ne evening, I was telling my daughter Julia a bedtime story about Fassi’s, my favorite gelateria in Rome. I was trying to seduce her into sleep with lavish descriptions of my favorite gelato flavors. The little pieces of candied fruit in cassata siciliana; the messy goodness of zuppa inglese. The resemblance of stracciatella to American chocolate chip. These made for better descriptions than the more purist flavors that I actually ate: hazelnut, pistachio, and crema.
As I talked, I found myself focused not on the gelato as much as the experience of obtaining it. It quickly became a story about the Italian line. I first discovered lines in Italy as a university student in Bologna. Every day at lunch, I would wait in line at the student bar outside one of the main libraries to get my panino with cheese. It had a special name beginning with a ‘B’ that I can’t recall, but it was essentially a grilled cheese sandwich made more exotic by the novelty of the line, or rather, mob scene, to get the sandwich.
I was used to single-file lines in America, where anyone who cut was immediately called out. But in Italy, it seemed like cutting was the norm, and no one was calling it out. Lines were amorphous formations, making it hard to tell who belonged where in them. The only sort of rule regulating the line seemed to be: push ahead. Plus, a Machiavellian mix of hand gestures, eye contact, and voice that I could only observe, but never mimic.
I’d instead pay for my sandwich (the pay line always seemed distinctly single-file and less chaotic), then hover in the back of the pack, receipt in hand, as if waiting for an invitation to exchange it for my sandwich. That invitation, of course, never came. I’d wait fifteen, twenty minutes, until even the latecomers had pushed their way to the counter where workers handed out sandwiches.
One day, I finally decided to push ahead too, and I wish I could say that it was because I’d undergone a dramatic personality change. But the real reason is that I was simply hungry, and I didn’t want to wait around anymore. I suspect the same reason drove everyone else around me. No one was pushing in line as a nod to enhanced self-esteem. They wanted to eat.
In Italy, standing up for yourself is a natural part of survival. If you don’t push your way onto the crowded metro, or train, you won’t get on. If you don’t advocate for yourself at the hospital, you might be left in the waiting room — and yes, even die (as occasional news stories report).
Learning to stand up for myself in everyday life gave me more swagger and self-confidence to do the same in the things that mattered most to me. As an intern at the Wall Street Journal during the passing of Pope John Paul II, I was charged with writing the “reporters notebooks” columns — the peoples’ stories in the shadows of the big news. The night before the Pope’s funeral, I’d spotted Polish boy scouts on Via del Corso and decided to follow them for an evening. I stayed up all night to write my column, and the next morning, I showed it to the only correspondent in the office. “This is good. I’m going to take some parts of it for my piece,” the correspondent said.
My stomach buckled. I didn’t mind gathering “string” for the big news pieces, but this piece was mine, from its inception. So, I went back to my desk and did something akin to pushing ahead in line: I sent my article to my supervisor. As soon as he read it, he sent it to the editors in New York; then he called me and told me that I’d done the right thing. The editors loved it and ran it that day. The correspondent was miffed, but my byline and self-respect were intact.