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.
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A large topic, this one. But even within the US, there are differences. After nearly twenty years driving in Brooklyn, I'm still a wee bit surprised every time I visit California by how absolutely law abiding drivers are there. While my kids were growing up, every time I was about to make a U-turn, or a K-turn, or worse, like backing around a corner to get a parking place, I'd announce "Brooklyn maneuver!" But other drivers here are often far more daring, or absurd, than I am. I describe driving in Brooklyn, even more so than Manhattan, as being like the mythical "Wild West." I would, of course, get a ticket for most such maneuvers in California.
Yes, yes, I had the same reaction when I first went to California from New York. It's like going to Switzerland after Italy, everybody proceeding in hyper-orderly fashion. Of course it is a pretty strong incentive to abiding the law if parking in the wrong place is guaranteed to draw a meter maid's attention within 15 minutes or, as you say, a U-turn is sure to get you a ticket!Delete
In California, there are legal U-turnsDelete
Californian drivers might not be more law abiding but they are definitely far more courteous and always give way to pedestriansDelete
Legal U-turns! who knew?Delete
I guess bureaucracies are similar around the world. Many years ago my brother had an old, beat up Plymouth. He offered it me for $300. At that time I was commuting from the middle of Suffolk to JFK High School in Bellmore by carpool and I figured " How bad could this bucket of bolts be?" When I was in the Motor Vehicle Bureau (where sanity goes to die), The woman behind the desk said "I need your brother's signature to make this legal." When I said he lives in New Jersey, she said " No, I saw him just a minute ago, he walked around that corner, and I bet you can catch him and get his signature" (WINKY WINKY) Lo and Behold, she was right.ReplyDelete
Always thankful for the little things.
I love it! The Italians say "Tutto il mondo è paese," the whole world is a single village, i.e. things are the same all over...Delete
I LOL'd on this crowded orderly Metro Nth train at the "wear a condom but pull out anyway line". Thanks Susan. Missing Roma.ReplyDelete