Wednesday, February 23, 2011

An American Girl in Italy (Circa 2008-2011)

by Donna Perezella

“Relax, we’ll be fine,” I reassure the bespectacled guy sitting next to me, who I’ll call 41K. “There’s nothing to worry about. The pilot would not take off if he didn’t think it was safe.”

“How can you be so sure?” 41K questions me, his hand clenching our shared armrest.

“It’s easy,” I tell him, just as airport personnel begin to follow our Alitalia plane down the runway, de-icing it en route, “he’s Italian.”
“What’s that have to do with flying a plane during a blizzard? Every other flight has been cancelled,” he barks at me, fear now in his eyes, his free hand twisting his long, gray ponytail.

“Listen, the Italians are such cautious people. You’ll understand once you get there,” I explain to 41K, who along with me and hundreds of other travelers, is bound for Rome on this day after Christmas. “If they feel a breeze in the summer, they’ll wear scarves to protect themselves against a sore throat. When it comes to my safety, these are the people I want flying my plane.”

And yes, I really meant it, for I had finally come to understand the Italian way of thinking. They are like open books, exposing their thoughts, souls, and opinions, to anyone wanting to take a closer look. Wearing a scarf in the summer is not unusual, even when the outside thermometer reads a balmy 24°C, that’s 75.2° F for us anti-metric Americans.

Their obsession with the throat, however, is a distant second to their preoccupation with the digestive system. I often wondered why, when in an Italian bar, I would be the recipient of looks of horror when ordering an afternoon cappuccino.
“It’s so American,” my ex-pat friends living in Italy would lecture me. “Nothing else says you’re an American like ordering a cappuccino in the afternoon, except wearing white sneakers.”

As it turns out, the baristas’ looks of shock had nothing to do with any country of birth, but rather for what they viewed as a blatant disregard for the health of my digestive system. Italians believe with conviction that milk products consumed after 10 a.m. have a negative effect on the digestive system. So, every day across Italy, after 10 a.m., Italians raise their diminutive cups of pitch-black espresso and toast to the health of their digestive systems. Salute!

But when does being the gatekeeper of one’s body border on paranoia? While in Italy just last month, I sent my husband to the Coop, a local small-chain food market, to purchase chicory.

When he returned, I apologized for not mentioning that he needed to ask for chicory by its Italian name, chicoria.

“No problem, I had my dictionary with me and showed the worker what I wanted and she found the chicory. But then she got nervous when I started putting loose oranges in my basket, she even put them in a produce bag for me,” he explains, a bit confused.

“YOU PUT ORANGES DIRECTLY IN YOUR BASKET? NOOOOOOOOOOO,” I cry out, not knowing if I will ever be able to step foot in the Coop again.

You see, there are five commandments for purchasing fruits and vegetables at the Coop or any other Italian market that one must always obey:

• First, thou shalt put on a pair of disposable plastic gloves before the handling of any produce, including those with non-edible skin, like bananas or oranges.
• Second, thou shalt place the produce that thou hast selected with gloved-hands, into a plastic bag.
• Third, thou shalt make a mental note of the item number for the selected produce.
• Fourth, thou shalt place the bag of produce on the scale if thou can find it, and enter the number that thou hopefully can still remember.
• Fifth, thou shalt place the sticker that the scale has spat out on the produce bag, making sure thou hast properly sealed it.

Once all of these rules have been followed, you are now free to proceed to the register.

Head there at your own risk, for more rules await you. Need a bag for your groceries? That will be nine centesimi (about 12 cents). But, it’s not about the money; it’s about the environment, so I am told.

If it’s about the environment, then how can the Italians’ preoccupation with lo scontrino (the receipt) be explained? In an effort to combat the problematic “cash is king” mentality, where businesses prefer cash of the unreported kind, the government is hoping that by requiring businesses to issue lo scontrino to every customer who pays in cash, this problem will be alleviated. With the threat of una multa (a fine) of 30 euro to those businesses in violation, it’s enough to scare anyone, except my Italian landlady, of course!

The Coop cashier, who will charge you nine centesimi for a flimsy bag, will not hesitate to leave her register, and chase you down the street, if you dare forget your receipt.

So it’s no surprise that by the end of my first week in Italy, my collection of receipts begins to resemble a mismatched deck of playing cards. I have receipts for every euro I have spent, from my apartment rental (not for the full amount, remember – baby steps) to a group of ten small receipts, each in the amount of 80 centesimi.

And it’s no coincidence that these ten small receipts, although from ten different bars, are all for the identical amount. For in Italy, the price of a single shot of espresso is regulated by the government, keeping the price set at 80 centesimi, or about $1. It would be like discovering in Boston that the prices for a small coffee at Starbucks, Peets, and Dunkin Donuts are all the same.

But this isn’t Boston, this is Italy, and when in Italy, one must do as the Italians do. So, if you feel a breeze on a hot summer night– grab a scarf, make sure you handle produce only with gloves, and never, ever, ever order a cappuccino after 10 in the morning.

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