Wednesday, February 21, 2007

What's My Line?

I can't keep track of where I read what anymore, that's how much of a blogslut I've become. The writer of one of the many expat-in-Italy blogs mentioned the absence of the concept of standing in line here in Italy, which reminded me of my line story. (My internal editor would like you to know that the above is a horribly written sentence).
My line story takes place at Giolitti, one of Rome's most popular ice cream shops. It was not my first time, so I knew the drill: Decide in advance how much ice cream you want (2 scoops), in what format (cone), pay the cashier (2 euros), and bring your receipt to the ice cream scooper dude. When I arrived at the shimmering array of flavors -- pear! coconut! stracciatella! how many flavors are you allowed to get on a two-scooper? more than two!! -- there was a line of foreigners waiting their turn. There were a couple of Japanese, a German, a group of Australians, an American or a Canadian (hard to tell sometimes; I'm sorry! but a northern Minnesotan can sound suspiciously like a Saskatchewanian), all patiently waiting for the gelatomaster to look into their lusting eyes and say, "Prego." What did he do instead? He shouted, "What are you all doing standing over there? I'm over here. Gather around ME." Was it a case of bruised ego ("I am great gelato man, king of the gelato, super scooper. You bow to ME.")? Or just an example of the Italian love of chaos? Either way, you get chaos. The group started looking around, wild-eyed and prickly, and didn't move. I felt it was my duty as a seasoned line-buster to help the poor lactose-craving sods, so I cut in front of them all, waved my receipt in front of the super scooper, and said, "Like this! Like this! Do like me! I'll have double cone with hazelnut, chocolate, strawberry, and lemon. With whipped cream!" By the time I squeezed past the tourists, they had formed a crush to make any English soccer fan proud.
A lot of expats writing from Italy, at least the anglophones, write about the trouble they have with the rudeness here, the apparent disregard for other human beings. This dismay is usually followed directly by the recognition of Italian generosity and readiness to help. You see, Italians are a complex bunch. Yeah, I used to think they were all warm and cuddly types, inviting you into the fold, to Sunday dinner, always laughing and crushing grapes with their feet, singing “Volare! Whoa Oh!” as they shine the hubcaps of their Cinquecentos, streaks of flour on their cheeks from the pizza dough they just rolled out, pinching your ass as you walk by and making you feel great. The truth is, Italians can be very closed, tribal in fact, suspicious, clannish, and though Neapolitans do indeed sing out loud in public quite often, it’s never “Il blu dipinto di blu.” On the other hand, complete strangers have bought me juice when I was pregnant and stretched across three barstools due to a sudden drop in blood sugar (yes, strangers, plural; it happened on more than one occasion). One minute you are completely transparent (someone barges ahead of you at the fruitstand, the post office, the bar), the next you are being told you are a fabulous person inside and out and have great teeth. It’s confusing.

The danger of writing blogs of this nature – cross-cultural musings mixed with your inborn characteristics plus the special neuroses you've garnered along life’s path with a dose of a given day’s right- or wrong-side-of-the-bed-edness – is coming off culturally insensitive, arrogant, biased, petty, and snotty. And the truth is, all peoples are complex, riddled with paradoxes, contradictions, oxymorons, and plain old morons. But if one’s mind were to be under current surveillance by the PC police, one’s blog would be very boring indeed.

So, to finish up about lines, I have discovered in my brief time here in Italy, and especially the last nearly two years in Naples, that sticking with a non-Italian idea of manners (in this case, ask who is last on line and dutifully get behind them) is going to get you nothing but looks of pity. It’s like when I used to politely, softly and with a smile say, “Permesso,” when trying to get through a group of chitchatters on the sidewalk with the stroller: the group would look at me like I was an idiot (“Ma sei scema?”). And, indeed, according to the rules of the Neapolitan street, I was an idiot. So now I shout, “Attenzione!” with a nice fat scowl on my face. And the group parts like the Red Sea.


Ambra Celeste said...

This is so eloquently written. You hit the nail on the head on why it is so hard to write about the Italians in general and compromising our inner belief system of "how things ought to be according to our experiences " with "how they really are here". Brava!

Delina said...

I'm not at the "Attenzione!" yelling yet, instead I give a firm, loud "permesso!" and push my way through.

franca said...

Hey Rompipalle :).

You are so damn funny and much of what you write about is true and I can relate whenever I go visit my family in Italy.

Keep it up. You're a gifted writer. :)

rompipalle said...

Ambra, Franca, you make me blush! And, Delina, I too am wont to blast a "permesso" in lieu of an "attenzione," but only when I'm feeling friendly.