The more time I spend in Italy, the more I’m aware of what a stranger I am, culturally. It’s funny to say that because I think of Italian culture as pretty similar to ours — and certainly to mine. There’s the predominance of Catholicism and all its attendant habits and vocabulary. It’s Western. It’s a democracy. We eat similar foods and wear basically the same clothes (though they might do both a little better). There’s even a feeling of mutual familiarity owing to immigration (almost everyone I meet has relatives in the U.S. or Canada).
Nevertheless, I feel a little off-balance here, almost apologetic at times for my presence. I have a sense that I don’t know the rules yet, like how I’m supposed to hold my head when I walk up the street so I’m not immediately marked as an American. Or where I can leave food for the street cats —and whether in tin foil or on a paper plate —so the lady up the block won’t come a-knockin’ come morning. Or how to park in a manner that won’t earn me a finger wag, even as I see that neighbors have pulled up on sidewalks and all but nudged the noses of their own cars into shopfronts.
But that’s just the beginning of some subtleties I need to master. There are important rules in play here, and I don’t know exactly what they are.
Behaviors that especially mystify me are tied up in communication: the penchant for exaggeration, the flattery, the evasiveness, the dissembling. While I haven’t yet deciphered what the game is and its rules of play, I do sense something’s afoot that I’m going to need to understand better.
First, let’s take evasiveness (which often takes the form of unnecessary loquacity).
It can be difficult getting a straight answer to a seemingly innocuous question. Even Antonio exasperates me on this count. He’ll hem and haw and finally unleash a 500-word allegory involving Dante when all I’ve been trying to ascertain is why he didn’t take the earlier train to Pescara.
In The Italians, a fascinating study of the national character, author John Hooper touches on some of the eccentricities I think I’m noticing. (The book is a great read for Italophiles.) He attributes a certain tendency to evasiveness and reluctance to reveal personal details in part to a collective suspiciousness and caution on the part of Italians that derives from their history with power constantly changing hands. Better not to show your hand or name your friends or reveal your family history today because the landscape could change tomorrow into something unfavorable to you and yours.
“Their troubled history and guileful compatriots,” Cooper writes, “have taught Italians to be intensely wary. One of the first things to strike any foreign correspondent arriving in Italy is the reluctance of ordinary people to supply their names, let alone other details like their profession, age, or hometown.
Fair enough. But that doesn’t explain the train thing. Which brings us to the next thing: unnecessary loquacity. Italians will use 700 overblown and flowery words when seven would suffice. It’s something I’ve noticed in everything from descriptions of a house to bank statements.
One theory I have is that the Italian admiration for art and originality, or fantasia, might carry over into an admiration for artfulness in daily life — for an answer poetically given, a hand well-played, a question well-dodged, a sticky situation well-handled. After all, a jejune answer to a jejune question shows a lack of imagination. Is the dissembling and word deluge and sleight-of-tongue done just for the sport of it, then, to exercise the artistry muscle?
Author Cooper writes: “… Southern Europeans, and particularly Italians…often talk in metaphors and communicate with symbols. And since so much is therefore deceptive or illusory, given a choice between a simple explanation and a tortuous one, you are just as likely to be right if you plump for the second.”
Then there’s the exaggeration and its close cousin, excessive flattery.
The pizza guy whose pizza is pretty average is nonetheless hailed as a maestro. The housekeeper is an artista. As for me, I’m sometimes introduced as a noted American journalist when my career writing background has, for the most part, been on the advertising side of publications and I’ve never pretended otherwise.
Is all this simply a matter of la bella figura at work?
The aspiration toward la bella figura, the desire not only to cut a good figure physically but to make a good impression overall, is by now a widely-known feature of the Italian character. It could explain, at least in part, the temptation to heap flattery on new acquaintances. (It certainly does explain the taboo I once violated about mentioning feet in polite company without begging pardon. Apparently, in the world of bella figura, one prefers to forget one has feet.)
But would it also mean that the high-fallutin’ and exaggerated intro I sometimes get is less about me and more about the host’s coup in having the personage he’s describing me to be, and therefore not to be corrected or protested? And am I shirking a certain social duty in failing to flatter others in similar fashion?
I would add that tarting up the ho-hum truth is perhaps something the Italian soul not only forgives but applauds as a kind of poetic license. But that apparently universal Italian appreciation of la bella figura can careen into an unsettlingly casual relationship with the truth that includes hyperbolic claims about oneself. I sometimes think I’ve detected a tacit social contract that says “I won’t press you too closely on the claims you’re making about yourself if you don’t press me too closely, either.”
Cooper writes: “In several respects, figura is close to Far Eastern concepts of ‘face.’ And since Italians generally agree on the need to avoid losing face, they are prepared…to go to great lengths to ensure that others do not do so…”
Against this context, moreover, does my own almost compulsive candor about myself and occasional tendency to self-ridicule make me seem vulgar? In the world of polite conversation, am I making la brutta figura by failing to spin a more glamorous yarn?
While I’m at it, let me note that, while I certainly could be wrong, I sense my neighbors don’t have much of a sense of humor about themselves. While Italians certainly do have a sharp wit and appreciation of same, the national sense of humor doesn’t seem to favor self-deprecation. Maybe that would jibe with the whole idea of saving face?.
I don’t know the answers to these questions and what those answers might mean for me in terms of playing by the rules.
And, finally, there are the veiled meanings.
I’ve only recently caught a whiff of veiled meanings. Apparently, though, they’re an important part of the discourse toolbox. So much so, Cooper writes, that there’s even an Italian word for the art of divining the meaning behind what’s actually said: dietrologia, or behind-ism.
Dietrologia at work in my neighborhood (Or, Neighbors say the darnedest things.)
I recently got a lesson in dietrologia in parochial form at the hair salon up the street. Rita, the salon owner, introduced me to a neighbor, a retired professoressa who was in a nearby chair having her color done. By way of introduction, Rita mentioned that I’d bought the house that had once been home to her salon. (That’s true; it was in what is now my kitchen.)
The professoressa greeted me cordially and proceeded to tell me that there was a house nearby — also owned by an American, she thought — whose posterior view was an eyesore. (The reader should know that her home has a view of mine due to the way the land curves at a certain point.) Frank and ingenuous like something out of A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court, I confessed that my house was probably that very one, and that I hadn’t yet finished work on it. (But, of course, she knew that. Slap forehead, Casey.) Then she told me that a few years ago, a guy working there —English, she thought —had once recklessly nearly cut down her apple tree, and that she had run outside screaming to stop him before he accomplished the dirty deed. Again, I responded that that no doubt had been my troublesome contractor. The conversation moved on to other forgettable (because I have forgotten them) pleasantries.
As I was preparing to leave the salon, the professoressa gave me her address and invited me to stop by sometime should I be curious to see my house from her vantage point. I took her invitation at face value, thanked her, and assured her I would love to pay her a visit next time I was in town. It would indeed be nice, I thought, to see the house from a perspective I otherwise couldn’t. It was only when I got back to my offending abode that I realized (slap forehead again) she wanted me to visit her in order to see for myself just how brutta was my house from her lookout and how it sullied her view. I guess she hoped I’d take fright and speed the work along.
Now, much as I would like to get to know some of the folks around me, I have to wonder if I’ll ever muster the guts to arrive on her doorstep looking for a cup of coffee and a chat by the window.