Monday, October 24, 2011

The quirky shall inherit the earth

Dear Readers,

Shortly after returning to Florence in September, my neck seized up painfully, I began to shed hair like a Siberian Husky in spring, I fell victim to fever, flu, and a pernicious sinus infection, and the nervous eye-twitch that had left me after I quit my loathsome job last April began feathering about my brow again. While two months in the States did me a world of good, it had some unforeseen consequences. I felt happy and deeply relaxed in a way that I didn't realize I'd been missing here in Italy--until I got back and my body launched its rebellion. I feel like I'd been lounging around in soft, sheepskin slippers and then had to cram my feet back into stiletto heels; it's difficult to make that adjustment without some pain and suffering, I suppose.

Thinking along these lines led me to a conclusion: living in Italy is like wearing impossibly high heels--it's lovely at times, even sexy, but completely impractical. And I don't mean it's impossible to live here--just impractical. It takes the mettle of a Joan of Arc to slash your way into the fabric of life in the Bel Paese.


What Italy offers--lavishly, deliciously--is culture, of course. Art litters the landscape like weeds. History oozes from every brick. The cult of the table has been well-noted by the gobbling hordes, and though mediocrity is fast becoming the norm in tourist meccas like Florence, in most of the country you can still get a stupendous meal wherever you happen to flop. And meals have a lovely way of unfolding here that feels very civilized, indeed. 

But for me, one of the hallmarks of a civilized society is the dignity allowed humans in the performing of life's most basic functions (i.e. paying bills, peeing, grocery shopping, strolling about town--granted, an eclectic litmus, but nevertheless indicative)--and here, my friends, is where Italy fails miserably. Ever try to find--your bladder bursting from that last macchiato or half-liter of water guzzled in the punishing heat of July--a public restroom in Florence???? Well, look what Portland, Oregon offers its denizens in need:

Spotlessly clean, complete with TP and hand sanitizer--bless you, Portland.


I'll further illustrate my point with the example of a recent trip to the supermarket:

My approach to storming an Italian supermarket may be likened to that of General Patton mounting a military campaign. First, I prepare my list with an eye toward a systematic and ruthless advance through the trenches, with a firm resolve to take no prisoners. When the moment of battle arrives, I hurl myself into the breach--that is, into the Produce section--a roiling mass of grasping humanity, carts akimbo like land mines to be dodged, and fight my way through in furious hand-to-hand combat, rushing to bag and weigh my veggies while sustaining the least amount of bodily injury. Once through the melee, I must then run the gauntlet of the Cheese/Cold Cuts section, where carts line up in a near-solid bank of defense--like an arrogant line of cavalry--their owners immovable dragoons to be thrust aside in brief skirmishes so that I may plunder the mortadella and mozzarella.

I soldier on--through Dairy, Meat, Baking Supplies, Pasta, Coffee, Cookies, Wine, Bread--piloting my cart like a kamikaze, fending off attackers in the form of old ladies smelling of moth balls, powdered rose and decay, taking hits (bayonet-like jabs to the ribs, cart wheels ramming ankles, stomped-upon tootsies--with nary a "pardon me," of course--after all, this is war) but refusing to be brought down, all the while pushing forward--the vision of my empty fridge at home spurring me on towards victory. Only in Frozen Foods do I get a brief respite (Italians aren't big on the stuff), where I can regroup before the final assault on the check-out lanes.

But, unlike Patton in any war he ever waged, awaiting me there is the most evil and fearsome enemy known to fighting men and women the world over--the Italian cashier. With cold, calculating precision, I loaded my groceries onto the belt, heavy things first, knowing I'll have to bag them up at the end. I tried to conserve the little energy I had left, quenching myself--for the moment--on pure adrenalin. My shopping totes were cocked and ready, and once my time came, I leapt to the end of the belt with a cry of "Geronimo!" and started bagging as fast as I could. The enemy was hurtling fragile foodstuffs at me with the vicious accuracy of a sniper raining bullets or lobbing hand grenades--wine bottles, eggs, cartons of yogurt. The sound of clanking bottles and squelching plastic was sickening. Then the she-devil reached the point where no more stuff could be fired down the belt at me unless I cleared some space--even though I was fighting with frantic desperation--and said, with withering scorn, "Madam, you need to get these bottles and things out of the way!" Patton, of course, would have shot her--but I, facing sure defeat, just pressed my lips together, wished I could morph into a spitting cobra, and labored on. She continued to regard me with boredom and contempt, alternately examining her cuticles with interest and chomping her gum, while I heaved the last of my groceries into my cart. Thus reduced to a stressed-out, sweaty mess, there was nothing for me to do but surrender--and shell out €160 for the pleasure--and slink off with my tail between my legs. No smile or thank you was forthcoming from this unscrupulous opponent, naturally--unless you counted the slight, satisfied curl of the lip that indicated another human being had been successfully humiliated at her hands, and that she had managed to perform her duties once again without the slightest bit of enthusiasm or warmth.


I realize that when one is on vacation, one tends to see things through rose-colored Ray Bans. But it was hard for me not to view Portland as a kind of Pacific Northwest Shangri-La--a land where outrageous courtesy reigns, a realm of quirky locals content to amble about on bicycles, drive (if they absolutely must) as if they have all the time in the world to arrive at their destination, and drop everything in order to meet over an ale or two. It's like Tolkien's Shire--a bit removed from the rest of the world, gloriously green, and with many a rowdy tavern--and the Portlanders are peaceful, friendly Hobbits (the fact that many are to be seen gamboling about the city barefoot, wearing rustic garments, further enhances the allusion). It seemed the exact opposite of Florence.

In Portland, people politely ask if they may sit in the empty seat next to you on the bus. They volley a cheery "thank you!" to the driver when they get off. They stop their cars and let you cross the street whether or not you are in a crosswalk. Everyone I met--from grocery clerks to postal workers to shopkeepers--was astonishingly courteous, engaging in cheerful small talk like morning birds chirping away in trees, and helpful to a fault. (Really, it amazed me. I spent the entire time with my mouth agape and tearfully hugging random strangers for being nice to me). It seemed they did this out of genuine niceness, and as if being cheerful and kind to others made their day go by easier, more pleasantly--it sure did mine. Once, when the bus was delayed at a stop because of something beyond the driver's control, people started grumbling, and the driver then began joking--over the loudspeaker--engaging the passengers who then responded with sallies of their own. We continued this way--everybody laughing and having a good time--for the rest of my journey. On another occasion, I overheard a mother in the park asking all the other people nearby if they'd seen her stray cell phone around anywhere--she'd misplaced it. Another woman offered to call the number for her so she could track it down by its ringtone. Wow. This all may sound like small patate, but I was floored, over and over again, by such good will toward men.

I often get the feeling that, in Italy, the milk of human kindness has curdled.

Living here these past ten years, I have slowly grown accustomed to systematic abuse in the form of sour expressions, doors slammed in my face, pushing and shoving, cutting in line, universal curt treatment at public offices, in shops, and over the phone (there's a general customer service ethic in Italy that Gaddafi would have approved of), and other generally rude behavior. I consider myself lucky if I encounter mere indifference. But would it kill people to smile? To show a little courtesy? To treat me like the multi-celled organism I am? Perhaps it's because of the oppressive weight of all that history and tradition, but I think Italians take themselves far too seriously. They're unable to see how a little levity, pleasantness, or simple courtesy toward strangers adds a ripple to the pond of humanity.

Another clear sign of an advanced civilization--to me, at least--is taking pains to bring a smile to another's face, in order to ease the tensions of daily life. In Portland, this typically takes the form of eccentric behaviors and unusual objects found in surprising places: plastic toy horses tied to old hitching rings all over the city, outlandish getups, juggling unicyclists (wearing outlandish getups), a plump plastic chicken being photographed in all the neighborhood bars and cafés, an inflatable sex doll in the back seat of an old Mazda (with her seat belt prudently buckled), a go-cart race with contestants riding their mock-up hot dog dressed as ketchup and mustard (i.e. wearing red swirly hats and flowing gold lamé capes)--I could go on. Art is so often imprisoned in museums, isn't it--reserved for the elite--but the kind of quirkiness I experienced in Portland may be enjoyed by all, anywhere, anytime; it is truly democratic. And if you ask me, of the two, it is quirkiness that best imitates life. At least, the kind of life I want to live.

Quirkinius squalus portlandis, or Portland Tree Shark

If I'm being unfair or overly cranky in this post, please forgive me, dear Readers. My feet are killing me.




  1. hi....crank's funnier.. haha

    sorry to hear you were sick..

    without a sense of humour how does anyone survive?..

    160 euros!!! is that for one week?

  2. Dear Campobello, I was thrilled and surprised to see your new post today, since I just returned to the Tuscan hinterland a few hours ago from Portland (Rockland), Maine. The cities must be twins. I was struck by the same things you were in Oregon and you stiletto heel analogy is dead on. Thanks, I going out to by a pair of Birkenstock sandals tomorrow morning.

  3. Thanks, Debbie--you're right, without a sense of humor, life isn't worth living. And yes, €160 averages about a week and a half's worth of groceries for us--let's laugh about that, too, in order to avoid sobbing...

    Dear papaya--welcome back, intrepid reader and fellow expat! I'd love to hear more about YOUR impressions of USA vs. Italy. And as for stylish, comfy Birks? Own a couple pairs myself ;)

  4. so... when are you moving back to the States???
    : )

  5. Patty--I will seriously consider moving back to the States, on three conditions (in order of importance):

    1) The price of good Italian wine gets cheaper.

    2) Universal healthcare gets fully up and running.

    3) If Berlusconi continues to rule Italy as the pancake-faced despot he is, I'm outta here...

    Thanks for commenting, friend!

  6. I have only been living in Italy for about two months--and I think I cried the first time someone was kind to me---

  7. Thanks for commenting, Sharon. It isn't easy putting up with that particular brand of Italian rudeness/indifference--but the reward for our stubborn expat sticktoitiveness is that "what doesn't kill us makes us stronger." Either that, or "what doesn't kill us makes us reach for that bottle of gin."

  8. You know - I understand your pain about the average Italian level of plain ol' discourtesy... but I want to remind you of the upsides.

    Italians aren't necessarily nice - but they are quite kind, in a way you won't find in the US. In many cities in the US, we step over the prone body of someone on the street, saying a polite "excuse me"...

    Here, the Italian person, picking you up will bitch you out... BUT - they'll pick you up.

    Also, I can attest as a former San Franciscan, that no one ever really helped me when my baby was little. No one offered me seats, helped me with the stroller, or welcomed me in restaurants.

    Here, while my boy was little, I never stood on a bus, never shlepped my own stroller and luggage onto the trains... and have always been welcome in every restaurant, museum, art gallery - with baby in arms.

    Its a trade off. Though I miss the polite niceness of Americans, I think I prefer the grumpy kindness of Italians.

  9. Kiri, thank you so much for that very thoughtful and intelligent comment. I agree with you--as a mother I often compare a certain soullessness (for lack of a better word) I see in America to Italy's relative gentleness. As you point out, children are regarded well here even if there aren't a lot of bells and whistles for them in terms of lots of clean playgrounds, free sports facilities, school enrichment programs, etc.--and I, too, have enjoyed being treated kindly with children in tow. There are pros and cons everywhere you go, and the key to happiness is, I suppose, finding that balance which allows you to maintain your psychic footing.

    I fully admit to being off-balance at times!

  10. Just discovered your blog today. I am originally from LA and have been living in Florence for 26 years. Your analogy of the high heels is absolutely perfect. I agree with everything you say. A huge downfall in the States is it's healthcare system, though. I experienced humiliation, disregard and exaggerated bureaucracy this summer while in Arizona trying to get medical attention for my 12 year old, and I had taken out a US temporary health insurance policy. I ended up coming back to Italy earlier than planned, willingly paying the airfare penalty.
    Indeed, there is no place like home, like the USA. I prefer to get sick, though, wearing my high heels.
    I look forward to following your blog and your precious insights.

  11. Dear anonymous, thank you for reading and commenting. Yes, I agree that getting sick in our high heels is the way to go, until the U.S. implements a humane healthcare policy at least. Thank you for indulging me and please don't let my curmudgeonliness in this post scare you off ;)

  12. margie7:45 PM

    Hi! I'm a Brit and have just spent an hour exploring your blog. Have howled with laughter and cried with desperation. After 25 years in this country I've reached the conclusion that it's either grin and bear it or get out - not an option with an Italian husband (no cowboy inside) and two grown kids. The only solution is to keep laughing - a sense of humour is a must - so keep up the good work!

  13. Dear Margie, thanks so much for taking the time to leave a comment, and welcome to the little blog fold! I am honored that a 25-year veteran such as yourself thinks I have anything worthwhile to say--I'll bet you have a fair amount of stories of your own ;)


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