OK, I hear you groan! Here she comes again, bemoaning her cushty Italian life, finding little niggles to complain about with all that beautiful architecture, millennia-old history and great food around her.
And, yes, you will be right. On a day to day basis my life in Italy is indeed pretty great. In fact, I love it here. When the sun is shining and the sky is blue above Vicenza, I can’t help it but feel a teensy bit smug too, especially if it has been snowing in England or raining in Bulgaria.
It is just that every now and then things happen, small things that leave me a bit speechless and make me draw in my mind cultural parallels and living abroad meridians. When several such things happen one after another in quick succession and/or on the same day, I sit down and write something like this:
That’s correct! Initially there were only three such things. All in all, a negligible number. After I posted my blog post I even received some criticism along the lines of: ‘OMG, is that all?! What about riposo? Now this drives me mad.’ Riposo being the period of three to four hours which Italian shops and offices shut for at lunchtime every day only to re-open in the late afternoon. ‘No, I am not shocked by riposo‘, was my carefully thought-out reply to this. ‘It is a tradition which has been in force for many centuries, whereas shortchanging customers (see my second grievance in the hyperlinked blog article above) is an individual decision taken by the particular shopkeeper. So, whilst the former is a question of national culture, the latter is a sign of lack of morals and this I, personally, find shocking.’
So, yes, when I talk about things which have shocked me here, they always are related to the behaviour of individuals. Inconsiderate people, rude people, people who think they are smarter than you, people whose attitude simply stuns and baffles me. Unfortunately, when such behaviour seems to be perpetuated over and over again, I can’t help it but start seeing it as a sign of a tacit societal norm and ‘norms’ like the ones illustrated below I do find a bit hard to digest.
Here they are. Three little things which have pushed me a bit over the edge lately. I truly hope this is just my experience and no-one else has come across them at all. Still, as everyone’s experience is a valid source of reflection, I am sharing mine.
Pushy Men on Public Transport
What is with Italian men who, when they see a woman with a buggy waiting at the bus stop, make it their goal to push in front of her when the bus arrives in order to board first?! Is it the fear that she may ask you for help? Is it the fact that she is ‘used goods’ (as she has a child by another man), so she is not really worth it the time? Or is it something else? I would really like to know. The first time that I got pushed aside like this, it was by a teenager eager to get on the bus and nab a seat. ‘Oh, the youth of today!’, I thought. But then it happened again and again. By men in their 20’s, 30’s and 40’s (interestingly enough, the older gentleman are always very considerate and polite). I don’t take the bus in Vicenza that often. I prefer to walk, but once a week I need to get on public transport for a longer journey and, now I know, if there is a young-ish man at the bus stop, even though he may have come long after I have been there waiting for the bus, when said bus arrives, I will be pushed aside. Or, to be precise: the buggy with my child in it would be unceremoniously pushed aside. I have been pushed aside by women, too. But I have also been helped numerous times by kind ladies, so I don’t hold a grudge against the pushing ones. Or not so vehemently anyway. Actually, I don’t expect anyone to help me getting on and off the bus. I always make sure that I can easily lift the buggy with my little daughter and several bags in it. I never ask for help, even when the bus is not adapted for buggies and I need to lift my buggy up and down three steep steps. And I have stopped several ladies and old gentlemen who so very kindly have tried to help me. I know only too well how excruciating back pain can be and I wouldn’t want anyone to get hurt just because they wanted to help me. What I still don’t understand though is why Italian men below certain age like to push in front of my buggy when we all board the bus. All the while avoiding to look at me and maintaining a very surly expression on their faces. It doesn’t correspond with any cultural cliches I have heard and observed about Italy. Are they in a real hurry to board because they are late for work or another such important thing? Well, the bus is not leaving until I am on it with my buggy anyway, so why push? Here I would like to specify that this little diatribe is dedicated without any love and with no consideration whatsoever to the man who tried to push in front me on bus 14 yesterday. If he thought that after waiting for 40 minutes in the glaring sun, I would tolerate someone shoving aside the buggy with my sleeping child in it just so that he could get on a half-empty bus, he had it wrong. Dude, you should be ashamed of yourself!
Smoking Around Babies and Children
OK, smoking seems to be a very popular pasttime here in Italy. Shiny new vending machines are everywhere giving you quick access to all brands of cigarettes at any hour of the day and night. People smoke as they walk down the street, take cigarette breaks and so on. Smoking is also not restricted to a particular gender and/or age group and/or social status. It is quite ubiquitous. Fine! It is your health, so you do what you need/want to do. I have grown up surrounded by smokers, all my friends at school were smokers and I even tried to become a smoker once (yes, it was considered the grown-up thing to do at the time), but I somehow didn’t succeed. So, yes, everyone decides for themselves and if they want to use smoking in order to belong, to control their appetite or because they don’t know anything better, I am not going to waste my time preaching how terrible smoking is and how smelly and disgusting and headache-inducing the resulting secondhand smoke is. Oh, I started preaching?! Couldn’t resist! Anyway, the thing which really shocks me is how often people actually smoke right next to babies and children, including their own. I often see mums and grannies in the park cigarette in one hand right next to the buggy with their baby in it. Or with a cigarette in hand at the kids’ playground. Or just smoking and walking next to their children. Smoking next to children is something which upsets me no end. Please, don’t do it and if you decide to have a cigarette as you are walking down the street, consider passing little children too, as they will be right at the level of your cigarette. After writing this, I felt a bit down and thought that perhaps I had imagined everything I wrote about above and may be I was making a lot of fuss about nothing. So, I decided to clear my head and go out for a quick coffee. Now, it is Labour Day here plus it is Sunday, so the streets in our part of Vicenza were deserted. And just as I was heading to the local coffee shop, this is what I came across – two ladies with a baby in a buggy buying cigarettes from the vending machine attached to the wall of the local tobacco shop. Then they lit up and continued down the street pushing the buggy. Honest to God, I am not making it up!
No Smiling, Please! We Are Italians
For all their national stereotypes as passionate convivial people, most of the Italians I have come across so far seem extremely serious and restrained in their day-to-day lives. Which was a bit of a shock to me. Something similar to the shock I experienced when I moved to England and soon realised that the English are not the reserved cold people which the national stereotypes make them out to be. They smile a lot, are very good at small talk and seem to always have something ready to say in order to break the ice in a nice way. I miss this! It is so much easier to walk into an office or a shop and deal with a smiling clerk or sales assistant, even though she may be polite only contractually, whilst otherwise she may be hating your guts. At least she is not showing it! Unfortunately, most of the clerks and sales assistants I have come across here so far have been the exact opposite of ‘bubbly’ (I am using this term on purpose, as British companies often indicate or at least used to indicate ‘being bubbly’ as a pre-requisite for front of house jobs). Italian clerks and sales assistants seem totally restrained, matter-of-fact and very, very serious. It is like there is this unspoken fear that if you smile, you will lose your authority or something. Once again I felt terrible about putting this into words, so I thought long and hard if I should or if I shouldn’t write it here. I even went out for a coffee to mull it over (same outing for coffee as mentioned above, not another one). And whatdoyaknow?! The lady in the coffee house who must have seen me now about hundred times over the past year and a half, didn’t even say hello. She took my order silently, only opening her mouth to say ‘Bresciana‘, when I asked her for the name of a particular sweet. ‘Ah, is this because it is from the city of Brescia?’, I said in my best broken Italian, meaning to say: ‘Is this because the sweet is originally from Brescia?’, to which she replied sternly and condescendingly: ‘No, of course it is not from Brescia.’ Which I took to mean: ‘No, of course this one sweet in particular is not coming all the way from Brescia. We made it here with our own hands.’ I just scooted over to a free table and decided then and there to go ahead and express my concern about the missing smiles on the streets and in the shops of Italy. So, yes, if you feel offended, blame that lady selling me the Bresciana sweet (which was very nice and one of the reasons why I keep going to that coffee place time and time again, service with no smile notwithstanding). To be honest, after having been through the grinder of Bulgarian customer service I thought nothing really could surprise me anymore. I thought I had seen it all, but it feels strange, very strange to buy things from people who are so proper and stern, and so good at keeping their distance at all times. I fluctuate between: ‘Oh my God, what have I done wrong?!’ to ‘Is this because she doesn’t like me?!’ Definitely neither is good when you support a business with your husband’s hard earned cash. But, let’s be honest here. In two of my local shops where they see me a couple of times a week at least, apart from the obligatory ‘Buongiorno‘ now I also get something like a smile. I would call it ‘half-smile’, but mathematically it is more like a ‘sixteenth of a smile’. I gather I will have to settle for this. In fact, a couple of days ago, when I was developing the concept of this blog post in my head, I did a very representative and exhaustive survey of one person on the topic of smiling in Italy. Basically, I gathered the courage and asked my favourite sales lady, who is always smiling and is very nice, the following thing: ‘Excuse me, ahem, may I ask you a cultural question, please?! Why is that when I go shopping here, people are very stern? They are polite and all, but they never smile.’ She said: ‘Ah, people are like this because of the crisis we are going through. They lack money and are not earning what they used to.’ And then she finished: ‘But, it is always nice to smile. As I say: You need to show your teeth, because if you don’t, you are getting zero back.’
Thank you for reading! I would love to know your opinions and experiences with regards to the above. Is it all in my head? Am I expecting too much? Let me know what you think, especially if you have an answer to my first issue above. Ta!