I’ve been living in Italy for just under a year, and it’s been a time of huge transitions, some expected, some not. I’ve found certain aspects of life here as “advertised” in my experience as a tourist here over the years—gorgeous scenery and art, sublime food and wines, an enthralling culture that stretches back thousands of years. Some of the country’s attributes are less visible, though; they need time to surface and accumulate. One thing happens, and then another, and eventually you realize that these occurrences have some common ground. A pattern emerges as, in various ways, at various times, this thing keeps popping up, this thing I think of as a generosity of spirit.
It’s a mindset that leaves me, an American, stunned at times. I won’t say these kinds of things can’t happen in the U.S., but I can say that they never happened to me in the 60-something years I lived there. Still, “generosity of spirit” is a pretty lofty claim, so let me back it up with some specifics.
The first example, which happened only weeks after I’d moved to Italy, came paired with a sense of trust that permeates many interactions here. I needed a new screen for my phone, so off I went to the Clinica iPhone store. The young man who helped me suspected the motherboard might be causing problems too, but he thought we should start with the screen and go from there. After installing it, he handed the phone to me and said, “See how it does for a day.” When I mentioned payment, he waved me off. “Tomorrow,” he said. “See you then.” He didn’t take my name or phone number, so I walked out with a 140-euro new screen on my phone—and I could have kept walking, left town, left the country. But he trusted that I’d be back.
Trust—it’s so refreshing. “Pay me next time,” the woman at the cappelleria (hat shop) says when she can’t make change for a 10-euro note. When I had my eye on an antique Murano glass light fixture at the antiques market, the vendor—now a friend—told me to take it home and see how it looked there. Again, no name or phone number, no definitive time frame for my return. When I said I couldn’t come back until the afternoon, he shrugged and said, “Tranquilla,” meaning “don’t worry.” I bought the fixture and several others, and he came by to see them after they’d been installed. Dissatisfied with how the elettricista had hung the lights, the vendor perched on top of a rickety ladder and adjusted them himself. Customer service, Italian style.
When I moved from one part of Italy to another, I rented an apartment through an agency, a family business. My agent’s daughter drove me to the utility companies and translated so I could get everything set up. Later, when I was ready to apply for residency, my agent insisted on coming with me (a two-hour act of generosity). Another time, when I needed to fax my election ballot to the U.S., she let me use the machine in her office. Since then we’ve chatted over meals or coffee, and this person who could have waved me off once our business was done became a friend instead.
A few months ago I needed to have my signature notarized on a U.S. document, so I asked my rental agency friend to refer me to a notaio (notary). Another friend warned me that notary services are expensive here, so I brought extra cash with me. I arrived early and was seen early, got my document signed and stamped, and was told goodbye. “But the bill?” I said. “What do I owe you?” The reply: no charge, because it was such a little thing.
I could go on. I could tell you about the vet who didn’t charge me for boarding my critically ill cat for several weeks, another vet who trims my dog’s nails for free every month, whether or not we’re there for other reasons. I could tell you about the doctor who told me she couldn’t take private patients and then examined me and wrote a prescription, without charge. I could tell you about the optician who checked my vision and the fit of my contacts twice, ordered lenses for me to try (at no charge), and didn’t ask for payment until we’d gotten the fit and prescription just right—a month-long process. (The vision tests? No charge.) I could tell you about the city worker who comes by in his little truck each evening to pick up trash and recycling and races over to take my bags the instant he sees me on the steps, as if to spare me the chore of crossing the narrow street.
All of these mini-stories are mere anecdotes, which makes them inherently faulty. Conclusive data they are most certainly not. And I know that for every example I’ve given, someone might counter with a nightmare tale depicting the opposite of generosity. And sure, I’ve seen—and experienced—rudeness and apathy and other negative human behaviors. But they are the exceptions, not the rule. What is true for me, here in my hilly town in the center of Italy, is that like Blanche DuBois in her steamy quarter of New Orleans, I can rely on the kindness of strangers.