Some Thoughts on Italy and Italians

Food Dogma

Butta butta mamma che sto pe` veni`!

There are rules about food that, if you violate them, Italians become confused. It's not that you've done harm, it's that your actions make no sense. The following list of food dogmas is adapted from Beppe Severgnini, "La Bella Figura" (2006):

Irony

The popular culture of Italy is imbued with a strong sense of irony. It's part of why we naive Americans -- so literal in our sensibilities -- consider Italians complex and sophisticated. Consider:

Business

Here are some resources in case you're foolhardy enough to attempt to do business there:


Things Italians Don't "Get"

Invoices. This is an unintended consequence of an aggressive tax code. To hasten collections of taxes, the code was recently changed so that businesses are taxed not on what they receive but on what they invoice. Thus, once they send a bill to a customer, they owe taxes regardless of whether the customer actually pays. The result is bizarre but predictable: now invoices are not sent until after they are paid. Request for payment is verbal, informal, or perhaps by means of a letter vaguely requesting payment... but not by an invoice that could be entered into a bookkeeping system. Thus, businesses have difficulty tracking (let alone collecting) receivables and knowing what they're owed. And the tax system is no more effective than before. Ridiculous.

Refunds. It's neither in their culture (once you've yielded money it's gone forever) nor in their accounting systems. The word itself doesn't exist in Italian; the closest is "rimborso" (reimbursement) which is different. There is no such thing as a money-back guarantee. Sign up for a course at a local adult school, for example, and if it's not right for you, you can't have your money back but you can have a credit for a future course. As a result, nobody signs up (i.e. pays) for any course until after the first class, so they can see whether it's ok without risking their money. Thus, the instructors don't know whom nor how many to expect and the school doesn't know whether to cancel the course for low enrollment. Another example: no one ever risks overpaying for anything; they know they'd be screwed. So they underpay whenever possible. It's a bookkeeping nightmare.

Reliable contact. E.g. the bank officer goes on vacation. His phone simply goes unanswered. No one covers for him. There's not even an answering machine. Another example: someone's cellphone is unreachable (perhaps it's turned off, out of range, or bill is unpaid) -- the cell company's message doesn't say there's a temporary problem, it says the number you've dialed is no good. You must learn (as with so many things in this unhelpful culture) to interpret the message loosely, that is, keep trying... The message is probably quite literally false.

Flex time, i.e the concept of doing something at a different time than the majority, to avoid crowds, distribute resources better, etc. Primarily meals, but also vacations, etc. They just don't do it. In August, the beaches are solid flesh. In September, you've got them almost to yourself. Our favorite pizzeria downstairs from our apartment in Rome: get there at 7:59 for a table right away. A minute later and the queue is already forming. For a culture in which individuals pride themselves on non-conformism it's absurdly lockstep.

Television

Pop music. When it's well done it's derivative (Giorgia, Neri per Caso). When it's genuine/original the quality is low. The classic cantautore has rarely had music lessons or voice training and can't carry a pitch.

Air conditioning. It's expensive and must be consumed wisely. Yet Italians don't close doors and windows when AC is on. On the contrary, when they run the AC, they throw doors and windows wide. It's almost a superstition; somehow it would be unhealthy to seal the room when the AC is running. Wasteful and weird, this attitude appears universal in Italy.

"Get out of the way" -- instead they have "squeeze past" (which Americans would do well to learn).

Queueing. Even doing it sneakily and cleverly doesn't make cutting in line ok. It's one example of the belief that the rules, deep down, don't apply to them. They can get indignant when someone else uses this principle, but they do it with a humor that Anglos don't have because Italians understand that the same principle is at work for everybody else. So when someone cuts ahead of them in line, they complain but not with the self-righteousness of an Anglo.

Customer service. The crews that trim the hedges on the medians of the highways wisely block off the adjacent lane for safety but they do it during the hours when traffic is heaviest. After all, it would be unreasonable to expect them to work nights or weekends. So the terrible traffic grinds nearly to a halt. Another example: A tabacchi doesn't sell bolli... but you don't learn this without waiting in line... It wouldn't occur to them to post a sign and spare the hapless peon. A third example: Receipts, copies of documents, etc. When you fill out a gov't form, you don't get a copy. When you pay a bill, buy a bollo, or submit a fee, you don't get a receipt. Hey, it's the government! (Or a faceless company). They owe you no service -- quite the opposite! It's well-understood in Italian culture who works for whom.

Salaries. Workers in Italy are so poorly paid it's no wonder they're slow, grumpy, and utterly without initiative.

Banking. Opening an account is a lengthy process, with lots of discussion among bank employees about procedures and requirements. Standard procedures? In your dreams! But that's just the staff. The banks themselves are predators. Their goal is to deduct as many fees, charges, interest, etc. as they can from client accounts while delivering the least service possible. In the US, we expect courtesy and service from banks, and they compete for our business. In Italy, customers meekly put up with their banks because it's hard to live without a Bancomat (ATM) card. Nonetheless, they hate their banks... with good reason.

Obeisance before officialdom. In the agenzia Entrate (and other government offices) great attention has been paid to the waiting process that applicants endure. The waiting room is elegant and well-cleaned; even the take-a-number ticket system is refined and high-tech. Too bad equal attention was not paid to the effectiveness and efficiency of the services for which we supplicants -- I mean applicants -- wait.

Shower curtains. In Italy, there's no such thing. Evidently, a shower's primary purpose is to wash the floor surrounding the tub.

Diversity. Among the few things we're uniquely good at in the USA is inclusion and acceptance of foreigners. My Italian is nearly flawless and my accent is subtle yet in every conversation with someone new there comes a moment when they ask, "Ma non sei di qui, vero?" And I know that from that point forward what I say will be discounted. The absence of this instinctive, unthinking arrogance is one of the few aspects of American culture from which Italians can learn... Indeed, must learn.


Things They Get Brilliantly

Integrity about food. At a restaurant the other day, the maitre'd was setting up a table for a group of six. He pushed a table for two next to a table for four and stepped back to survey the result, making sure that their experience would be perfect. This is entirely normal and expected. At mealtimes perfection is the norm. The napkins and tablecloth shall have been ironed, certainly.

Garb, appearance. Pressed jeans and above all good shoes. You can be an idiot but you must look good.

Empathy toward friends. Sense and do whatever the friend needs, regardless of inconvenience. My Italian friends tell me that in adversity it's not to siblings they turn but to friends.

Coffee bars. As everyone knows, the coffee is splendid, in minute, silken doses. The barman (or lady) is a performer on a stage, emptying the old grinds, replenishing the new, and throwing the steam valve (or switch) with great economy of motion and pride. The protocol followed by we who belly up to the bar is precise. Our place is established by a saucer and teaspoon that mark the imminent landing zone of our coffee and briefly entitle us to 30 cm of gleaming stainless steel bar-front real estate. We earn this by presenting, as evidence of payment a scontrino from the cassa, often accompanied by a small coin to win special treatment -- a smile, perhaps, or even a grazie if he/she is not too busy. A charming theatrical ritual.

VPLs. Whereas for American girls revealing the outlines of their underwear is gauche, an embarrassment, for Italian girls it's part of the outfit. Underwear is not a dark secret that must be denied. After all, everyone wears it (mostly). What's shameful about that?

Rubber stamps. They adore them! Entire stores are devoted to Timbri e Targhe. No official or monetary function can proceed without them in joyous profusion. At the post office (of course), in any kind of office, even in an ordinary shop the clerk rubber stamps and signs the instruction manual of the hair dryer you bought. Rubber stamps reassure Italians that something real has taken place, that they are alive, that they exist!

Saying no. At a store, you ask for something and are told, we're closed, come back in two (or even four) hours. You do and then they tell you they're out of stock (which may or may not be true.) The point is that the customer is an annoyance. At the bank, a clerk tells you that the routine operation you request is impossible, never done, "Mi dispiace," those are the rules. Come back later, ask a different clerk, and your transaction is completed in minutes, no problem. Too bad this experience is not unusual.

Flowery language is how Italians convey seriousness, gravity. Severgnini: "Verbosity... is the hallmark of consequence. Simplicity risks passing for superficiality, and a light touch can be taken for lack of authority." Thus, statements made in American-style brevity are often dismissed by Italians who pay more attention to presentation than to content.

Rules are for other people. Supporting facts:

  1. My mother knows everything important and is never wrong.
  2. She says that I am special, extraordinary, brilliant. Flawed, perhaps, but only in ways that increase my charm.
  3. If you doubt #2, see #1. That's why rules don't apply to me. Oh yes, and girlfriends who are not like my mother won't last. In other words, all of them.

The misfit child/sibling/parent Esp. in movies. E.g. the angry, autistic brother in Lettere dalla Sahara, the schizophrenic sister in La Meglio Gioventu`. Italians love skeletons in the closets of others.

Old man, young woman. The Berlusconi TV channels pander to the lowest of the low. More than one parent has told me that those channels are off-limits to their kids. The offenses are many. Among them are those featuring fatuous old windbags who behave like pedophiles. But that's irrelevant. Your attention is instead riveted to the camera angle: up the dresses of the young lovelies they nearly molest. One can't help but wonder what goes on behind the scenes and how tiny are the sums for which these beauties yield their dignity. For Mr. Berlusconi it's a race to the bottom line... and the bottom. Shame on you, Italy!


The Power of Intangibles

Oct. 18, 2009

In the culture of Italy (where I lived for the past year and which continues to be very present in my thoughts) intangible, legalistic, and conceptual things have unusual power. They possess reality in a way that is much stronger than in our own North American culture. I'll give three examples.

I joined a health club. One of its requirements was a medical certificate stating that my cardiac health was adequate for physical exercise. The weird part was that the little man at the desk refused to accept this information unless it was the original document created by the doctor. A photocopy was not acceptable. In other words, the purpose of the regulation -- protecting health, avoiding potential lawsuits -- was subsumed by an intangible characteristic of a piece of paper. The material fact (my good health) that motivated the regulation was irrelevant.

Example 2: A street was being re-paved so the curb lane of traffic was rerouted. A city bus was thus unable to make its customary stop at that curb. The temporary sign that covered the bus stop sign said, "Bus Stop Suppressed During Construction". In other words, the ordinary behavior of the bus -- a convention or activity, not a physical object, was not merely ceased but somehow vigorously subjugated -- "suppressed" -- just short of violence, though the subject of the announcement was merely a concept. It's somehow gone beyond just being a place where people would usually get on a bus and become almost force of nature, an entity with a will of its own.

Example 3: Many of Rome's narrow streets in the city center have restricted traffic flows that vary from day to day. Illuminated electronic signs proclaim whether or not traffic is permitted on a particular street on a particular day. The wording of these signs, too, imply a kind of physicality to the rule. When passage is forbidden, the signs say "Regulation is Active", in other words, the rule (again, a conceptual thing, not an object that possesses actual physical manifestation) has, to the Italian mind, power and physical-like properties. It's not just in their heads, it's somehow a real thing out there in the world.

This feature of Italian culture may at first seem subtle and little more than a curiosity but it has remarkable power in daily life. It contributes to a docility and acceptance of bureaucracy as normal. Italians put up with things that would be unacceptable here in the USA because somehow the underlying conceptual mechanisms have, to them, more force, more power, more reality. There is of course much to love in Italy. But this bureaucratic mindset is one of the things that makes me glad to be back home in The Land of the Free.


 

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