When in Italy, do as the Italians do

“We miss the Americans” said the middle-aged Italian shop keeper in Portofino, shaking her head disapprovingly. It took me a minute to understand that she had said it in English and had said it to us in particular. She certainly wasn’t speaking English for her edification, and she had easily singled us out as Americans.

The people who had just left were not Americans, and they were certainly not Italians either. Which nationality they were, I will leave up to your imagination.

Frankly I was surprised to hear that sentiment. We have all heard the term “Ugly American.” And when abroad it is certainly easy to pick out one’s own countrymen. White socks are a sure-fire giveaway, and so are cargo shorts and flip flops. As is any sort of gym-wear, up to and including yoga pants, regardless of their cost. But let me tell you this, don’t believe the online stuff about only pants (no shorts). It is hot in Italy, and humid. And that type of weather all but assures shorts. But with Americans looking like that, who would have thunk Italy would have missed us?

“Why do you say that?” I asked the shopkeeper.

At first, she just shrugged. One thing I noticed on my trip is that many Italian service people don’t make suggestions. If you ask for something, they will get it, but they are not going to suggest a better choice. Or a different choice. And sometimes that can be frustrating. Like waiting for a cab for twenty minutes, to then take a five-minute circuitous ride that you could have easily walked in two minutes. But travel is a lesson in patience, and adaptability.

“These people,” she said gesturing at the people who had just left.  “They bring piles of money.”  She held her hands about six inches apart. “The best,” they say. “Only the most expensive. Americans, they don’t throw their money around, like that.”

“Covid?” I asked.

“No, even before that, there were fewer Americans.”

From a purely American business perspective, you would think that buying only the most expensive thing would be great. But from an Italian perspective – her perspective – apparently it isn’t. Maybe that is because the service industry in Italy is more “mom and pop,” and far less corporate. The people who own the restaurant are there working. And they would like to be treated with respect rather than have money thrown at them. 

There are some drawbacks, or idiosyncrasies, for sure. It’s not unusual for a server to disappear for a very long period of time. Or for the owner to make change for your bill from his back pocket wallet.

“Why are you talking like that to me, in my home?” asked a different shopkeeper, of a different customer, of a different nationality than the first.

It wasn’t his home, it was his restaurant, and he said it in English, which was weird, because neither he, nor that customer’s primary language was. I guess the linga franca of complaints is English.  And that is a fact that troubles me on some level.

But there was another truth there. In my experience no one has ever thought that someone who yells at the staff in a restaurant is cool, or clever, or sophisticated. Not your friends, not your spouse, and certainly not any of the employees. As true in Italy as it is here. That complaining man’s wife’s shook her head, as did the people sitting at the next table, and probably the ones at my own too. One can only observe what other people are doing. It takes introspection to realize what we ourselves are.

“I was just doing my job,” said the waiter in English, again, to a table of Italians.

Italy is a service-based country. The sheer number of restaurants and bars is astounding. Which could presumably lead one to conclude that their service is quite good. But that would be good by American standards. And that is certainly not the case.

Some things you will not see at a restaurant in Italy:

1.Bread plates. They will bring you bread, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar. But they won’t bring you a plate to put it on

2. Chili flakes? I don’t think they even have them.

3. The bill. They will not bring it until you ask for it, not under any circumstances. No matter how long you sit.

As we sat in another restaurant on a lovely Italian side street in a little Italian town, not asking for the bill. I heard someone say: “Hey Jeff!”

It was a couple that I knew from Mill Valley.

 Leaving me with these thoughts:

-The world really is a smaller place than we imagine.

-I wonder if that shopkeeper will feel the same way, next year.        

-The most expensive place in the world to eat out, that I have found, is right here in Northern California

-Potato chips. Who would have thought that potato chips would be the go-to Italian happy hour treat?

-It might have an Italian sounding name, but I dare you to order a martini in Italy. Believe you me, you will be sorely disappointed.