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Alien in LA

  Moving from Italy to Los Angeles? (Pluto, this is for you). Here are a few notes that I hope will help you. Some of this may be useful even if you are moving from another country or another part of the US, but mine is an Italian perspective. When I moved to LA from a small town in Romagna, I had no idea what to expect and I certainly underestimated the culture shock factor. I've been away from Italy for so long, though, that I am a little out of touch with the way things are there now, so some things that struck me as odd fourteen years ago, may be familiar to you now.

  • You can survive in LA without a car, but it'll crimp your style. You need a car, and you need a car with air conditioning.
  • At a red light, you can (and should) turn right after checking for oncoming traffic. If you don't, people will honk. This is not true throughout the US, so if you are moving to a state other than California, check the local laws.
  • Get an international driver license before you get here so you can start driving right away, but get a California driver's license as soon as you can. It does double duty as ID card and it'll be the document you use the most.
  • Auto insurance is very expensive. Your premium will be a factor of your age, your driving record (you start handicapped since the record in your country of origin doesn't count), the kind and age of your vehicle, and the zip code you are living in. Different parts of LA have different premium rates depending on how dangerous they are and other factors I am not really sure about. The $ difference can be significant.
  • If you park your car in a parking structure close to a restaurant or shop you are going to visit, ask them if they validate parking. It may save you a few bucks.
  • Some abbreviations you should know about:
    FWY = freeway
    HWY = highway
    CYN = canyon
    ped = pedestrian
    xing = crossing
  • And talking about pedestrian crossings (le zebre pedonali), in a few selected places — such as Old Town Pasadena — you'll encounter diagonal crossings. Most people still get those wrong, so proceed with caution, but this is how they are supposed to work. When the little man turns green, all pedestrians can cross in any direction, including in diagonal in the middle of the intersection. Then when the traffic light is green in one direction, the cars facing that direction cross. Then it'll be green light for the cars in the opposite direction. Then again all pedestrians. In theory it's a good idea; practice… well, that's another thing.

  • Houses are mostly made of wood. A friend of mine visiting from Italy kept tapping on houses and restaurants and couldn't get over the hollow sound. They didn't feel real to her and she called them "le case dei puffi" (Smurfs' houses). They go up in smoke at the slightest provocation, and rot because of water and insects. BUT, if you find yourself in an earthquake, you are not going to be crashed by tons of bricks. I lived in North Hollywood at the time of the Northridge earthquake and by the strength of the jolt I thought I was going to die. Then I remembered that I wasn't in Italy anymore.
  • The vast majority of houses and apartments have wall-to-wall carpet (la moquette), a mystery to me to this day, given the climate. They also have uncomfortably low ceilings. On the bright side, they come with built-in closets and kitchens so you don't have to buy a wardrobe and most kitchen appliances every time you move. And chances are, you will move.

  • Acronyms and abbreviations can be puzzling at first, but you'll pick up on them fast.
  • You'll be asked "How are you?" several times a day. It doesn't mean "Come stai?"; it's just the local version of "Hi" or "Good morning". Trust me, no need to tell people about your high blood pressure or your student loans; they couldn't care less. Instead, say "Pretty good, thank you. How about yourself?". And if they ask "What's up?", answer "Nothing much" and that'll be the end of it.
  • British vs. American English — There's probably a booklet you can pick up that points out the differences between the queen's English and American English. While you look for one, you could start reading this article on Wikipedia.

  • In General — Things are looking up compared to the early nineties, but you shouldn't expect to find all the things you have in Italy. For example, most "mozzarella" here wouldn't even be allowed to be called that way back home, as it's made using vinegar. You can find real mozzarella and even mozzarella di bufala in a few places. It's rather expensive and nothing compared to the real thing. Although Trader Joe's has a decent one at a reasonable price. Things like prosciutto and parmigiano are also easy to find these days, but lower quality. I can think of two reasons for this:

    a) Italians tend to keep the good stuff and export (slightly) inferior quality goods (we like to think that we are the only ones capable of appreciating the difference)

    b) shipment and storage conditions at destination often hurt perishable food. This is especially obvious with wine.

  • Wine — You have access to wines from all over the world, but they all suffer from the same long shipments and often poor storage conditions at destination as the wines from Italy, unless you can afford the specialized stores. You should try the California wines. I don't like the ones you find at most stores because the are way too oaky, but I know that there are better ones; you just have to get to know them. I haven't tried very hard. What can I say… give me a glass of Sangiovese or Barbera any day.
  • Food places — I am big fan of silverware and ceramic plates. Sadly, most coffee places will serve drinks in paper cups and offer you plastic utensils. Paper, I don't mind so much, as it doesn't alter the taste of food. Styrofoam, I loath.
  • Portions — gigantic. Think the opposite of nouvelle cuisine.
  • Coffee — When asking for coffee, keep in mind that it's not espresso, but rather a dark watery drink that comes in many sizes, all BIG. They used to have small, medium and big, but that was too easy. Now they have grande, tall, and venti. Don't ask; I have no idea. But trust me, they are all big. Oh, and by the way, latte does not mean milk here. It's a fancy name for a kind of coffee drink that has some milk in it.
  • Espresso — It's hard to find really good espresso. In my area, the best espresso is at a Cuban bakery called Portos' that has locations in Glendale and Burbank.
  • Pizza — When ordering pizza at a restaurant or delivery service, don't be surprised when it comes already cut in slices. It's just the way they do things here.
  • Ice — If you ask for water, it will come with ice, unless you specifically ask for water without ice.
  • Restaurants — One of the advantages of living in LA is that you have access to a lot of variety. Restaurants are no exception; you'll find Mexican, Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Indian, Ethiopian, Korean, Cambodian, Italian, French, Mongolian, and so on. Try them all and find what you love.
  • Doggy bags — Everybody does it. You'll get over it. It took me a while, but I have been assimilated. I now take home leftovers (well, it depends on the kind of leftovers).
  • Before you get homesick and go looking for an Italian restaurant, you should know what to expect. Some tips in an older entry: Faux Italian.


Grocery shopping
At supermarkets, someone standing next to the cashier will ask you "Paper or plastic?" and bag your groceries for you.

There is no intermission in movie theaters; pee before the show.

Taming the beast
I don't know how much of this is only LA and how much is widespread American, but there is a strange preoccupation with making everything look and behave "tame". Some examples:
— Compulsive shaving
— Declawing cats
— Removing thorns from roses
I should perhaps explain that declawing is not nail clipping. No, it's an amputation, where the poor cat loses body parts for the convenience of its owners. So inconvenient to have your furniture scratched… Have all those people vaporized, I say!

I pointed out a lot of things that may puzzle you at first, but there's a lot of good stuff, too. For instance, when you do your tax returns in April, you get your refunds (if you are entitled) in a matter of weeks. That's right, weeks! Weeks! No, really, weeks! Try to do that in Italy.

There's so many things that are different that I could go on for a week, but I just wanted to give you an idea. And now, Buon viaggio!


thank u very much! it ll help me for sure!

Where were you when I came to the US ~10 years ago ;-) I still can't get used to the wooden houses but obviously, I enjoy the large portions.

When I was in Italy and trying to buy some "cold cuts" and cheese, the lovely lady who was helping me explained to the shopkeeper that I needed a half pound of everything because I was an American!

What a great posting. I've never been to the US, but comparing cultures is always fun.
You confirm some of my prejudices about Americans (like the giant portions and compulsive shavings), and enlightened me as well.
Wee, too, pee before the show, and one town in Norway has those strange diagonal pedestrian crossings (Trondheim). They always have me confused.