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Three Things Which Shocked Me in Italy

A female face on the facade of a building in Vicenza, Veneto, Italy

Moving to a brand new country to start afresh is one of the most stressful things you can ever do. From a new language and customs to get used to down to a mountain of paperwork to go through and the taxing exercise of establishing your daily life anew, it can all amount to a huge shock to the system able to spoil the whole experience for months to come.

Thankfully, I had done my research, had visited Italy several times before and was keeping a decidedly open mind, so settling into our own dolce vita, when we moved to the Northern region of Veneto in the summer of 2014, went almost smooth.

The weather was predominantly warm and sunny, we easily found things to do in our current hometown of Vicenza and, before we knew it, we had embraced the joys of Italian life like market shopping, world-class sightseeing and having a siesta. Soon, we had even made some friends.

So, for a long time, I chose to see everything around me through the lens of a very positive attitude. I loved the gelato, the amazing museums and other cultural and historical sights, I loved that I could walk around in a short-sleeved top in the middle of autumn and if some small and niggling occurrence threatened my inner idyll, I actively chose to see it as an idiosyncrasy of local life or, in other words, something not to be getting hung too much on.

It was like, subconsciously, I had decided to remain an outsider and not dip my toes too deeply in the reality of what Italy actually is. I much preferred to glide on the nice shiny surface of rich history, Roman past, beautiful architecture, tasty food and, really, anything that can be nicely packaged and sold as the authentic Italian dream.

You see, I already live a life rather deeply intertwined with the realities of two rather different countries – Bulgaria (my homeland) and England (where I spent 14 years of my life and to which I am still connected via my English husband). I try to keep on top of things – from politics to cultural attitudes – in both and at times it can be rather exhausting.

What with the political situation back home and my constant worry that, being far from my parents, I cannot help them with day-to-day stuff. Did you know that their phone line hasn’t been working for four days now and the local telecommunications company doesn’t know what the fault is and after much to-and-fro has said that the line should be working by 1st December. WTF?! Two weeks with no phone and no internet and this to people who have religiously paid their bills?!

Add to this my daily worries about things happening in England and also about some more (still) abstract issues like: are we going to be able to find a place in a good local school for our little daughter (if and) when we eventually move back there?

So, you see I really didn’t need to add to this the problems of a third country. As such my cherry picking approach with regards to what to take to heart and what not served me really well during the fifteen months I had so far spent in Italy.

They wanted us to pay close to 200 euros to translate and legalise our marriage certificate?! Well (and being a linguist myself), official translation is costly anywhere in the world, I reasoned. You have to pay for a visit to the A&E in the local hospital?! Well, yes, but the fee is only about 20 euros and the doctors are really good. You have to put one of those little, flimsy, very hard to open and then to keep on plastic gloves when you pick fruit and veg at the shop?! Yes, but then you know that no grubby hands have manhandled the courgette or the aubergine which you pick for your supper tonight.

Life was good! For a while…

Over the last couple of months though I noticed that I am noticing things much more than before. Sometimes, little niggles really get to me. And on one occasion I actually lost it (see below). Plus, I felt angry several times and even though I kept a very straight face all through the respective situations, inside myself I had an overwhelming desire to erupt in one of those Italian-style harangues which we all have seen in films and which are accompanied by vigorous hand gestures and end with a heartfelt ‘Vafanculo!’.

To be honest, seen in the grand scheme of our existence on Earth, the things which really got to me and shocked me in Italy are actually rather small. I still totally adore our life here, but, let’s say that my eyes are just a little bit more open to the Italian reality.

An angry face on the facade of a building in Vicenza, Veneto, Italy

Selfish Drivers

Yes, I have already told you about the unique driving style of the Italians. It is aggressive and dangerous with the prevailing thought seemingly being: ‘Mine is the only car on the road!’. Well, let me tell you that this attitude extends to the pavements, too.

Cars are abundantly parked all over the narrow pavements of Vicenza, making their navigation a rather strenuous exercise, especially when you are a mother pushing a buggy.

Only the other day, I was coming back home, walking as fast as I could, really worried because what had started as a little cough had progressed to a full blown raspy coughing coming non-stop from my little daughter, who was seated in her buggy warmly wrapped in her blanket.

All the way up the street, cars would suddenly veer off the road, mount the pavement still driving rather fast and then pull on the breaks and park taking up most of the available space. One of the cars even almost took with it a passing cyclist, who turned round and gave the driver a piece of his mind. The driver ignored him.

I kept walking, holding the buggy’s handles very tight, keeping an eye out for parking cars and getting really worried about my child’s cough.

And just then, when I was about five minutes away from a home, a huge 4×4, a monster rather than a car, blocked my progress.

The vehicle had been parked on a really tight portion of the pavement, where the wall of a nearby restaurant juts out and for a meter or two the pavement gets reduced to a doll’s size. So, there was no squeezing between the 4×4 and the wall.

I stopped to evaluate my options. One was to walk straight onto the road and circumnavigate the vehicle. Several old people, passing by, did just that. I watched them inching slowly ahead with the passing traffic wheeling dangerously close by. There was no way I would do it with a buggy and my child in it.

The other option was to turn back, walk 500 meters to the nearest zebra, cross the street there and then retrace my steps but on the other side of the street. This would have added about 15 minutes to my journey and I felt really irate that I had to subject my already ill child to it.

Just then, a lady waltzed past with car keys and shopping bags in her hands. Too irate to try to form a sentence in Italian, I said in English: ‘Excuse me, is this your car?!’. She said: ‘Yes.’. I said: ‘Why is your car on the pavement? You are in the way.’. To which she replied: ‘Ha ragione!’. Which in English means: ‘There is a reason!’. Then she said: ‘Go round the car on the road!’ and waltzed off to the nearby cluster of shops.

And then and there I lost it. I told her a lot of things. I asked her if she had heard of the word ‘safety’, I told her how inconsiderate she was, I ordered her to get her car off the pavement. I asked her what would happen if there was a fire in the building and the people had to come out and escape running down the pavement. Or if someone in a wheelchair wanted to pass. She said nothing, simply walked into a shop. So, her convenience was above my child’s and others’ safety. Nice!

I think, by the end of my speech, all the customers of the nearby cafe and the local fruit and veg shop had come outside to see what the commotion was about. I hope they enjoyed the spectacle, as no-one actually tried to help. I had to declare defeat, turned the buggy round and started walking down the road to the nearest zebra.

Just then as luck would have it, a police car drove past me. I didn’t lose a second. I lifted my arm, waved vigorously at the two policemen in it and they stopped and asked what was going on. In my best broken Italian, I explained what had happened. They promised to deal with it asap.

As I was coming up the street again (after having crossed it), I saw one of the policemen taking pictures of the 4×4 and the other one hauling the driver out of the shop. I don’t know if they took notice of whatever ‘ragione‘ she had in mind for her car to be parked on the pavement. I don’t know if they actually fined her.

I was just happy that someone had taken me seriously and that I could take my child home.

Female face adorning the facade of Palladio's Basilica in Vicenza, Veneto, Italy

Shortchanging Shopkeepers

My absolute pet peeve in Italy are small shopkeepers who think that because you are a foreigner, you are fair game to be charged more or not given the right change.

It has happened to me several times, even in shops where I have shopped several times before. In response, I immediately suspend any further visits to them and am only too happy to share my experience with anyone who is willing to listen.

I don’t know why they do it. Haven’t they heard that an unhappy customer is likely to tell seven times more people about his/her grievances than a happy customer?!

Only yesterday I bought a loaf of bread from a bakery where I pop in perhaps once a week. The label clearly indicated the price of 5.90 euro per kilo and the loaf I chose was just a little over 500 grams (I know this, because I measured it at home afterwards). Still, I was charged 5 euro for it, served with a smile and sent on my way.

I didn’t want to believe that the smiley lady who is always keen to have a little chit-chat with me would stoop so low for a couple of euros. But it has happened to me before, so I am starting to think that they must think that I am stupid provided that I don’t speak Italian well, so they try it on.

Apparently, the instant win of an euro or two is more irresistible than my repeated business.

I once bought a pen and the pen had a price sticker on it and the small shopkeeper wanted almost double the money, because, apparently, I can’t read numbers either.

It leaves a terrible impression and makes you aware of small shops, which is such a shame.

A face on Corso Palladio in Vicenza

Car Park Racket

You may see a curious scene as soon as you drive into a parking lot in Italy. Unofficial parking attendants may wave you to the nearest free parking space and then ask you for a small donation for their help as soon as you walk out of your car on your way to the parking meter.

It is a form of racket, which plays on a very basic fear, i.e. what’s going to happen to your car, if you don’t cough the euro up. To be honest, I don’t know. I don’t know if the people who have taken it upon themselves to earn from your fears, are that brave to actually do something to your car, but the fear is still there.

So, we have always paid. Not much – 50 cents here, an euro there. Now multiply this by hundreds and thousands and you get an idea as to how lucrative this business must be.

I really hate it when we have had to drive to the hospital and are in a hurry to see a doctor and we get accosted at the hospital’s parking lot, not rudely, not aggressively, mind you. Most of the time they greet you politely and they smile at you, but do I dare not pay?! I feel intimidated nevertheless.

As soon as there is a whiff of a police car passing by, all the unofficial parking attendants run fast into the nearby park, scaling its fence and jumping on the other side, only to return a few minutes later and resume work.

Italians seem really complacent with it all, not only paying without a peep, but also gifting their unexpired parking tickets to the unofficial parking attendants to be sold at a cut-down price to other Italians. Which only perpetuates the cycle.

I have to say, we didn’t pay this racket only once. As soon as we drove into the hospital’s car park, a space freed up right in front of us and even though the unofficial parking attendant waved vigourously at us and tried to make us park elsewhere, we simply ignored him.

Yet, he ran smiling widely towards us and had a little chat with my husband. Here is a summary of their dialogue:

UPA (Unofficial Parking Attendant): Hey, man. Would you mind paying me, man?!
MH (My Husband): We didn’t park in your car space. And I am sure you already made a lot of money today anyway.
UPA: No, no man, not enough. I have to come to work again tomorrow, you see.

Here MH started laughing and they parted on good terms even though MH didn’t pay. I have to say I have never been so worried about our little car whilst we were gone. Thank God, it was fine after all!

Well, I hate being negative, but I really needed to get it off my chest. And, on the plus side, it is a lovely day outside with a sparkly blue sky and bright sun – just to remind me why I love living in Italy most of the time. Thank you for reading!

A face and two skulls on the facade of Palladio's Basilica in Vicenza, Veneto, Italy

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