Please allow me to introduce you to someone very special. She is but a concept, yet at the same time very very real. She is the true heart of Italy. She is also the thorn in my side at work that makes me want to bang my head against a faccia vista brick wall. She is the embodiment of every Italian mamma-turned-client. Any architetto, geometra, ingegnere, or commerciale in the building industry knows who I am talking about and is currently half smiling and half cringing at the name I am about to utter…
la Signora Maria
To those of you outside the building and construction industry, you too are familiar with her ways. She is the one who smiles while she elbows you at the market to get the best pomodoro for her family’s pranzo. She is the one who piles a massive bis onto your plate, even after you’ve said you’re full. She is the one who spends all day dutifully ironing her entire extended family’s underwear. She is the one who expresses her love and devotion for family via food. She is the one who is hesitant to take professional advice over the advice of her friend’s sister’s cousin. And she is the one who has refused to paint her concrete house for 40 years because “non vale la pena“.
La Signora Maria is not, by any means, a bad person. She loves her family. She devotes every day to their wellbeing. She looks out for their interests. She is thrifty, scrupulous and organized when it comes to caring for her home. Her name is used by Italians to call to mind the stereotypical (often rural) Italian matriarch who is well meaning, but frightened to step outside the box in which she has been confined for decades. You can’t blame her, really. And you certainly shouldn’t get mad at her. She represents a position of great respect in Italian culture.
But everyone in the industry knows that the bottleneck happens at her. You need to factor in extra time in the project schedule to convince her to try “new” things, and you very well may not succeed in your quest.
New things scare her. She’s never seen them before, so she is very doubtful of their validity. If your proposed method has not been established for at least 50 years, she is going to put up quite a fuss in this hasty push for change. Her objections will most likely include several anecdotes about a woman she knows who tried something different once and paid the price. The wagging finger will no doubt come out, and then once the monologue starts you might as well grab a chair and have seat.
What kinds of “new” things is she scared of, you ask?
Well, I’m glad you asked. The following is just one hypothetical example that I have constructed for you from the wealth of subject material in my everyday client base.
La Signora Maria in this example is a typical, middle-aged housewife (even though the images I am using are of an older woman, generally the stereotype is applied to middle-aged women). She and her husband have decided to use their life savings to invest in a complete renovation of their home, built in the 1960’s, which no longer meets the minimum norms for seismic safety and energy consumption (the majority of Italian homes meet this profile). They are thinking about their future, as they get older, and that of their children, as they begin their own families. The downstairs apartment will be used for themselves, seeing as how the stairs are getting a bit difficult lately to climb. And the upstairs will be reserved for the son and his family, who haven’t been able to buy their own home due to La Crisi.
I repeat, this is a hypothetical example, but I think it really covers a wide base of real life scenarios in rural Italy. While I could pull an example of a more technical nature that might be a more common fear of La Signora Maria, I’m instead going to pull an example from the architectural design phase. This will be perhaps a bit more understandable to those of you outside the industry.
So one sunny hypothetical morning, I show La Signora Maria an example photo to help explain what her universal access shower will eventually look like… simple, easy to clean, no thresholds to step over… it will be designed as a “wet room”, where the entire room is tiled and moisture barriers protect and seal the surrounding walls to prevent mold and condensation… it will be accessible un domani by a wheelchair (hand gesture of horns pointing down to ward off bad luck)… and it will be vary spacious to allow easy manoeuvring…
Her (predictable) response is to throw her hand up and shoo me away, as if I have just suggested the most absurd idea in the world…
She sweetly says, “Oh, no, cara, I don’t need anything so fancy! Oh my goodness, who do you think I am? Oh my! No, no, something normale will be just fine.” Then she makes a comment, reminding me that we are not in America, but rural Emilia instead… to which I reply, “yes. Thank you. I remember.”
So I take a step back again (because this will have been the 100th conversation like this) and remind her (again) that we are designing a NEW house here… so really it doesn’t make sense to design it in the same way that a house from the 60s was designed. “Wouldn’t you like to spend your money (less money, I might add) on something that feels new, Signora?”
She’s not quite sure what to say to this. She definitely likes the idea of getting her money’s worth. But this word… “NEW”…. it scares her…
She asks me to explain more, and so I patiently describe the evolution of residential design. I describe how there now exists mechanical ventilation that draws away humid air from the bathroom, so you don’t have to open the windows in the middle of winter and freeze your toes off.
She’s dubious. She can’t imagine any scenario that doesn’t require opening the windows every morning for cambia d’aria. I leave the mechanical ventilation discussion for another day, and I focus back on the simple task of getting the shower approved. I show her another photo to remind her that we don’t have to decide the color of the tiles now, just the form of the room…
She says she’ll have a think about it, but doesn’t see why we need to rush and decide now. I explain that a wet room needs different detailing than a standard room, so the sooner we know, the better. She is a bit overwhelmed with all of the information…
So I tell her not to worry, to take her time, and have a think about it.
Two weeks later, we find ourselves at the 3rd meeting dedicated to the subject of the shower. Each meeting runs about 2 hours long. This is what I mean when I say that, as a professional, you need to factor in these hours.
This time, she’s brought a photograph cut out from an advertisement in the local newspaper. She is very proud to show it to you because it’s a “new” shower model – the latest version of the one she already has “which works just fine and has been working that well since 1963 when she bought it from that bathroom showroom they used to have over on Via XX Settembre, but now I think it’s moved to Viale Garibaldi because the son married that woman from Parma (good heavens! What was he thinking?!) and she said that the space was too small for all the new shower models they wanted to show, but I’m not so sure that’s true because as I remember it was fairly” –
Signora!! Let me see the photo, please.
She then shows you this shower/bath combo unit that looks like it could take off into space. We’re in Italy, home to CERSAIE and one of (if not THE) biggest ceramics industry in the world, not to mention all kinds of high class design companies. And she shows you this…
If you don’t see the problem here, then we need to have a little Design 101 class.
If you’re wondering how it’s possible that someone in Italy, where design is supposedly revered, can think this is more beautiful than so many other gorgeous examples of shower units, then you have arrived at the paradox that is life in this country. In this country, these two men equally fulfil two co-existing stereotypical roles of an 80-yr-old man:
You see, we’re in RURAL Italy (the one on the left). It’s a totally different ball game out here, folks. Those Brera district Milan city guys ain’t got sh*t on La Signora Maria. She KNOWS what’s up.
How does she know what’s up?
EXPERIENCE. Either she, personally, or someone in family has had direct experience with this particular shower unit. Therefore it is now a valid option.
Anyway, at this point, I’m looking for a faccia vista brick wall to slam my head into. If you don’t get why the faccia vista reference is funny, I’ll try to dedicate another post to that sometime. I move on because, clearly my point has been lost and there’s no point in staying on the subject any longer. The best I can do at this point is delay and hope something changes her mind.
Weeks pass. Because that’s just how speedy the building process is in Italy. (Yet another subject for yet another day.) The short and sweet of it is that all this time that passes, that seems like an eternity, actually has a purpose. Time is perhaps the only weapon strong enough to stand up to the Italian resistance to change.
During these weeks, La Signora Maria becomes fascinated with the subject of a “wet room”. She talks about it to all of her friends, repeating this craziness that her architetta americana (!) told her. She goes to market and asks if anyone else has heard of this kind of built-in shower concept. She dismisses it at crazy talk at first, but piano piano she starts to speak of it as though it may actually exist somewhere in the world. Her curiosity is piqued, but she dare not submit until she has proof.
One day an old friend comes over for a visit. They haven’t seen each other in a while, and meanwhile the friend’s son has moved to Milano to try to find work. As a dutiful Italian son, he of course brought his mamma up to see his new apartment in the city.
“You wouldn’t believe his apartment – it’s so fancy! You know he has a shower that is built right into the bathroom!”. La Signore Maria does a double take. “Davvero?!”
They then exchange information, and the friend assures La Signora Maria, “this built-in shower was so easy to use because there was nothing to step over to get inside it! While my son was at work I cleaned his apartment for him (certo), and it was so simple – just like cleaning the wall tiles!”.
And so she is convinced…
In the next meeting, she announces that she has something she would like to say.
She declares with certainty…
“I think that we should have a built-in ‘wet room’ shower enclosure. My friend’s son has one and did you know that they are very easy to clean? They are also good for people of a certain age because they are so easy to move around” –
Signora! yes, fantastic, I agree. Shall we go ahead with the other 5 million decision then?
Ok, perfetto! Now then, about that mechanical ventilation…
And so it continues…
Conversations like these make up 90% of time spent on a residential project in Italy. But I can’t blame sweet little Signora Maria. She is just existing within the framework of a culture that is resistant to change for fear of losing their identity. She’s trying to wade through the false claims by trusting only the tried and true. She dreams of a better future, but is skeptical about seeing it in her lifetime.
I mean, to a certain degree… there’s a little bit of La Signora Maria in every Italian, is there not?
The images of La Signora Maria are from the following video of a real Signora Maria, who fits the roll almost perfectly. How can you not love her?