Wednesday, September 07, 2005


It’s always nice when your neighbor knows a guy who’ll replace your furnace “on the side”, or if a co-worker recommends a great mechanic. Word of mouth is always the best way to find whatever it is you need, be it a new hairdresser, a set of tires or a great place to buy wallpaper at a discount. In Italy having connections is all this and more.

In Italy knowing someone who knows someone is often the only way to solve a problem or to get around a sticky situation. Knowing someone can help you bypass a long wait for an appointment with a doctor or a bureaucrat. Knowing someone can save you money when you need to buy a car or a new couch. Knowing someone is often the only way to solve a problem, especially for foreigners who will never understand the intricate workings of business or bureaucracy.

As foreigners, or “stranieri”, we’ve tried to cultivate friends for the sake of friendship, and the added bonus has been more help than we ever could have imagined. Funny thing is, sometimes we didn’t even know we needed to be helped! In our quest for independence we try to solve most problems on our own, be it walking to the commune to get information about a tax bill or getting estimates for new tires from the mechanic in Marsciano.

We’re finally coming to realize that knowing someone who knows someone is really just an extension of the complex social system in Italy, and to truly fit in here, or at least to fit in as best we can, we need to go with the established system. Trying to do everything on our own might even brand us as unfriendly, and we certainly don’t want to give that impression.

Recently we came to know about an American who was getting ready to make the move to Umbria. As is our custom, we contacted this person to give them our phone numbers, and told them that once they were settled in a bit and recovered from jet lag to give us a call.

I realize that for some, contacting a total stranger might seem unusual, but for us and others like us, we know that we share a common love of Italy, probably far beyond what the average person experiences. We’ve all been new arrivals and try to offer friendship and support….it can be a bit daunting to be surrounded by people who speak only Italian, to see newspapers and posters only in Italian, to try to find the right office, or even the right address when everything is in Italian.

The names, even if you understand Italian can be confusing. “Commune” “Questura” “Carabinieri” Not only do you need to know what the words mean, you also need to know the function of each office…how to get there….when the office is open. You need to know that although the questura is open Monday through Friday, certain days are designated for applying for a Permesso, while other days are designated for picking up. You need to know that you have to go to the local Tabacchi and buy a bollo (tax stamp) before you apply for your Permesso, and there are many more situations like this that are so different from what we’re used to as Americans.

As we waited for this new arrival to contact us, we checked the blog they were keeping and discovered that they had traveled by train from Umbria to Rome….to buy a fan! I left a message saying “Call us! We can help!” but still got no response.

Others had also contacted the newbie to offer help and had never been contacted either, so it’s not like my salty language on the blog had put them off. Apparently they just didn’t want help. Well, we tried….and tried again. We did our best, but truly don’t understand this person’s independent attitude.

Selling everything you have and moving to a new country where you don’t speak the language is a fairly gutsy move, in my opinion. You have to be independent, brave and open to change. I also think you need to be fairly outgoing and eager to meet new people. We want to meet as many people as we can, see as many places as we can, experience as many things as we can. This is all part of the adventure as far as I’m concerned.

Most of the friends we’ve made have been people we’ve met in the grocery, struck up a conversation with on the street or contacted initially by email. We would never have met Marco and his family at Ternana’s had we not been searching for an open restaurant the day the power went out. We never would have become friends with Corinna and Maurizio had we not returned to Perugina time after time. We would never have become friends with Silvano and Josepina had they not struck up a conversation with us at the local craft fair. Had we not been standing outside our house the day Belinda and Giacomo drove we probably would never have met them. Even Wendy, our best friend and guardian angel, was recommended by someone we had initially met through the internet.

These and so many other friendships have occurred because someone made the first move and initiated a conversation with a total stranger. We met Paul and Patty at the grocery store. We met Isabella and Terry through the ExPats site and subsequent emails. Same with Shae and Art, Anna and Ramon, Judith, Cristina, Bob and Rosemary, and the list goes on and on. Many people have contacted us because they somehow found our blog. Most recently we met Paul and Mer, thanks to their initiative in contacting us.

Marco and his family ended up recommending a good place to buy a car. Maurizio had told us he’ll give us the name of someone who can re-do our windows. Our neighbor Armando told us about the guy who did our screens. Wendy’s boss Corrado helped us get a good deal on tires. I would never have known what to use for mulch had not Judith made a recommendation. Corinna recommended a good hairdresser. And of course Wendy has been more help than we could ever have imagined.

I think in order to have a successful new life in Italy one must truly be willing to open up. Old friends will never be replaced but when the old friends are in the states, they can’t help you find the best deal on a car or tell you where the local nursery is. Our lives have been so enriched by our friends and we’ve learned so much from them. We moved to Italy to enrich our lives, not isolate ourselves. I can’t imagine not reaching out in friendship, and feel sad for those who feel otherwise. Connections are what Italy is all about.

(This article was written in early summer. Not surprisingly, the person who “inspired” it, the one who didn’t want to ask for help, has now left Italy.)


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