, organized chaos. Our driver seems to know what he is doing. I’ve never met him before, but somehow I trust him. Even though we are practically wedged between two large buses, I am not afraid at all and sit back and enjoy the thrill of the ride. THIS IS FUN. As long as I’m not driving. 

Roman Roads (click to watch video of our taxi ride!)

So, as you can see, personal space is almost non-existent in Italy, whether you’re sitting down, in a line, crossing the street, or in a car. I actually feel slightly claustrophobic in Italy occasionally (or really any densely populated place). This is the one big culture shock that continues to shock me, even after a decade.

#DolceVitaBloggers

#DolceVitaBloggers is a  monthly bilingual (English/Italian) link up for content creators who love Italy, hosted by Kristie of Mammaprada.com, Jasmine of Questadolcevita.com and myself. Every month we blog or vlog about a different Italy related topic, and you’re invited!

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Hi, I'm Kelly!

I invite you to join me as I document becoming a dual U.S.-Italian citizen, my travels in Italy to discover the best of regional food & wine, and my progress learning Italian, mostly through cooking & wine tasting!

WSET Level 2 Certified Wine Blogger

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karenincalabria
Guest

Ha, ha, so true! Italians are the ultimate in social creatures! Good description of culture shock.

Pina Bresciani
Guest

Hi Kelly! Thank you for sharing! I agree- we here in North America definitely like our space (me included!).
Ps- I miss you on Insta! But totally get why you’re taking a break. If you end up going to Bellingham, please let me know and we can meet 🙂

Lucy and Kelly
Guest

This made us laugh Kelly, because we think it’s the same for us Brits too. We’d much prefer to sit on our own and will get anxious about sitting next to people on trains or buses! It’s the same way Italians are so touchy feeley. My husband says that about out Italian traits! We use our hands to talk but also do the Italian thing of touching someone on the arm or something when having a conversation! :p Definitely not taking into account personal space!!

Kelly xx
http://www.theblossomtwins.com

Cristina
Guest

Great descriptions. Did you know there is no exact Italian word for privacy? Now the English is used pronounced ‘ praivasi’. I wasn’t able to connect to your links, but look forward to reading about the lady on the bus! Ciao, Cristina

Bellissimamma
Guest

Ciao, Kelly! I really enjoyed reading your post. This concept of personal space is really intriguing. When I first came to America, I’ve experienced people giving me dirty looks when I “invaded their personal space” -ex. being too close in the grocery line/ looking at store merchandise, etc. So it took me some time to finally get the exact calculation of “safe distance” in Virginia (I would say about 1-2 meters). Then I went back to Manila, Philippines and boom- everyone’s just a bit too close and I felt like I was suffocating for maybe the first two weeks. Haha.… Read more »

Italophilia
Guest

This made me laugh because in India its just the same!! You will feel the similarities when you are here one day. But I agree that some things about space are equally important to me as they are to you. And I rant about my country people hahaha ….Very nice observations and well put, Kelly!

mammaprada
Guest
mammaprada

This is so true! And that picture of the mother walking into oncoming traffic was crazy!

Questa Dolce Vita (@questadolcevita)
Guest

Hey Kelly, I’m so sorry I’ve just got back from August vacation so catching up on these!!! I LOVE my wide, open spaces like you and I loathe the Italian way of standing in a line where you basically have to be grinding the next guy in line! I dunno if Alberto does this but Massi always cuts into lines and it’s soooooo embarassing when we’re abroad!!! Ahhhh, I feel ike everyone is judging us (they probably are). He does this at airport lines etc. Hate it!

LuLu B - Calabrisella Mia
Guest

This is SO true! There is no such thing as personal space in Italy! I feel “invaded” in my apartment sometimes, because buildings are quite close and windows are usually facing each other. As I’m typing this there is a man standing on his balcony and every so often I get the feeling that he’s glancing into my window curious as to what i’m doing! haha

Rochelle
Guest

I’m constantly having my privacy bubble burst. I can never read with my small nieces and nephews around as they will always ask me what I’m reading and then I’ll have to tell them a story. Also I like to write and that calls for much ‘alone’ time which gives me the label of being ‘a cold and distant’ foreigner. Ah pazienza!