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The Accidental Miscreant

As I've mentioned earlier, Italians love to scold. They'll shake their heads, wag their fingers, cluck their tongues at you for all kinds of conduct you never dreamed could be objectionable. It's ironic that a citizenry known for unruliness should be so keen to discipline others. Sometimes, I think they just do it for sport.

I’d list scold-able offenses for readers' edification but for the simple fact that I never know what they're going to be and defy anyone to codify them. Cut a dizzyingly long line right up at the front and Italians will say nothing. Pluck a fig or orange from their tree as you saunter by their yard and they’ll say nothing. But bag a banana yourself in a small market or close the blinds in your own house and you’ll get the finger wag. (Yes. A friend's neighbor admonished her to stop closing her blinds because it prevented one from seeing into her home. Apparently, this was for her own protection.) Antonio and I have been roundly reamed out on separate occasions by two restaurateurs. The first was outraged that we'd dared to walk in when we hadn't been there in months. (Our protests that we were only in Fossacesia for a few weeks each year fell on deaf ears.) The other was affronted that we'd asked for some bread while we waited for his special brodetto to arrive at the table. (He refused us the bread, just fyi.)

Scoldings coming my way often will announce themselves with a call of “Signora!”. I’ve grown uncomfortably accustomed to hearing it, and it always freezes me in my tracks. What was it this time? Had I pulled some mail in from under my door before folks had a chance to examine it? “Signora!” Had I entered the bakery during early-morning hours reserved for octogenarians who’d earned first dibs on the seven cereals loaves and bocconotto pastries? “Signora!” Was I ordering coffee at the wrong counter and mucking up the works? Or taking my change with my left hand and thereby bringing bad luck to the cashier? (Italians are also superstitious.)

{Let me admit that I've made my share of fairly grievous offenses -- usually traffic-related --for which I deserved a good dressing-down. And I've found folks to be quite generous and forgiving once they’ve said their piece. Drive down a harrowingly narrow street in the wrong direction till you're sandwiched in with nowhere to go and a head-wagging mob will quickly form. It will, however, just as quickly become a posse committed to helping you back out of the mess once you’ve popped some hives and started crying.


Forever waiting for the other "Signora!" to drop can give a person an inferiority complex. Hear it enough and you begin to believe you're just a born delinquent who deserves whatever society has to say to you.

...Until one day you feel the first stirrings of resentment and desire to rise up against L'Uomo.

That's when destiny sends you an assist.

I had to run to the farmacia because I’d managed to burn my forearm while cooking. That’s a commonplace for me because I tend to be careless in the kitchen, grabbing ersatz potholders such as paper napkins or dish towels that aren’t quite adequate to the job of hauling a fiery-hot casserole out of the oven. In this particular case, I’d further managed to turn the injury into a nasty chemical burn by dumping all manner of disinfectants and potions onto it, and wound up with oozing, wet skin spreading around a red, swollen, and hard center that looked a little like ebola. (It was pretty angry, and would still be healing six weeks later. I’d include a photo of the nastiness but for fear of an outcry about posting wound porn.)

The quirky little parking area for the farmacia was ill-equipped to accommodate the rush of patrons at that hour — near closing —so we were all managing as best we could and there were what my parents would have called some “fancy” parking jobs going on.

As I took my place in the long pharmacy line, I heard a "Signora!" from somewhere near me. I instinctively cued up my angry wound to show that I clearly was in a compromised condition and not in my right head so could not be held responsible for my poor parking job or improper line posture and must not be treated severely. As it turned out, a woman in front of me was reprimanding, loudly, another woman who was currently being helped at the counter. The scolder was yelling that it was taking people “50 maneuvers” to get around the other's car. (The scolder had a point.) As I breathed a sigh of relief, I heard the offending party coolly reply that she’d parked just fine given the situation (also a fair point); she proceeded to take her sweet time at the counter with no further objections from the line of patrons. She was, of course, a local, so knew how to give as good as she got.


A few days later, I got into my first real set-to with a scolder. It was the morning I was leaving for Rome, and I was down on the lido throwing some leftover bread to the birds on what to all appearances was a patch of grass attached to the public beach. A guy in reflective aviators stood across the street giving me what I could feel was the hairy eyeball the whole time. (Was I supposed to be throwing the bread underhand so as not to put anybody’s eye out?) This time, I didn't wait to hear the "Signora!" I steeled myself and asked if there was a problem.

“Is there a problem?,” he repeated acerbically. “Yes, Signora. There’s a problem.” He told me the patch of grass was private property — his, in fact. I guess he had a point there. He was fixing me with a look so severe I half-feared he was going to call me "maleducata" (badly brought up), one of the more withering epithets that can be hurled at a person. I apologized and said I hadn’t realized it was private property, that it seemed part of the public beach and that I was only feeding the birds so as not to waste perfectly good bread. He countered that there were no birds in sight, were there, Signora? (That scored high on the snide-o-meter and ticked me off.) I retorted that you could hear them in the trees, Signore. We went a few rounds, after which he graciously conceded that he understood my desire to feed the birds. Then his face softened into a smile as he wished me a buona giornata.

So...did I learn that, while Italians may scold for sport, they also like to spar? Maybe. I guess time and experience will tell more about that. For now, that I've learned I can stand my ground and argue my case to a happy denouement -- without losing my tenuous hold on Italian vocabulary! -- is a small victory for this scofflaw signora. Thanks for the inspiration, lady in the pharmacy.

Stay tuned for updates on my criminal record and success with informal litigation.

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Culture Quiz, Exercise I

According to Italian mothers, which of the following threats to life and limb is MOST to be feared? a) drafts b) damp skin (from perspiration, bathing, or swimming) c) ice cubes d) a and b combined Th

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