One of the hardest things to deal with as an American city-girl in the Italian countryside is the concept of word-of-mouth business. Advertisements, promotions, sales and deals have no place here. If La Famiglia does not approve of a business’ services, that business is not used. In order to find out if a business is on the approved list, however, EVERYTHING must be discussed with EVERYONE in the family.
This is hard for me, as I like to keep my daily affairs somewhat private.
On this subject, the following story has been one of my favorites to tell and retell over the course of my time here in Italy. It was one of my first culture shock experiences, and it took place the first month I was in Italy – about 4 years ago. It exemplifies the understatement that Italians do all business by word-of-mouth and personal recommendations.
M needs to open a bank account.
Coincidentally, my suocero is a very well-respected financial adviser here. He has friends in the financial world of industrial Italy. One such friend is the owner of a fairly large international investment firm. Technically they can set up personal bank accounts for people, but their real money is in large mutual funds, etc. But because I was new to Italy, and because La Famiglia always feels that they should take care of me, I was discouraged from opening an account at Deutsche Bank… which is the sister bank to my Bank of America… which has over 3,000 ATMs in Italy to chose from for every-day banking… which has a brilliant thing called online banking (something that Italian banks have clumsily just discovered) where I would be able to transfer back and forth to and from my account in the US.
“No, no, M, you don’t want to open a bank account with them… because they have annual fees. You want to open a bank account with my personal friend and colleague – a millionaire who lives in Modena and has zero ATMs, but a very large and beautiful office. He will laugh at your measly amounts of money and humor you with a free checking account.”
Ok, he didn’t quite say it like that, but you’ll allow me some creative license here – right?
It was a Monday. The whole family piled into the car for a day trip to Modena to open M‘s bank account. I’m looking at my then fidanzato, saying… “What the hell? Do they know that this is a lot of trouble to go to for less than 3,000 euros?” He assures me this is normal, fine… not out of the way… totally normal procedure. Ok…
We arrive at an 18th century palazzo in the center of Modena. My suocero pushes a little doorbell button and a camera swings around to look at us. Then the huge wooden, hand-carved, double doors slowly swing open and we march inside where the millionaire-owner of this international investment company greets us warmly with open arms and baci.
Just your average bank.
We are ushered inside and shown into a large meeting room with hand-painted murals on the walls and a large, round, marble table in the center. Immediately three underlings in suits appear. Two are men, and they stand at attention in the corner of the room with folders and forms in their hands. The third is a woman, so obviously she has the tray of coffee. We are offered salame… in case we’re hungry. But since I had already been force-fed large amounts of pork about half an hour before that at the mandatory stop in the best osteria between our town and Modena, my suocero politely declines for me.
After about an hour of these formalities and casual chat, we arrive at business. M‘s bank account.
Forms are presented… I am told to sign. I ask what the forms say. They laugh and tell me not to worry. There would be too much to explain, and I wouldn’t possibly be able to understand it all anyway (I’m still not sure if they’re insulting my femininity, age or nationality when they say things like that). I sign. More forms. More signing. I think in the course of that afternoon I must have signed my name on at least 15 or 16 documents that I could not read or understand. Nor do I have a copy of.
Not that I’m worried. My suocero is very respectable, and I have absolute trust that they are doing things properly. Plus, what did I have to lose? Less than €3000, which they are soon going to find out when they check my bank account for the transfer.
The whole time I am signing, the underlings – I can’t tell if they are interns or regular gopher employees – are scurrying around back and forth, making sure that every form was there and that they had arranged everything to my liking.
By the end of the day, not only did I have a one of only maybe 6 personal checking accounts issued by one of the most prestigious financial institutions in Italy, but my then fidanzato and I also had a joint account! Not sure why or how that happened… it was definitely not discussed. In fact, I wasn’t even told until later that day. I was assured everything would be fine, and we were sent on our way.
Fast-forward a couple months
to when my mom comes to visit for Christmas holidays. My fidanzato and I had pretty much been living off the cash I was getting paid for English teaching up until this point. We hadn’t started our business yet, and money was a bit tight (I hadn’t wanted to dip into my whopping €3000 in savings). However, when my mom came, I wanted her to be able to use my euros and she could pay me back in dollars in the US. So… how the hell do I withdraw euros from The Bank of La Famiglia? How? Well, you have to go there… to Modena… to the millionaire’s house.
So, my mom and I bundle up and decide to make a day trip out of it – she hadn’t seen Modena yet anyway. We train to the center and walk to the palazzo. I hit the buzzer, expecting an awkward conversation where I have to remind them who I am. But no, the man behind the camera has a good memory and we are ushered in with the same red carpet treatment I had previously experienced. My mom’s eyes are pretty wide at this point and she keeps whispering to me, “this is a bank?!”. After coffee and chocolate biscuits, they ask what they can help me with. I reply that I just need to withdraw some spending cash for my mom’s visit.
Oh the drama.
The underlings immediately become flustered and one grabs his coat and runs out the door. The second one is apologizing profusely and trying to explain in bad English that they don’t actually keep cash on the premises, but that he has sent his colleague out to withdraw some from his own personal account at an ATM. The woman who served the coffee is sent back in to chat with us because her English is the best (I suspect that she is the best at many things, but apparently her breasts make her the only one who can make coffee). She was very nice and chatted with us about where we were going to visit and how much my mom likes Italy, etc. The other man returns with the cash, and counts it out on the table… apologizing again.
They insist that next time, if there is anything I need, all I need to do is call the office. They have employees driving all over the region daily, and they will gladly stop by our house or our office to handle all future transactions so that I am not inconvenienced by the trip to Modena. (They did too! They come by here every couple of months to discuss the accounts!).
Just before we leave, the woman asks us to wait one minute. As she shows us to the door, she says that she has a gift for my mother… to welcome her to Modena… a small gesture. It’s wrapped in a little gift bag, so we say “aw, thank you, that’s very nice of you”. And we leave.
Two blocks away I allow my mother to exhale and we both crack up laughing. She thought she had been in some movie or something. She opened her gift to find a bottle of argento aceto balsamico – worth about 30 or 40 euros.
“What bank is this?!?!?”
I reply – “it’s The Bank of La Famiglia“.
And that’s how it is. E’ così. I mean, it is so obvious to see why the mafia exists here. The mafia is simply an Italian family. They just happen to be doing illegal things, rather than legal. But the structure, the etiquette, the rituals… just an average Italian family, looking out for each other, trying to do what’s in your best interest.