I've just been looking through old notes about my experiences years ago in Florence, when I took an 8-week crash course in Italian grammar, together with a sublet near the center of town. (To do it, I’d resigned my long-term position at U.S.News & World Report, and the minute I gave that notice, the universe kicked in to support me. I got a call from The New York Times asking me if I’d like to talk freelance. The very next day I walked out of the iconic Times building with a deal to come work there for three months, go to Italy and take my 8-week course, and return to the Times for another three months upon my reentry. Then, I came back to my office to find a message from the language school, Galileo Galilei in Florence, advising me that they’d found a reasonable-priced sublet in the center of town available for the two months I’d be enrolled in the school. I got off the phone and cried.)
Anyway, I came upon a scribble from those days of study abroad that always makes me smile. It was dated April, and must have been a sunny and warm day because I sat sipping a cappuccino at an outdoor cafe that was right along the route of a cross-city foot race. After most of the runners had come through, I happened to make eye contact with a panting and ever-so-slightly-wobbly straggler as he passed a few yards from me. Tuckered out as he was, the poor guy nonetheless managed to smile and wish me “Buon giorno” as he gasped past.
It was one of those moments that can make you love a place.
If you’re traveling to Italy for the first time, you might find this small but important note on niceties helpful. Saying buon giorno is a simple but important aspect of Italian graciousness. Saying it before you barrel into a shop and fire off a question about the price of a given item or accost a stranger to ask for directions could go a long way toward getting you the help you want and could make the difference between a terse reply and a genuinely helpful one.
My father used to tell an anecdote about a vacation in Capri. He had approached an elderly man one morning to ask a piece of information — about a local restaurant or cafe or quickest path to the beach or what-have-you, and, in what I know to have been my father’s abrupt manner, had launched right into the question. The gentleman looked him in the eyes, waited a beat, and then said, “You could have said buon giorno first.” My father, who was seldom cowed by anyone, evidently had felt quite chastised by the reproach, because decades later he still talked about it with regret. My father was not one to care much what other people thought, so the scolding must have had a real sting.
Here are five notes on the art of buon giorno-style greetings and other fleeting interactions:
-If you’re tempted to just go with Ciao! in place of buon giorno, resist the temptation. Ciao is too familiar and will not win you any points as an initial greeting.
-To trick merchants into thinking you’re not an American tourist — at least for a hot second and despite your telltale American gait, which somehow always gives you away — say Salve (hello) rather than Buon giorno or Buona sera upon entering a shop.
-Pronounce Scusi as Scoosi, not Skewsy. An American woman once chirped skewsy to me as we brushed elbows in a crowd, and it sounded ridiculous even to my ears.
-For extra credit, use Scusate if you’re excusing yourself to more than one person.
-When a merchant says Grazie, don’t reply Prego. Rather, say A lei, which simply means “And thank you."