Those of you expats who are particularly strong-willed (read ‘stubborn’) may be able to relate to this short, yet accurate, assessment detailing the three phases of submitting to the way things are done here in Italy – or, as I like to call it,
“1,2,3, é così“‘
Phase 1: Shock and disbelief.
This phase is best described through another post I wrote a while, titled “è così: Potty humor and pace of life in a small Italian town“. I encourage you to read it in its entirety for the full effect, but here’s the basic synopsis:
My second week into expat life in Italy, our toilet broke. The plumber that my then boyfriend’s family usually used was on vacation, and so we had to wait.
That’s right – instead of calling a different plumber or (heaven forbid) looking one up in the phone book, we waited. One week with no toilet.
I was in complete shock. I believe my precise wording was something along the lines of… “You can’t be serious… You expect me to run across the street to [poo] in your mom’s toilet every day because you don’t want to offend the family plumber by calling someone else while he’s on vacation?!”
By the end of that situation, I was good and riled up. Enter Phase 2…
Phase 2: Taking the matter into my own hands.
About a year later, and MANY MANY toilet-like scenarios later, I was fit to be tied. I was quite fed up with la sistema and these ridiculous rules that involved discussing every minuscule detail with the entire Famiglia before purchasing anything, repairing anything, or going anywhere.
Then our washing machine broke.
I said to my then boyfriend, “That’s it! I am NOT having a conversation with your parents about our washing machine. I am taking matters into my own hands.”
He sweetly smiled at me, patted me on the head, and said, “Ok, honey.” He knew better than to mess with me that day. He also knew that this was an essential step in my evolving transformation as an expat in Italy.
So, I did my research, looked up brands online, located various stores in the vicinity. I went to three or four different stores, only to find that the brands I had researched online were not actually available. The salesmen directed me towards different brands, and when I asked specific questions about them (water use, energy use, etc), the responses varied from a laugh (one charming man actually laughed in my face and told me I need not worry about such things!) to a sincere, “Mi dispiace, non ho idea!”.
In the end I made the best decision I could, paid the salesman, and arranged to have it delivered.
The result? Well, they didn’t show up to the first two scheduled delivery times, the installer demanded to be paid again outside the installment fee I had already paid, he didn’t clean up after himself, and then charged me again to take the old washing machine away.
When I verbalized my frustration at the next dinner with La Famiglia, I was immediately chastised for not consulting them. “But we have a guy who we always buy our washing machines from – he has great deals and no installment fee!! Why didn’t you tell us?!”
Me being me, it took several more washing-machine-like scenarios for me to realize that rebellion was futile. I went out on my own and I got overcharged, cheated, tricked, and deceived.
And so I came crawling back to La Famiglia for Phase 3…
Phase 3: Submitting to the system.
Not too long ago, we had to replace all of the hardware on our windows and balcony doors. They were getting really old and some wouldn’t even close properly.
In accordance with all that I had learned over the previous 4 years in Italy, I called my suocera to ask for the number of their doors and windows guy. We were invited to lunch the next day to discuss it.
After a three hour lunch (no mention of door hardware), a name and number for the guy La Famiglia has been using forever were written on a piece of paper. My husband called him, and a time was arranged for the following week.
He didn’t show up. He had forgotten. Another time was arranged for the week after that.
He arrived, and I immediately started thinking of ways I could discreetly video him to show the folks back home. My best description could never do him justice. He was old-school… but, like, Italian old-school. If I had to guess, I would say this man was probably working on the first door locks ever used in this small town. He spoke only Reggiano dialect, so I had absolutely no idea what he was saying the entire time. I gathered that he was retired, but that he still did some work here and there for his long-time clients. I’m pretty sure he was losing his eyesight. And the volume of his voice would suggest his hearing wasn’t great either.
He plopped his gear down in the middle of my kitchen floor and started pulling out tools, which he proceeded to spread out on my breakfast table. Had I known, I would have put a table cloth or something down to protect the wood… but oh well.
Once he got going with trying to fit the hardware into the fickle, old, wooden door frames, he found that he needed to trim a piece of the metal. He pulled out his electric saw and looked for a place to set up.
Apparently my herb garden looked good enough, so he braced the hardware against the side of my vase and started trimming off metal into my coriander. He came back in to test it in the door, and discovered it needed just one more trim. Instead of setting up shop on the vase again, he decided to wing it right there in the kitchen. He collected a little pile of metal shavings and deposited them on my bread cutting board. Next to the bread.
At that point, I just started shaking my head in my hands and prayed for him to finish up quickly. I was trying to imagine my nice, soft-spoken suocera putting up with this behavior around her beloved plants and kitchen, but I knew she would never have said anything to him. So I stayed quiet, lest I cause a drama.
At the next dinner with La Famiglia, they asked how it went. I replied honestly that I was a bit disappointed with his work… it was a bit sloppy… and he made a mess of my kitchen and flower bed.
At this point, I was expecting some sort of defense of this man who they seem to hold in such high esteem that they have hired him time and time again for years. At the very least, I was expecting an explanation that his work has dwindled over the years with his age, but they just don’t have the heart to replace him.
No, no. Their reply was “Oh yeah, he doesn’t do great work.”
I asked my suocera why they continue to use him, and she giggled and shrugged her shoulders. She then told me a story about how years ago, she had stopped going to one local produce seller because there was always too long of a line at his stand. Three years later, he moved to a larger stand and opened two lines, so she returned to his – now that it was more efficient. He immediately called her out with a snide comment as she neared the front of the line: “Oh, you’re back, I see?” She was quite embarrassed and had to explain herself!
What can I say? E’ così!
My question to the readers is this: How much of this is Italy, and how much is just small town behavior everywhere? Being from a big city, myself, I am just amazed on all fronts. Discuss!