Upon being called to the Catania Mission, a number of people have written for information on what to take or what to expect. Here are some of my impressions on those topics. Many things have changed since I finished my mission in July 1991, so please remember not to accept everything I say as the current state of affairs. By the way, there's nothing inherently derogatory in the term "greenies." It's a term of affection, kind of. Wear it with pride. The good kind of pride, of course.
Many people seem to think the weather in southern Italy is always balmy. Summers are sweltering but winters can be cold -- especially for missionaries, who spend a lot of time outside. Mission boundaries extend up toward central Italy, and that part of the mission gets pretty chilly. I wore thermals and frequently used a scarf along with my overcoat.
My wardrobe included five short sleeve shirts, several long sleeves, a couple pairs of pants, two suits, and a button-down sweater. All of those items were acceptable missionary attire in my day, including the striped dress pants I bought at the open market. That's up to your mission president.
It's important to have a number of shirts because the washing machines take about three hours to do a load, and dryers take the form of indoor and outdoor clotheslines. That means clothes may not dry for a couple of days in winter months. All the houses have a washing machine and you don't have to do laundry on p-day. They also have an iron and ironing board, so if you bought one of those dual-voltage mini travel irons, take it back to Wal-Mart!
You'll definitely want a raincoat/overcoat -- the zip-in liner thing is probably best, although some missionaries bring both a winter coat and a raincoat. I took no coat at all, but was fortunate to inherit someone's old one in my first city. Most apartments had spare items of clothing people had left behind, most of which were left behind with good reason. So unless you have a penchant for living on the edge, go ahead and take a raincoat, bedsheets, and the other items on the list they sent you.
Except maybe the rubber overshoes. We all used raincoats and umbrellas, but only a few elders wore the overshoes. Maybe by now the Church has stopped telling missionaries to take those ridiculous things with the embarrassing name -- although they really do keep your feet dry if you dare wear them. You can probably get some from the spare clothes closet if you decide to use them.
At any rate, it's important to have comfortable shoes because your feet get hammered in the mission. Lots of us wore those lightweight Rockports with Vibram soles. Hardly anyone wore nice dress shoes everyday because they aren't very compatible with mission reality (i.e., constant walking). Around the apartment people wore slippers, Tevas, or Birkenstocks.
One final note on clothes: you can buy a hand-tailored suit in Italy if you have extra money, but you wouldn't want to wear it out during the mission. Some people like to get one at the end of their mission. You can buy a lot of other clothes too, but that puts you at risk of becoming a real burden during transfers. So beware of those Benetton sales!
Almost all food in Italy is outstanding. Almost. I was served some strange things on occasion, including various innards, snails, raw octopus and other goodies. But with most people it's ok just to say you can't eat something if you really think it will make you ill. During my mission I grew to love tomatoes, olives, and other things I had hated before, so I would recommend trying new things as long as they don't make you sick. Most missionaries spend their post-mission life craving authentic Italian foods: pasta, pizza, foccaccia, arancini, aranciata, formaggio, pane, orecchiette, gelato and various pastries. They also develop an amazing capacity to consume large quantities of olive oil.
I'll never forget my first meal in an Italian home, which featured six or seven courses. Fortunately, that is not typical. Usually you'll have a pasta dish followed by meat and salad and maybe some cheese, then fruit and possibly dessert. We were fed about once a week by members or investigators, and the rest of the time we cooked our own meals. For some reason sisters seemed to get fed way more often than elders.
Most of the apartments had four Anziani who could decide whether to eat individually or do "soldi's" (soldi means money). Soldi's, or "soldi savers," involved pooling money and taking turns cooking for the whole apartment. Once every four days it would be your turn to do the shopping, cook lunch, and wash the dishes. Everyone was on their own for breakfast and dinner, but the communal lunch would almost always include pasta, bread, fruit, and maybe some meat, salad, or dessert.
The bottom line is that you have a lot to look forward to in the culinary department. Missionary-cooked meals are generally decent, and member-cooked meals are astounding. Tasty snacks and pastries are available everywhere. Your waistline may grow, but it's probably worth it.
First things first. The mission name is pronounced kah-TAH-nyah, with emphasis on the middle syllable. When I opened my call I said, "Wow, I'm going to the Italy Cat-uh-NEE-uh Mission!" A dormmate who had served in Milan promptly corrected my pronunciation, for which I was not particularly grateful at the moment. Elders are known as "Anziano" and sisters go by "Sorella." You'll learn all this stuff your first day in the MTC.
Even after eight weeks of intense study, those first weeks in Italy can be overwhelming. People talk fast! But within a month or two, the things they say will make sense even if the things you say don't. I found the people of southern Italy extraordinarily patient and supportive as I tried to communicate in their language. The Spirit can help matters, too.
If you've been thinking you should start studying the language before entering the MTC, don't worry about it unless it's something you really want to do. I looked at a couple teach-yourself-Italian books but wasn't able to teach myself much. The MTC experience can make anyone's brain feel like it will explode, so I don't think it's a sin to relax a little before embarking on several hundred hours of classroom instruction.
Eventually you'll learn how to say what you need to, even if you can't express yourself exactly the way you'd like. Try to enjoy the process and remember to study, practice, pray for help, and concentrate even when your tired brain is telling you to tune out. You can learn to speak well by paying close attention when Italians speak, and by having the courage to practice what you learn.
When I finished my mission there were still zero stakes in the Catania Mission. That has changed. The Puglia Stake was organized in 1997 and another is rumored to be in the formative stages, so the Church is growing in size and strength.
As of 1991 the mission averaged about one convert baptism per missionary per year, and the typical companionship would be involved in a couple baptisms a year. Your experience may be very different from that, and the mission as a whole is likely enjoying much greater success than in the past. The important thing is that you will meet many people who are prepared to receive the message, some of them will embrace it, and you will experience tremendous joy together. The immediate rewards of serving in southern Italy may not always resemble the immediate rewards of serving in South America, but as you do the Lord's work among the people he has called you to serve, you will be blessed with a deep sense of satisfaction and fulfillment.
Take the time to become good friends with members. It's always refreshing to associate with people who have accepted the restored gospel and are striving to live it. When members trust you as an obedient missionary and as their friend, they will introduce you to their nonmember friends and it will happen naturally. This is something I've come to appreciate more since returning from the mission.
Please make an effort to serve less active members and let them know they are not forgotten. There are people I dearly love who have experienced wonderful spiritual manifestations and gained a testimony of the restored gospel, but do not currently enjoy the blessings of full activity in their wards or branches. Their return is crucial to the strengthening of the Church and to their own spiritual growth, and your work with recent and not-so-recent converts can provide some of the most cherished relationships and experiences of your mission.
Take care. In bocca al lupo (good luck)!