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So many people live under the delusion that Italians are laid back, spontaneous, easy-going people. Nothing could be further from the truth. In a country where road rules are merely helpful suggestions, an Italian’s life is regulated by a multitude of dictates – some articulated, some assumed, some inexplicable. It’s bit like the Masons but without the funny handshakes. No, wait. There are rules about greetings, of course. Firstly, offer your hand in acknowledgement, but please no air kissing unless you know the person. If you do advance to kisses, to avoid bumping noses and smashing spectacles, approach to your right side, that is, their left side. Repeat your name as you shake hands and always address the new acquaintance in the formal, that is, “lei”, until such time as you are invited to address each other in the more casual “tu”. Nowadays, this happens quite early in the relationship. Hopefully, your ‘new best friend’ will invite you to have a drink or a coffee, perhaps even a meal. We are now in dangerous territory. You can accept with alacrity, volentieri, but some older Italians might find you a bit forward especially if they are offering to host you at their house. Perhaps, you should decline first, ‘no, it’s too much trouble’, e’ troppo fastidio, but if the offer comes, more insistent, a second or even third time, you must accept, graciously and effusively.

And that’s just at hello.

How do non Italians navigate the treacherous landscape that is the Italian way of life? And listen to me talking about Italians – as though there is any one such creature.

Northerners, centralists, southerners, islanders – yes, there are profound differences between and amongst Italians but at the core, there is a common thread, a shared ideology that transcends location.

Fare la bella figura and its polar opposite, fare la brutta figura, is a mantra that unifies Italians. It is a superficial acknowledgement that a person knows how to behave for a specific, social occasion. At its heart, though, it recognises that some people have aligned important social mores with an innate sense of morality based on good manners and respect for all people.

I have grown tired of correcting people – la bella figura – is not cutting ‘a beautiful figure’. Figura, in Italian, is a subtle concept. It means the impression one leaves on others. So, if you were to turn up late for a wedding, without a gift and wearing a black dress, people may exclaim, ma che figura! What a sight, what a disgrace! Again, if you were abrupt, rude and disrespectful to a busker or a begger, that too might incur a reprimand – there are few occasions when rudeness is warranted, certainly never to someone who is unfortunate.

On my group tours, we are inevitably bothered by street people trying to sell us a trinket or two. They are usually harmless, they all have a sad story to tell but they are insistent and intrusive. In Lecce and again in Polignano a Mare, these street hawkers follow us, even inside a cafe where we have retreated from the sun. We have seen nothing but good grace from the locals and even the bariste treat them respectfully and graciously. The locals see a sense of dignity – these vendors are selling a knick knack or a bauble, ‘value adding’ it with a story about their country, instead of standing, begging, on a corner. What would we have them do? Throw them out? Adding public humiliation to their harsh lives? Again, it is this sense of knowing how to behave, of rising above the occasion that is at the heart of la bella figura.

Mangiando pizza a portafoglio – brutta or bella?

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