Like many couples, David and I are opposites. He’s an introvert who is very social, which took me a while to understand. He gets recharged when’s he’s alone but loves talking to people. I had lived in my neighborhood for two years when he moved in yet within months, he knew more people than I did, and I’d frequently find him happily chatting with one of his new friends. I’m a very social extrovert, which means I get recharged being with my friends and family, but oddly, I can’t stand talking to strangers. I rarely engage in conversation on an airplane, I seldom make a friend on vacation, and I often prefer silence in public. But the fact that I could speak Italian and David didn’t meant that I was forced to interact with just about anyone we were in contact with during our adventure.
I had brought only my winter coat on the trip, forgetting my lighter jacket at home, so when the temperatures began warming up in Rionero and the spring wind kicked in, I needed to find a lightweight windbreaker. We had seen several women’s dress shops on the main cross street in town, so I peeked in those stores first. They had lots of cute, inexpensive dresses, but nothing but puffy coats which seemed to be preferred by Italian women even when it felt too warm for a coat to me.
After having no luck there, we noticed a sign for a sportswear outlet underneath one of the buildings, so we went around the back of the building and down the stairs to enter the shop, where I found a large selection of Nike windbreakers. While I was looking through them, the shopkeeper asked David, “Parla Italiano?”
David responded to this question the same way he always did. He shook his head no and pointed to me. I hadn’t wanted to talk to the shopkeeper. When shopping I really preferred to find merchandise on my own and pay for it without being forced to engage. I always said “Buongiorno” when I entered a shop in Italy, which I’d been taught is the polite thing to do, but I always hoped that was going to be the end of it. Now, with David still pointing to me, I was being forced to speak with him.
“Cerco per una giacca,” I told him.
“Che colore preferisce?” he asked.
“Nera, per favore,” I said. I rarely bought a coat that’s anything other than black.
The shopkeeper began showing me some items and eventually I tried one on. It was cuter than I had thought it would be, and I let him help me choose the right size. I figured that would be the end of our interaction. I had come looking for a coat, had found it, and I was ready to pay and get on my way. I saw no reason to linger or chat with this stranger. It wasn’t just that I didn’t like small talk with strangers. My attitude was classically American—all business, get it done quickly, don’t waste time on chit chat.
That, however, is definitely not how Italians interact with each other. I’d seen it firsthand with Maria wherever we went—there seemed to be an unwritten rule in Italy that you spend time conversing and don’t rush to business until you’ve covered enough topics to be sufficiently up to speed with the other person. I could see the shopkeeper wasn’t there yet—he had more he wanted to ask me.
“Perché sei a Rionero?” he asked, followed by many more questions.
When did we arrive?
Did I have any friends here?
Why did I even want to get my dual citizenship?
Oh, and did I know that Spain and Portugal are lovely too? But not as lovely as Italy.
I laughed at this last bit and told him I agreed which was why I was here in Italy and not in Spain or Portugal.
At the end of this conversation he told me, “Il tuo italiano è molto buono.”
I responded the way I always did, “No! Non è molto buono, ma sto provando parlare solo in Italiano quando sono qui.” I knew the locals appreciated that I was trying to speak in Italian because most of them spoke zero English.
Then, as an aside and for reasons I’ll never know, he told me I looked very young. I had let my hair go to its natural silver just the year before, and I was still insecure that it might make me look older, so I appreciated the confidence boost. “Grazie mille!” I had dreaded talking with him, but now that I was engaged, I was enjoying it. We didn’t have many friends here in town, and his interest made me feel more at home. He was kind and genuinely interested in our story. This was the longest conversation I’d had with anyone other than Maria since arriving in Italy, and it felt like I was making a new friend. Chatting with him was helping me realize that being open to talking with strangers was going to greatly enhance my time in Italy.
I followed the shopkeeper to the cash desk to pay for the jacket, where he told me he could only imagine how difficult it would be to go to a foreign country without knowing anyone there. At least I could speak the language, he said, but if we needed any help with anything at all while we were in Rionero, we should return to the shop, and he would help us.
He must have thought we looked wary about his motives because he quickly added that this was not like the US where everything requires a tip. He told us Italians offer their help from the heart, not because they want to be paid for the kindness. I pressed my hand to my own heart and thanked him, shook his hand, and left the store, for once grateful I had been forced to communicate with a stranger.
When we left the store, I could see David smiling and knew he was proud of me. Had he been able to speak Italian he would have jumped right in to chat with the shopkeeper, but since he didn’t, he had needed me to take the lead. He’d stood by my side through the entire conversation, enjoying my transformation, watching me become a little less American and a little more Italian.