oving abroad is very much like being reborn. While it can be emotionally rejuvenating, it also means you have to learn to talk and walk all over again. It’s a bewildering experience that makes everything harder than you think possible. When you’re “foreign,” even the simplest task can become a daunting prospect.
The subtleties of Italian manners and mannerisms are particularly tricky. Arriving from London in 2003, where we enjoyed a modern, liberal, multicultural society, finding ourselves in Le Marche was a bit like being transported back in time 50 years to the more formal society of my grandparents. Theirs was a society that still attended church on Sunday in their best clothes. Where they lived, you couldn’t wear your wellies up to town without attracting strange looks, even if you were just picking the kids up from school. It was town where teacher, priest, doctor and vet each commanded respect, and that lived by rules of etiquette we could only guess at.
The Italian situation is trickier. Part of the problem is that many Italians are so naturally helpful and charming that it’s not always immediately obvious when you’ve overstepped the mark. To make things more complicated, they seem incapable of telling you anything you don’t want to hear. Picking your way through the minefield takes sensitivity, and I’m afraid to say we haven’t always got it right.
In our valley are three large farms run by the three Marios. There is “Little Old Mario” (sorry Mario, but you really are very short and old), “Just Plain Mario,” and “Vino Cotto Mario,” the latter so named because he always starts the day with a large glass of fortified wine. Over the years we’ve cajoled them to help us time and again. Vino Cotto Mario helped us buy our first pigs. He drove my husband around the countryside at breakneck speed, eventually bullying the pig man into selling us two excellent sows.
In the process we made another important discovery about Italian manners. They find it very hard to discuss money. The problem is so extreme that price tags are rare in shops and aspects of society are affected. I know a very professional lawyer who is eloquent and intelligent but when you ask what she charges, she blushes like a school girl and feels compelled to write it down on a piece of paper that she passes to you, facedown, over the table. When it came to paying for the pigs my husband ended up offering his open wallet to the pig man with Vino Cotto Mario supervising the transaction.
Over the years the Marios have left their own farms and firesides to help us pull a pig out of the well, move fallen trees from the phone line, slaughter and cure pigs, start the car when the battery was dead, change tires, make wine, harvest barley, feed our animals when we had to go away, and rounded up rabbits after the great rabbit escape of 2007 (a story for another time). But after these many interventions they seemed to vanish from our lives.
I now realize that their disappearance was probably the result of busy lives. They realized that we were just too much to help out on a regular basis. Of course they couldn’t possibly tell us this directly, and our offering to pay for their time just made things worse. When we finally worked out how crass we had been, we, too, went very shy. It’s taken a long time for us to return to normal with the three Marios.
For example, I am now in the market for two more pigs and it’s proving tricky to find someone willing to sell any. Though I rather miss the help of Vino Cotto Mario, dynamic pig procurer, I realize it’s time I stood on my own two feet. So I don’t ask him. I wait instead for an opportunity where I can be of help to him.
At the very least, the whole experience has taught me a cultural lesson. When I go pig shopping I do not, ever, ask the price.