In-Your-Face Italy: Traveling as an Introvert in a Land of Extroverts

It’s always so tempting — and so reductive — to paint entire cultures with a broad brush. Usually, I resist. But in this case, I’m going all-in: Italy is a land of extroverts. As an introvert, I both love it…and, on rare occasions, hate it.

Recently I flew home from London on British Airways. Normally those nine-hour flights are a sedate affair, but this time was different. The plane was loaded up with a big group of Italians, heading to Seattle for an Alaska cruise. They rolled onto the plane with fanfare, jamming bags every which way into the overhead compartments, gesticulating wildly, really making a meal out of finding their seats. A couple of hours into the flight, I couldn’t get to the bathrooms because a half-dozen people were jamming the aisles. At first, I thought they were all waiting for the lavatory. Nope…they were simply socializing after dinner.

I’m sure Italy has plenty of introverts. I’ve met some shy, retiring Italians. But not many. To be fair, I suspect that Italian introverts have to adapt to their outgoing society, so they learn to do a good impression of extroverts. (I live in Seattle — a.k.a. Introvert City, USA — where it’s very easy to give yourself over to your loner instincts. Italians don’t have that option.)

For evidence that this is an extrovert’s paradise, you need only walk down the street — any street, anywhere in Italy — at about 6 or 7 p.m. What you’ll find is entire neighborhoods out and about, strolling, greeting each other warmly, sharing an ice cream cone or a cocktail. In Italy, every night is a party. It’s no wonder those Italians on my flight got so fidgety somewhere over Iceland.

Italian culture and society are organized around social interaction. The centerpiece of any Italian town is the piazza — the community living room and meeting place. German towns are organized around the Marktplatz — the market square, a place of commerce. But Italian squares are not designed strictly for commerce. They’re designed for socializing. After dark, the Martkplatz is closed up tight and completely dead. But the piazza is just waking up.

Among Italians, social intelligence is off the charts. I have Italian friends who can size me up and intuit exactly what I’m thinking with one quick glance. They have a sixth sense for people. They get it. I love doing guidebook research in Italy, because what is often the hardest part of my job in other places — explaining that I’m updating a book and just need to ask a few questions — is instantly understood and accommodated.

Have you ever been in Italy, and someone starts talking to you in fast-paced Italian, and you protest that you don’t understand — and they keep going? The more you apologize for not understanding, the more you realize that…no, wait…you do, in fact, somehow understand. Not everything, but a little. Just enough. It’s not that Italians don’t realize that you don’t speak their language. It’s that they don’t care. Because they instinctively grasp that communication is about more than words.

Charmed as I am by Italy, I’ve gotta be honest: It can be tough to be an introvert here. In a big, boisterous gathering, I feel like a fish out of water. From time to time, I need to escape to my hotel room (the introvert’s final refuge). The problem is, in Italy, you can usually hear everything going on in adjacent rooms — thanks to minimal soundproofing, paper-thin doors, and echoey hallways. For years I chalked this up to cheap construction. But on a recent trip, trying to get to sleep around midnight and hearing an animated conversation echoing through the stone staircase just outside my room, it dawned on me: Perhaps, out of a deep-seated drive to be among others, Italians don’t mind hearing other people. Perhaps they find it…comforting.

For an introvert, this can be wearying. Simply put, it’s hard to feel like you’re ever alone here. (This may seem like no big deal to extroverts…but my people understand.)

Street food stand

On the other hand, I’ve come to appreciate the way Italy forces me to stretch my boundaries. Italians have a gift for getting you out of your shell — which I don’t mind doing, even if I need a little encouragement. Rick (a classic extrovert) has a mantra: “Extroverts have more fun. If your trip is low on magic moments, kick yourself and make things happen. ” Easy for him to say. However, I have taken those words to heart since my first big European backpacking trip in 1999. And I find that in Italy, becoming a temporary extrovert comes very naturally. And, sure enough, it’s more fun.

At the end of the day, Italy is a package deal — you take the bountiful good with the occasional bad. And the extraversion of Italy’s wonderful people is something I’ll very happily accept as part of that package. It’s right up there with great art, great pasta, and great gelato: great people.

20 Replies to “In-Your-Face Italy: Traveling as an Introvert in a Land of Extroverts”

  1. YOU’RE an introvert, Cameron? That’s very surprising, but I’m glad you can admit that minor flaw in your character. I’m very extroverted, and your Dad’s books have been the only reason I’ve returned to Europe several times. Please keep up the good work!

  2. I love your writing, Cameron! And Rick, of course. I just returned this weekend from a stay in Rome (an Airbnb in my favorite neighborhood, Piazza Navonna). I understand what you are saying about the vibrancy and social culture (what we might describe as extraversion). I’m an introvert and sometimes we are misunderstood. I’m actually really outgoing if you meet me and am willing to strike up conversations with strangers despite not being fluent in the local language and to make a fool of myself. (But it takes work!) So then, classic introvert, I need to plan time to be alone to recharge. What better place than in Italy!!!! There are endless opportunities to walk and get lost in little cobblestone side streets and amazing churches and on and on. Go get an espresso and stand at a counter to have it. Most Italians are serious about their espresso break, and you can soak in the atmosphere without much conversation. Just walk, walk, walk and explore!!!! Really, it is easier to be an introvert in Italy than in the US to be honest.

  3. Your comment about Italians speaking to you and not really caring that you don’t speak the language really resonates with me. My sister and I are here in Siena right now, celebrating a milestone birthday for her. We had so much fun today trying to find all of the contrada markings. As we took a picture of a drago marking an older gentleman took notice. After walking 50 meters or so he began to speak to us in Italian. We politely explained that we didn’t speak Italian. He kept speaking, though, gesturing, pointing, using words he thought we would understand. We showed him some pictures we had taken and a map of the contradas and he was so pleased with us, at least that’s what his face showed despite our understanding of the language!

  4. Cameron. I only have this to say. When your feeling a little low an Italian hug is wonderful.
    As children we were hugged squeezed and even a gentle pinch on the face. I miss all that and think more children would benefit by this.
    So Cameron love your writing and if I’m ever on a tour with you I’ll try not to honor your space.

  5. Cameron and Steve, please! I’m a frequent, enthusiastic traveler to Italy, and a fan of all things Rick Steves, since that very first book, and also an introvert. Introversion is NOT the same thing as shyness or inexpressiveness, or unfriendliness or lack of social skills or any quality that needs correcting. I’m off to Italy next week and cannot wait to get there and engage fully. The siesta hours give me plenty of time to recharge. Could it be that Italy is the land on happy, friendly, expressive introverts?

  6. I grew up in a small northern Calif. town where there were many Italian immigrants in the lumber & fishing industries. So I felt right at home in Italy when I did the RS Best of Italy and Village Italy tours.
    I love Italy, the people, and will be on the first Best of Tuscany tour in April next year. I can hardly wait.

  7. My Dad was born in Italy and even after being a citizen of the us for many years he always sat on our porch and started conversations with everyone that passed by. He was well known and liked by so many people.

  8. Before being diagnosed with PTSD, I loved to travel Europe. Since that day of being labeled broken, I have visited Europe twice with PTSD. I found Italy to be the most damning place one can go with moderate to severe PTSD. My hpyervigilance stayed in super overdrive. Signs of pick-pocketers, large crowds anywhere we went, scams seemed to be everywhere in Rome, people constantly wanting to talk to you, and so on. Italy is one place I would not recommend for someone working socialization issues. Italy would be more like the final exam.

  9. For myself and my wife, the challenge is to limit ourselves to not doing too much when we travel. Rick is right, extroverts have more fun. We as introverts need to schedule time to recover. Here are a few strategies that we use to find a balance between seeing and experiencing as much as we can and not being overwhelmed:
    1. Ask yourself if you really want to see the major tourist attraction. For example: do you really want to climb the Eiffel Tower or is it just something you think that you’re supposed to do? This is your journey, your time and energy are limited. Only do things that you really want to do. Also ask yourself if you will still enjoy it if the place is swarming with tourists.
    2. Take your time. We had almost finished our tour of the Real Alcazar in Seville and my wife said: “I want to see it again. I am here now, this place is amazing. I am probably never coming back. So I want to see it again to remember as much as I can.” We found a shortcut to the start of the tour and did it again. And then once more.
    3. Plan recovery time. Sometimes you need to push yourself and be more extroverted than you are in order to get the most out of a city. After 4-8 days in cities we always try to find ourselves an apartment in a sleepy village near a nature area. Spend some time doing nothing and you’ll find that you will have new experiences that you would have at home, also without the hustle and bustle of a major tourist destination.
    4. Spend at least 50% of your nights in apartments. It’s a great way to have some more time to yourself. Going out for dinner is a great way to experience a country but it can be taxing for introverts to have breakfast and dinner in a crowd. Another great way to experience a country is to go to a shop or a market to buy food. You’ll never cook if you’re staying in a hotel and therefore you’ll never buy the kinds of food that you’ll buy staying in an apartment. Try buying something you don’t know and ask a local to explain how to cook it.
    5. Book accommodation with soundproofing and/or check reviews for complaints about noise. Your hotel room or apartment is your recovery space. If you can’t sleep because you hear people, you’re not going to enjoy the next day(s).

    I hope these are a few useful tips for fellow introverted travellers.

    Happy travels!

  10. I’m of Scottish Italian ancestry. It was quite complex for my parents who married in 1940. The Italians were an excitable lot, a big meal and ruckus evening of rambling stories and a love on their sleeve evening was always the case were everyone sat with the elders in such a respectful way. Mom, was a saint, the Scottish culture was by comparison deeply thoughtful, quietly managing their lives, with simple paced living, avoiding drama and using wit and logic as a keen social currency. I inherited the genetics of an Italian on the surface but a deep Scottish heart and mind on the inside, raised a pagan Methodist in the eyes of the flowing robes and incense of my father’s church. We attended both, from the Filipino minister at our king James church in the Appalachian foot hills to the noisy outrageous bingo hall of father Frank, it’s a complexity that I love, you haven’t lived until you played bocce and enjoy a frenet at the sons of Italy hall that your grandfather use d his mule and a plow to dig the foundation of the building, nor have you experienced the observer role of the hopeful Scottish coal miner. Italianism comes with baggage, some good and a lot of headaches, but in the end joy deep on the inside or worn on the sleeve is fine by me

  11. I always look forward to Cameron’s posts – so insightful and descriptive, and he chooses some topics that are not so mainstream.

    Also, Lennart’s tips are spot-on for introverts to recover/not exhaust themselves in a busy city. My husband and I are very introverted, and some of the tips Lennart mentioned are the exact ways that we’ve been able to appreciate Rome as one of our most favourite destinations!

  12. We are in an Airbnb for a week in the D’Orcia valley with our daughter & her fiancé. It is a quiet town between Montalcino & Pienza away from crowds. Most people do all of these wine towns in a day where we have done them over 3 days. I recommend this type of stay for Troy.
    I have several Rick Steves kindle books on my iPad. Not all are up-to-date. For instance, the restaurant names have changed. Look for Daria, not la Porta, in Monticchiello for the most fabulous food. Also, the kindle Italian dictionary is probably easier to use as a paperback than on a phone. The dictionary section should be expanded as I see words that are not included.

  13. Thank you for this article Cameron. I have Italian relatives and friends in northern Italy, love them they wear me out! I thought it was just me.

  14. This story reminded me of a time long ago when I lived in Italy with Italian and Greek roommates. One day I was trying to explain to them my need to have some time to myself and to have some privacy. We were speaking Italian and despite help from a dictionary I could not get the idea across. That is because the word “privacy” did not exist in my Italian-English dictionary! They all kept looking at me like I was crazy, then suggested we all go out to dinner.

  15. i moved to italy from the u.s. west coast 3 years ago. i live in a small village in the northwestern tip of tuscany, near the ligurian border. what you say is true, cameron. italians “instinctively grasp that communication is about more than words.” i’m still struggling with the language. it doesn’t matter. the people in my area have welcomed and embraced my husband and me, despite our futile attempts to properly communicate. because somehow, it all works.

    p.s. i am and have always been an extrovert. the italians still tire me out at times!

  16. Yes! I lived in Italy for a time and was particularly exhausted by long meals and the subsequent conversation at the table that would go on for hours. Many is the time I wanted to do a face plant in my pasta. Definitely a rough place for an introvert.

  17. Glad you wrote this, and especially glad for the comments. I am a semi-introvert. When I am in a big group, I can’t think of anything to say. At home. When I travel, some button gets pushed and it’s easy to start conversations with locals. I speak some italian, and they are always so enthusiastic when you try their language. It helps that I live in Hawaii, so that everyone who learns this is amazed and wants to know more. In countries in which I struggle with the language I do find it harder to interact with people I meet. They just answer your questions and want to be done.
    One country that surprised me was Ireland. My cousin stopped a random guy on the street to ask where to go to hear music, and got into a 5 minute conversation. (I can barely understand the accent, but my cousin lives in England so gets more exposure.)

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