In high school, I worked at a coffee shop that opened at 5:30 AM. If we opened at 5:35 AM there were disgruntled people waiting and complaining. My boss hammered into us the importance of timeliness and honoring posted hours to the second. I was so well trained that I grew up to be one of those customers. If I was in a store that said it closed at 9:00 PM and they were locking up and leading people toward the door at 8:45, I complained about the discrepancy of their actions and their posted hours. If I showed up for a movie that started at 8:00 PM, that is when it started. I was clear about how things operate and what to expect from my world, and then I moved overseas.
I was recently at a toy store to purchase a birthday gift for my son. I checked the posted hours on their Facebook page and set off. They were not open when I arrived and they wouldn’t be until tomorrow. When I returned the next day, they were closed from 1:00-4:00 for lunch, which was also not posted on their door or anywhere else for that matter.
I returned the following week during a time and day I knew they would be open based on all my data gathering. There was a sign on the door that said they would be closed until Easter. I started laughing like a crazy woman verging on tears and people were starting to stare. I decided to go across the piazza and get a cappuccino. When I put down a 10 Euro bill the server informed me that he didn’t have the change for my bill. After a staredown, I realized that it was up to me, the customer, to have exact change. As I wandered from business to business asking for change, I realized how far I had come from the exacting young woman I once was.
I miss the reliability of business transactions in the USA. I miss the rules and regulations that give me certainty and allow me to plan with flawless execution. I miss the clear path to escalating complaints and the t-shirts that declare “the customer is always right.” Conversely, when we leave Italy this Spring, I will miss the personalities that fill each store. I will miss the image of shop owners hanging laundry from their apartment balcony above their shop before they open in the morning. I will miss watching the piazzas empty for lunch and then slowly wake up as the trickle of life flows back to the center of town in the early evening.
I will miss that after spending almost two years in Europe and over a year of that time in Italy, I still can’t figure out business transactions and who is responsible for what, when. This country is still a mystery to me in many ways, and in other ways, it feels like someone I have known all my life. Some call it the charm or allure of Italy. Whatever it is, I have no doubt that I could spend the rest of my days here and not be any closer to the answer. It is this quest for understanding the impenetrable that gives Italy a special magnetism. Somedays it manifests as frustration, but most days look more like magic.