I often get asked what the main difference is between living in Italy and living in the States, and I usually respond by saying that it’s not so much the contrast between Old World and New, but between living in a small town as opposed to a big city. Sure, it’s a cop out answer, but it’s also a pretty inane question, so I think I deserve a break.
Take, for example, the ancient rite of story telling. Now, in a big city, the raison d’etre of a story is the Punch Line, so Plot and Narrative Speed are key elements. In small town Umbria, a tale is instead judged by its Spin Off Potential, so Setting and Character are pushed to the forefront, and Plot is often left back at the bus station.
Imagine you walk into your corner caffè one morning in, say, New York (or London, or Berlin, or Singapore), and, as the Javameister pours your cup, he casually asks, “So, how ya doin’?” You respond by saying, “Well, yesterday I got a flat tire, but this guy stopped and helped me change it. All’s well that ends well.” A good urban story. Quick, to the point, and with a canned Hollywood ending. The waiter may respond with a “That’s good” or a “Happens to the best of us” or perhaps someone down at the end of the counter will chime in about his recent flat (but you will think to yourself that he’s a nosy little bugger) and that will be the end of it.
Here’s what happened to me. I walk into Sensi’s Bar over on the Corso, and Silvia asks, “So, how ya doin’?” All movement ceases. Espresso cups pause halfway to lips. A dozen eyes peer over the sports pages. Even the old Faema pauses in its hissing and wheezing. “Well,” I clear my throat nervously, “yesterday I, uh, got this flat tire and …” I get no further because the bar erupts with sound. Cups are slammed back into saucers, papers tossed onto caffe tables, the Faema starts to wail like a turn of the century steam locomotive.
The crowd is evenly divided between those who demand to know exactly where the tragic event took place … I bet you were down by that new brick sidewalk they put up in Santa Maria. Those bricks are too darn sharp right there along the road there with no curb or nothing. I wrote the Mayor … Were you over by the new indoor swimming pool? Because some kids threw some rocks through the glass the other night and there are still shards all over and I don’t know what we pay taxes for if they can’t even clean up the roads … At the traffic circle, right? Gino told me that there was a big back up yesterday [read: four cars] so I guess that was you …, those who, oddly enough, also had a flat yesterday (or on the exact same date in 1962), and those who wouldn’t trust a tire salesman as far as they could throw him.
I raise my voice above the cacophony, “Actually, I was near the Camping in Bastia!” Not precise enough. Before or after the Camping coming from Assisi? Was there tobacco or corn in the field where you stopped? I hazard a guess. I grew up in Illinois, so can identify a corn plant. It was not corn, so I opt for tobacco. Ah, right along old Francesco’s field. A quick aside to dissect Francesco’s skill in agronomy … Can you believe he’s planting tobacco with the new EC regulations? Heads shake, papers are slapped against thighs. Francesco is clearly a raving idiot. A voice rises above the rest – belonging to an incongruously tanned man dressed in an Armani suit and wraparound sunglasses – they may be farmers in Umbria, but their kids are lawyers and investment fund managers. Of course, he is one of the last to switch over, the man announces, and has made a bundle renting out his equipment. Heads nod, voices assent. Francesco is clearly an agricultural genius. … before everyone gets a quick turn recounting their own, personal Flat Tire Near Francesco’s Tobacco Field story. I discover that it is a veritable Bermuda triangle for pneumatics, as everyone in the bar has either had a flat at that exact spot, or is blood relation to someone who has.
I decide to move things along. “But it was no problem, because this guy stopped to help me change it.” It is manna from heaven. Who could my mysterious savior be?
We start by identifying his steed. Every make and model of every car ever produced in Europe is thrown out as a suggestion, and I reveal that he was driving a turquoise Opel Corsa. (I had also memorized the license plate number, just in case the guy turned nutty on me. I did grow up in the hood, after all.) Every Umbrian who drives that model car is named as a contender, but I specify that this particular knight had introduced himself as Paolo. The crowd, as one, scratches its chin and stares off in space, thinking. Thinking. Suddenly I hear, “Did he have a tic?” accompanied by an explanatory head jerk off to the left. Yes, come to think of it, he did. It was Paolo di Tito! The crowd roars. It doesn’t get any better than Paolo di Tito as Corner Bar Yarn Fodder.
Before I go further, let me explain Paolo’s name. Here in rural Umbria, you are rarely known by your own first and last name as stated on your birth certificate. You are known by your nickname or “soprannome” which can refer to either your place of origin, a physical characteristic, or a personality trait, or as the offspring of someone else, who may be known by his place of origin, physical characteristic, or personality trait. So, you are almost never John Smith. You are Old Oaks, or The Red-haired, or The Liar. Or, you may be known as John of Jack, John of Old Oaks, John of the Red-haired, or John of the Liar. Until Jack, Old Oaks, the Red-haired or the Liar dies, then you are no longer John of, but just the descriptive, and your offspring become Fred and Mary of John, or of Old Oaks, or of the Red-haired, or of the Liar.
Okay, stay with me here. Concrete examples. My husband is not known as Stefano. He is known as Stefano di Brigolante (the name of our house/land) and will be until his dad (known as Brigolante) dies, then he will become Brigolante and our son will become Nicolò di Brigolante. We have on one side of our property a family whose nickname is Il Moro (The Moor … strangely they are all blond – I guess lots of reproducing with lighter folk happened over the ensuing generations), so they are Franco Il Moro and his sons Simone del Moro and Alessio del Moro. Another neighbor’s family nickname is I Guitti (The Ill mannered … you gotta wonder what gaffe their forefather must have committed centuries ago), and so the head of the household is known as Il Guitto, and his daughters Ida del Guitto and Carla del Guitto. When you marry into a family, you keep your own nickname. So Franco Il Moro is married to La Roscia (dialect for the Red-haired), and Guitto is married to La Guardiana (The Guardian … don’t ask me why), but the male head of household passes his soprannome on to the kids.
This all illustrates how important lineage is in an area where most are born, live, and die within a range of just a few kilometers. I often see older people corner adolescents at the local festivals or after Mass, cup young chins in their gnarled hands, and ask, “Whose child are you?” They respectfully reply, in that polite way Italian kids have with the elderly, “I’m Lorenzo, son of Giovanni of the Red Bridge and Franca of Bellancino.”
It’s like being trapped in Dances With Wolves.
Back to Paolo. Paolo di Tito means Paolo, son of Tito. Okay, I just blew my whole schematic nickname overview all to hell, because their family nickname is Livietto, but Paolo goes by Paolo di Tito, not Paolo di Livietto. I asked my husband why, and he looked at me kind of strangely and said, “What is it exactly you’re writing?” so let’s just say there are exceptions to every rule.
Anyway, having established that it was, indeed, Paolo di Tito who came so heroically to my rescue, my companions settle in to a long session of Stories Which Involve Paolo, Tito, and any or all of their Close Relatives. … Remember the time they stole Paolo’s car from right underneath his bedroom window? And the window was open? And they backed into a big pile of gravel in the driveway, and from the skid marks it looked like they must have revved that engine for a good fifteen minutes before they managed to pull out, and Paolo still didn’t wake up? And how they found the car just a couple of kilometers down the road, because Paolo’s too cheap to have more than an eighth of a tank at a time and so the thieves ran it out of gas? Remember the snow back in ‘47? And how Tito wore those boots that left what looked like footprints in the snow? And how someone asked him why they left such strange tracks, and he lifted up his foot to show that the darn things didn’t have soles, so he was basically walking barefoot? … I quietly make my way out of the bar, but no one takes much notice of me. They are all engrossed in a convoluted story involving Paolo’s great grandfather and some Alpine Browns he bought which were actually another type of cow that had been daubed with shoe polish.
That afternoon the phone rings. It’s Michele, down at Carloni Tires. He heard about that flat I got yesterday. Thus illustrating the first of two other basic differences between small town and big city life: News travels at roughly the speed of light.
He continues. “Sure hope it wasn’t one of those retreads you got over at Truffarelli, because I know they’re relatives and all but they would cheat the Virgin Mother. No, ran over a nail? Well, how about you just tell that good for nothing husband of yours to start buying his own gas rather than taking your car to work,” he chuckles. “Listen, come on down tomorrow morning, and I’ll fix you up and take a look at your other tires. Can’t have anything happening with that little guy of yours on board.”
This man knows:
- where you bought your retreads;
- that your husband is a tightwad;
- that your tightwad husband is always taking your car to his construction sites where he subsequently runs over nails;
- that you have a son.
Thus illustrating the second difference: Everyone is all up in your business.
Another good example of these two differences happened to me this summer. I was out walking with my two year old, and a neighbor (neither the Moor or the Ill mannered, if you’re curious) pulls up in his car to have a quick chat and ask how our little boy is getting on. Now, I try very hard to avoid making sweeping generalizations about Italians or buy into stereotypes. The longer I live here, the more I am aware of what a nuanced culture this is. In a nation of zero population growth, my babysitter is the eldest of nine. In a nation of soccer worship, I married a man who couldn’t name a single goaltender if you held a loaded pistol to his temple. In a nation of lead feet, I can overtake my father-in-law six kilometers from home, and already have the pasta cooked and eaten by the time he pulls in the driveway. So, I’m really sticking out my neck here, but I feel confident that I can publicly declare this one truth: Italians are obsessed with their digestive systems. Perfect strangers will discuss their bowels with each other. People are always complaining of kidney ache (before I moved here it had never really consciously occurred to me that I had a kidney, much less that I could isolate a pain in it). Intelligent, scientific folk believe that if you eat hot bread, drink an icy drink, or come within spitting distance of a body of water before four hours have passed since your last meal, you will immediately keel over stone dead.
So it was only natural that when Marino asked after my son, I told him that he was a little constipated. Just one more sign of my going native, I guess. We parted, and I didn’t think any more of it until I stopped by the grocery store a few hours later to pick up a couple of things. We are friendly with our local grocers, a husband and wife team, and they have spoiled my toddler to high heaven, so as we approached the deli counter in the back the proprietor Egidio automatically started slicing up a piece of bread to give to my guy. Luciana, his wife, started shrieking and waving a knife at her husband from the meat case on the other side of the store, “Egidio, if you give that poor little lamb a slice of white bread, ti caccio gli occhi (I’ll pluck your eyeballs out). He hasn’t pooped in two days and you know what white bread will do to you!!” Egidio immediately grabbed a whole wheat roll, doused it with a little olive oil, and handed it to my son, with the comment, “Questo scioglie.” (This loosens.)
Now, part of this whole bowel obsession is that every Italian (on the face of the Earth, not just Italy) has a mental catalogue of all existing foodstuffs, each of which is assigned to one of two categories: those which stringono (tighten) and those which sciogliono (loosen). Really. I think it is part of the required elementary school curriculum. I challenge any of you to stop a random Italian on the street … and I’m even talking immigrants here, so go ahead and try it in Sydney or Birmingham or where ever … and stick an item of food under their nose. Anything. Kumquats. Sausage. Licorice. They will immediately declare authoritatively either “Stringe” or “Scioglie”. I swear on my husband’s grandfather’s grave (who, I am told, suffered a massive stroke because he ate beans too close to bedtime and didn’t digest them properly – I’m not kidding).
Anyway, back to the everyone being all up in your business. It’s a small store, Luciana is a loud woman, and the word poop draws Italians like proverbial flies, so I found myself surrounded by a throng of fellow customers, all simultaneously offering up their personal catalogue of foods to “loosen” up my toddler. I smiled and thanked everyone profusely, and made a move to carry on my shopping in peace. It was not to be so. The gaggle shadowed me around the store, noting and commenting each addition to my shopping cart with a murmured “scioglie” or “stringe”. I reached for cheese. “Stringe” intoned the crowd. I tossed in milk. “Scioglie.” I started to sweat, just a little. My hand hovered over the apples. Half the group said “Stringe” while the second half simultaneously declared “Scioglie”. Chaos ensued, as they all attempted to talk over each other, arguing the case for their designated category.
From the meat case where she has been presiding, Luciana called the room to order. She invited the main proponents of each camp to approach the bench, where they conferred in hushed tones for a quite a few minutes while the rest of us waited breathlessly. Finally, she pronounced her verdict. “Apples stringono when eaten raw, but can sciogliere when cooked.” I hurriedly announced that I fully intended to cook these apples for my son, and the crowd was appeased.
Months later, I still run into some of these people at Egidio’s, and damned if they don’t ask if my son has moved his bowels lately. It’s an obsession, I tell you.
Don’t touch that dial. Part two coming soon.
Part two is called Life in Bedford Falls, part two