‘La Familiarit’

‘La Familiarit’

If you want to be successful in Italy, get yourself a newsagent. Mine is called Matteo. He sells papers, but his news is free because he sees it as his duty to tell you everything you need to know. Should you try the new trattoria in Porta Romana? Should you

bookmark
Thu 26 May 2005 12:00 AM

If you want to be successful in Italy, get yourself a newsagent. Mine is called Matteo. He sells papers, but his news is free because he sees it as his duty to tell you everything you need to know. Should you try the new trattoria in Porta Romana? Should you run back upstairs and get your umbrella? Is it best to wait ‘til Thursday to change your dollars? He’ll tell you if the trains are running, if Via Cavour has been closed off, or if you should hurry to the corner-shop to purchase sheets on sale at a good price.

 

I pass his stand daily to collect my newspaper, and he takes my spare change and questions with the grace worthy of his nickname: “L’ambasciatore di Firenze”, the Ambassador of Florence. For many of us who don’t know any better, Matteo is an island of customer service in an ocean of indifferent bank clerks and stale bureaucrats. “It’s difficult to get good customer service in Italy,” I told him one morning.

 

“Not at all,” was his reply. “Italians are very capable of bending over backwards to help a client. We also bend the rules without hesitation, reach creative compromises, and give out sizable favours. But there is no investment to be made in the casual customer. It is lonely to see a face once only. We depend on familiarity. Noi contiamo sulla familiarità.”

 

Ah ha! Loads has been said about the importance of family in Italy. But if family is first in this culture, then familiarity comes in second. Expectations are the motor of a society. Know a country’s social expectations and you will understand the country. Italians do not expect to be treated well if they are wearing the face of a stranger. La familiarità means power in Italy. If you are familiar, then you have clout. If you walk through a door daily, you can expect a smile, a discount, or a piece of priceless advice. If you are just moseying through for your due slice of customer service, you’ll often find your plate left empty in Italy. In a word, la familiarità is a pre-requisite for customer service.

 

“When a customer comes by, I like to be reminded that there is a world out there. Tell me a joke, or what the politicians are doing to ruin our country, and if you can do both at the same time, even better,” Giovanni, the fruit-vendor at the Sant’ Ambrogio market told me recently. Does he save the best grapes for the customer with the best joke? “Of course!” he exclaimed, “and none of that sterile garbage without seeds. My grapes are virile!”

 

In Italy, if you want real grapes, real attention, and even real affection, become a familiar face. The most common word for favour in Italian is “piacere,” which doubles as the word for pleasure. “It is my pleasure to do you a pleasure. If you are familiar, then I’ll see you around, and my kindness will be returned to me,” is the common attitude. After all, the city is small, and statistics show you are not going anywhere. Here, workers prefer to work in their cities rather than filling their pockets with another town’s money. University students seldom “go away” to college. Children play bandiera genovese, capture the flag, in the very same courtyards where their parents used to play. In Italian, there is no expression equivalent to the English word “hometown”. If it is your town, it is obvious that it is also your home. Anything else would be quasi-adulterous.

 

So customer-familiarity is readily expected and easily achieved. If no one knows you, they will most certainly know your family. Or at the very least, they will know whose family your house belonged to in the fifteenth century. And those rich bankers, merchants, artists, or architects, as the case may be, are what made the town what it is today. Roots are respected. They can be your roots or someone else’s; as long as you establish a connection, any connection that will somehow ground you. “Know that your existence comes from somewhere, and make those roots known to me.” That is the essence of la familiarità. It may seem like a lot to ask of the woman who comes to buy a piece of bread at the Forno, but it will pay off for her too. If she comes by enough, they will set her square of schiacciata aside so that it’s ready in the morning when she stops by at her usual, familiar hour.

Related articles

COMMUNITY

Claudio Ciai Foundation receives funding from the bioMérieux Endowment Fund for Education

The charity marks its tenth anniversary encouraging social inclusion for people with disabilities.

COMMUNITY

Family Nation opens in Florence

Following the success of its online store and in Milan, the Florence-born brand inaugurates its Novoli-based shop.

COMMUNITY

Amber Guinness: from country to coast

The English cook/writer shares some Florence secrets ahead of the release of her second book, Italian Coastal

LIGHT MODE
DARK MODE