We were seated outside, perusing the menu, and I glanced around at the tables. A few of the diners were Italian, I could tell, but there were more tourists than we had seen in the entire past two weeks in Basilicata. This was Tuscany, after all, where so many American tourists tend to head.
Siena had always been one of my favorite towns in central Italy. Many who visit Tuscany head straight for Firenze, but I’d always preferred this smaller town just 40 minutes to the south. Siena certainly isn’t an undiscovered hill town—there are tourist attractions like the Palio run twice each summer and the spectacular Duomo, and it’s very close to the Chianti wine region and San Gimignano, two major tourist draws. But the real charm of Siena is wandering the back alleys through the contrade to learn about the culture in each of these neighborhoods, standing on the hill above the town and marveling at the towers, or savoring the Tuscan cuisine with a free shot of homemade grappa after, if the owner was impressed with your order and your manners. I had previously come to Siena several times and really wanted David to see the town, so we made a short detour to stop for lunch in the centro on our way to Bologna.
“Buongiorno. Un tavolo per due persone?” I asked the waiter. He showed us to a table for two right at the front with unobstructed views of the campanile behind the Piazza del Duomo and handed us two menus. “Possiamo prendere una botiglia del’aqua naturale? Grazie mille.”
“Prego,” he responded before slipping away to get our water.
“The specialty of this region in the winter is the cinghiale,” I said, searching on the menu to see if I could find a pasta with wild boar sauce. Despite the outdoor heaters at the restaurant we had chosen on the Piazza del Campo, it was windy and chilly, and comfort food like this would be perfect.
As we looked around the piazza from our table, another waiter seated a large group of young women to our left. I knew in an instant they were American, mostly likely college students spending a semester abroad. They were talking to each other very loudly—fulfilling the number one stereotype about Americans—and were dressed in athletic leggings which is considered bad taste in Italy, where the ability to present oneself in the best possible way—fare una bella figura—is so important. And then they addressed the waiter.
“I’ll do the pizza,” said the first one.
“I’ll do the salad,” said the second one.
There was no greeting shared with the waiter before making their demands, there was no thank you offered when he took their orders. There was no attempt to speak even a single word of Italian, which baffled me. How could you spend a semester abroad in Italy and not even know some basic words? I had been away from any Americans for nearly three weeks and hearing them speak English sounded almost abrasive to me. When did it become acceptable to “do” food instead of politely request it? I was embarrassed for them, and ashamed that American tourists would act this way when traveling abroad.
And then I remembered my first trip to Italy.
We were in Venice and had plans to take the ferry from Venice to the islands of Murano and Burano. I wanted to pack a picnic for the trip and had found a produce stall near our hotel. There was a lovely display of peaches right out front, and I selected a few, picking them up to gently squeeze them and sniff them to see if they were ripe. I could hear a woman in the back of the shop talking, but she was out of sight, and I didn’t think she was talking to me.
Seconds later she was beside me. She slapped my hand as if I were a child and said, “In Italia, NO TOUCH!” She was furious that I had touched the produce, and I was mortified that I hadn’t understood the cultural norms better. It was obvious I had insulted her, so I quickly apologized before asking if I could please have two peaches. “No service!” she yelled at me, pointing for me to leave her shop, and I turned around in embarrassment. There were two teenage American girls waiting behind me—presumably spending a semester abroad I remember thinking—and I said, “Whatever you do, don’t touch anything.”
“Yes! We got that!” one of them said, and I got out of their way so they could shop.
In my defense, I was young on that trip to Venice, and it was the first time I had traveled internationally. These girls at lunch in Siena were also young, and in their defense, maybe didn’t yet understand what I had come to learn over years of coming to Italy—the stark difference between being a tourist and a traveler. A tourist comes to a place planning to see one or more specific attractions, they rarely stray from their guidebook, they often act just like they would act at home in a foreign place, the don’t attempt to use even a few words of the local language, and they tend to visit only the big cities and hot spots. This type of tourist most certainly wouldn’t visit many of the tiny, off-the-beaten path towns that we had during our time in Basilicata.
I had spent years learning what it meant to behave like a traveler, not like a tourist, in Italy. That didn’t mean I hadn’t visited places like the Sistine Chapel in Roma or Taormina in Sicilia, where the cruise ships unload daily. It just meant I’d tried hard to make sure that those tourist “must see” spots didn’t make up the entirety of my trip. I tried to immerse myself in the culture, I liked to interact with the locals of a place, and I tried to do so in their language whenever possible. Over the years, I had made time during my travels to let a day take me where it may without any plans or expectations.
Now, I was taking that one step further: I was learning not just how to be a traveler in Italy, I was learning how to be an Italian. Upon arriving in Rionero, I had immersed myself in the culture of the tiny town. I had never heard of Rionero before planning my citizenship trip, but since arriving I had learned about their food, wine, and history. I had been speaking Italian to everyone I met, and even when it was hard, I had persevered. I had taken the time to ask questions, to learn what it felt like for kids to grow up in this area, and how the adults who had never left Rionero felt about the town now. Although it wasn’t easy, I had learned to shop like the locals and how to disconnect in the afternoon like they did. My pace had slowed considerably, and by the time we had made it to Siena nearly three weeks later, I felt considerably more Italian than when I had arrived.
On many past trips to Italy I’d cringed when I heard how Italians viewed Americans. The “Ugly American”, as defined by Wikipedia, is “a stereotype depicting American citizens as exhibiting loud, arrogant, demeaning, thoughtless, ignorant, and ethnocentric behavior” while abroad. That’s exactly how these young women in Siena were behaving at the lunch table. It wasn’t my position to scold them—I had been their age once and I had also behaved like an Ugly American—but maybe they would overhear me and learn a few things.
“Come sta oggi?” I asked the waiter when he returned with our water.
“Molto bene! E Lei?” he asked.
“Bene, grazie,” I said. “Vorrei le fettucine con il sugo di cinghiale, per favore. E lui vuole una pizza margherita.”
He smiled at me as he took our menus. I’ll never know if he thought I was Italian or American, but I’m certain he appreciated that I was polite. I glanced at the young women to see if they had been listening. I hoped their time in Italy would help reshape them, help them grow culturally. I hoped they would learn why it was important to act a little less American and a little more Italian when spending time in Italy. I hoped they would be lucky enough to return to this spot one day, laugh about their younger days, and politely order lunch in Italian.
When we had finished our meal, knowing we needed to get on the road to reach Bologna before dark, I hastily waved my hand in the air for the waiter to bring the check. Within seconds I remembered that it was considered rude to request the check like this, and I quickly pulled my arm down, hoping he hadn’t seen my gesture. Clearly, I was still learning too.