Italian traffic can at best be described as chaotic, at worst downright dangerous for the unprepared foreigner. Drivers are not keen to stop for pedestrians, even at pedestrian crossings, and are more likely to serve. Italians simply step off the pavement and walk through the (swerving) traffic with determination. It is a practice that seems to work, so if you feel uncertain about crossing a busy road, with for the next Italian. (Better still, wait for a nun or priest to cross the road - most Italians seem to "stop for God".)
In many cities, roads that appear to be for one-way traffic have lanes for buses travelling in the opposite direction - always look both ways before stepping onto the road.
Foreigners will be affected in a variety of ways by the surprising disregard Italians have for their country. Noise and air pollution are problems in the major cities, caused mainly by heavy traffic. A headache after a day of sightseeing in Rome is likely to be caused mainly by breathing carbon monoxide and lead, rather than simple tiredness. While cities such as Rome, Florence and Milan have banned normal traffic from their historic centres, there are still more than enough cars, buses and motorcycles in and around the inner cities to pollute the air.
Particularly in summer, there are periodic pollution alerts. The elderly, children and people who have respiratory problems are warned to stay indoors. If you have respiratory problems, keep yourself informed through your host family or the tourist office.
One of the most annoying things about cities such as Rome, Naples, Palermo and Catania is that the pavements are littered with dog pooh - so be careful where you plant your feet.
Italy's beaches are generally heavily polluted by industrial waste, sewage and oil spills from the Mediterranean's considerable sea traffic. There are clean beaches on Sardinia, Sicily and in the less populated areas of the south and around Elba.
It requires a lot of patience to deal with the Italian concept of service. What for Italians is simply a way of life can be horrifying
for the foreigner. For example, the bank clerk who wanders off to have a cigarette just as it is your turn to be served (after a one-hour wait) or the postal worker who has too much important work to do at a desk to sell stamps to customers. Anyone in a uniform or behind a counter (including police officers, waiters and shop assistants) is likely to regard you with imperious contempt. Long queues are the norm in banks, post offices and any government offices.
It pays to remain calm and patient. Aggressive, demanding and angry customers stand virtually no chance of getting what they want.
As a popular destination for both tourists and immigrants, Italy is used to foreigners and it is very rare for Italians to show any animosity to strangers. However, the recent rise in illegal immigrants, known as extracomunitari to the Italians, entering Italy has led to some racial tensions.
For many Italians, finding ways to get around the law (any law) is a way of life. They are likely to react with surprise, if not annoyance, if you point out that they might be breaking the law. Few people pay attention to speed limits; most motorcyclists and many drivers don't stop at red lights - and certainly not at pedestrian crossings. No-one bats ad eyelid about littering or dogs pooping in the middle of the pavement, even though many municipal governments have introduced laws against these things. But these are minor transgressions when measured up against the country's organised crime, the extraordinary levels of tax evasion and the corruption in government and business.
Italy's drug laws are relatively lenient on drug users and heavy on pushers. If you're caught with drugs which the police determine are for your personal use, you'll be let off with a warning (and, of course, the drugs will be confiscated). If, instead, it is determined that you intend to sell the drugs in your possession, you could find yourself in prison. It's up to the discretion of the police to determine whether or not you're a pusher, since the law is not specific about quantities. It's best to avoid illicit drugs altogether. If you are caught with any type of drug you could be instantly dismissed from your host family.
The legal limit for blood-alcohol level is 0.08% and random breath tests do occur.
To call the polizia (police) dial the free-phone emergency number Tel 113. To report a non-violent theft or incident that doesn't endanger life, call the carabinieri(military police with civic duties) on Tel 112.
If you run into trouble in Italy, you're likely to end up dealing with either the polizia or the carabineri. The polizia are a civil force and take their orders from the Ministry of the Interior, while the carabinieri fall under the Ministry of Defence. There is considerable duplication of their roles, despite a 1981 reform of the police forces which intended to merge the two. Both forces are responsible for public order and security, which means that you can visit either in the event of a robbery or attack.
The carabinieri wear a black uniform with a red stripe and drive dark-blue cars with a red stripe. They are well trained and tend to be helpful. You are more likely to be pulled over by the carabinieri than the polizia if you are speeding. Their police station is called a caserma (barracks), a reflection of their military status.
The polizia wear powder-blue trousers with a fuchsia stripe and a navy-blue jacket. They drive light-blue cars with a white stripe and "polizia" written on the side. People wanting to get a residence permit will have to deal with them. Their headquarters is called a questura.
Other varieties of police in Italy include the vigili urbani, who are basically traffic police. You will have to deal with them if you get a parking ticket or your car is towed away. The guardia di finanza are responsible for fighting tax evasion and drug smuggling. It's a long shot, but you could be stopped by one of them if you leave a shop without a receipt for your purchase. The guardia forestale or corpo forestale are responsible for enforcing laws concerning forests and their fauna and flora and the environment in general. Like the carabinieri, their headquarters is called a caserma. They are often found in isolated townships bordering on areas of environmental interest. They are armed and can fine law-breakers.
Tel:+44 (0)20 85423067. Fax:+44 (0)207 1529598