After a decade of widowhood my ex-mother-in-law, Mariada, finally made a visit to the Italian telephone company offices to change her account from her late husband’s name to her own. Employee: “If you want to change the name, Mario has to endorse it. You can just sign his name here.” Mother-in-law: “I can’t sign it for him, he’s been dead for ten years.” Employee, helpfully: “Why don’t you step outside with the form and sign it in the corridor? When you come back in I’ll pretend it’s the first time I’ve seen you.”
A petty violation of the law. A colleague was explaining the route to drive to the University: "You drive down Via del Quirinale to Largo Santa Susanna, and then… no, you're too American, you can't." "Can't what?" "Well, then you have to make a slightly illegal left turn, a small infrazione, it's the only way to get there."
Italian rules often seem made to be broken, but they can turn inflexible when you least desire it. I helped a schizophrenic patient through infinite red tape to get an Italian disability pension, a welcome supplement to his meager wages from a manual job an hour’s drive from home. One week after he received his first pension check he was notified that now that he had been certified as disabled his driver’s license had been automatically revoked.
The casual lawlessness rubs off on you. I shocked a friend by distractedly bypassing a dozen cars waiting at a California tollbooth and sneaking back into the line. I shocked myself by swearing to the State of New York I’d lost my drivers license when I’d actually handed it in to the authorities here in return for an Italian one. I shocked my mother by suggesting over the phone she sign my name to a jury duty summons; once she’d recovered, though, she said what the hell and practiced my signature until she could forge it on the dotted line, savoring the glee of transgression after 65 years of walking the straight and narrow.
Italians’ behavior is governed by the ad hoc and the ad personem. They consider Americans’ reliability to be rigidity, our rules to be unwarranted limits on options, our planfulness a brake on spontaneity, our constant pleases and thank yous a defense, our lofty ethical precepts hypocritical cop-outs geared to avoiding immersion in the complexities of human relations. Romans prefer a “half date,” a mezzo appuntamento, to a definite one, and they don’t hesitate to cancel at the last minute if they’re feeling tired or antisocial. When I told a friend this seemed rude, he said an unwilling dinner guest wouldn’t be fun anyway.
Italians disdain rule-worshippers just as illiterate people disdain those who can’t remember anything if they don’t write it down. My friend Daniela once made a U-turn on an empty small-town street in Switzerland. A woman leaned out her second-floor window and yelled a reprimand. Daniela – who hails from Italy’s relatively law-abiding North – responded by making another U-turn, then another, then another… Italians are great at improvisation and seat-of-your-pants, farm by the phases of the moon when they’re not designing Maseratis, and always feel more secure having a low-tech backup. They wear a condom but pull out anyway. They shine during Third-World travel: when things go wrong, stick with the Italians, who get busy devising a fix while the Americans are sitting around waiting for the authorities to show up. Neapolitans call it l’arte di arrangiarsi, the art of muddling through.
There are traffic lights in Rome deemed unnecessary by popular opinion. You’ll be honked at if you stop.
Mobile phone readers: to subscribe, scroll way down.