Although I know I can never
claim the title ‘Florentine,’ I have been living here for one month and would
like to think that I am no longer a tourist. I prefer to think of myself as a
‘temporary resident.’ And as a temporary resident, I am in a position where
cultural differences are highlighted, but where the critical eye of the
outsider is veiled.
So, with my own critiques
silenced, I emphatically assert that Florentines are neither unfriendly nor
rude. With the same sentiments, I acknowledge that visitors from different
cultures are not, either. Each group has its eccentricities that must be accepted,
if not understood. It is important to accept the differences so that you can
appreciate the richness and beauty of the culture around you. Consider the
different attitudes revealed in a walk down the street, a wait for a bus, or a
visit to a shop.
‘Italians will not look at you
on the street. They will avoid eye contact.’ This dramatic declaration came
from one of my professors on my first day of class in Florence. ‘Tell me about it,’ I thought.
Although I had been here just a few short days, the lack of friendly greetings
was tough to overlook.
‘In Renaissance times, it was
believed that the eyes were windows to the soul,’ my professor continued. ‘If
you looked into someone’s eyes, you would see their soul and would forever be
attached to that person. And you never knew who you would see on the streets.
It could be anyone. Someone not in your social class. Someone your family
hates. Someone you hate. Look at Romeo and Juliet. Everyone knows how
that turned out. And they looked at each other. So, Italians do not make eye
contact with strangers on the street.’
Really? Could that actually be the reason my smiles
and tentative ciaos were greeted by nothing more than icy stares from
strangers? I decided to investigate. I approached another professor, this one
Italian, and repeated what I had been told.
‘She is American, no?’ my Italian professor asked.
After getting confirmation, the professor continued, ‘Why don’t we greet
strangers? We just do not. We do not know one another and are not accustomed to
greeting people we have not been introduced to.’
Now, I am a good southern girl, and down in the lower
part of the United States
it is considered downright rude to not greet someone you pass on the
street. It does not matter whether you are childhood friends or have never seen
the person before. You smile and say hello. Not surprisingly, my professor
looked at me as though I was crazy when I explained this cultural tidbit. And,
to be honest, the idea of someone smiling and calling out ciao to everyone
you meet while weaving through Florence’s
busy sidewalks is rather crazy. To outsiders, however, the stony
expressions of locals can seem unfriendly and rude.
Here’s a word you won’t often hear thrown around on
Florentine sidewalks: scusi. Similar to the concept of eye contact and
greetings with strangers, it just isn’t done. It can be almost amusing to watch
large groups of pedestrians march towards each other as if to battle, neither
one ever changing position. That is, it is amusing when you are not the one
whose shoulder is unexpectedly and brusquely hit by an oncoming person. It
isn’t that anyone means to ram into your shoulder, it’s just that no one
seems terribly bothered by it and scusi is rendered useless as it is not
an action that needs excusing.
Is this the line?
If you have been in Italy longer than five minutes you
have likely already realized that Italians do not wait in line. Whether you are
at the grocery store or the train station, a line is a very loose concept. When
the bus arrives at the stop, people flood the open doors. It does not matter
who has been on the hot curb for 10 minutes and who has been there for 1: space
goes to whoever can clamber through the entrance most quickly. While it can be
disorienting, think of it as a way to stay alert. This goes for ordering lunch,
as well. Get your elbows out and look alive if you want to leave with that panino you’ve got your eye on.
Ciao, y’all, revisited
Though accustomed to speaking to
people I pass on the street, it is not rare for me to go into a shop, browse
around and leave without having spoken one word to anyone. But what goes on the
street is just the opposite of what happens inside. Italians always address
each other in a private space. You should get in the habit of greeting the
staff when you go into a shop or restaurant. Say buon giorno in the
morning and buona sera in the afternoon. When you leave the building,
repeat the phrase, accompanied by grazie.