A silent lesson

When I want to explain the cultural differences between England and Italy, I tell two anecdotes I personally experienced.

It was December 2004, and my husband and I were in London for a weekend. Our hotel was on the opposite banks of the River Thames to Westminster, The Parliament. It was early in the morning, and we were having a walk along the river, looking for somewhere to have an extra coffee. We saw a little kiosk not very far away from where we had entered the banks. It had a pavement double-sided sandwich board standing in front, advertising breakfast prices. We started to walk in that direction when we stopped to let a jogger pass. He was a tall man, appropriately dressed for jogging, not young and not old. He mumbled something when he made a brusque movement to avoid the advertising board but didn’t stop running. He did stop fifty metres later when he reached the two police officers coming in the other direction. The two men in uniforms were strolling with the English ‘bobbies’ confident posture. The jogger, still running on the spot, briefly said something to them. We had reached the kiosk, and I sensed what would happen and asked my husband to wait a minute before going in. The police officers slightly hastened their pace and entered the kiosk but were out again in no time, the barista came out immediately and moved the board, placing it closer to the kiosk entrance.

Now try to imagine what would have happened if all had taken place in Rome, for example. If you’re Italian, you can easily imagine it. If you have never been to Italy, you have an idea, all the same, because some movies have depicted, often enough, the riot Italians can start out of nothing, exaggerating ridiculously.

My point, what hit me that day, is not the difference between the two cultures as to theatricality. But the perception they have of public spaces. The jogger had made it clear that the banks of the Thames also belonged to him as an English citizen. It is not always clear to whom the public spaces belong in Italy.

What a ride

The second episode is still incredible to me. All these years in Italy have made me sceptical about my rights wherever I may be.

Ten years ago, I was on a train taking me to London from Leeds.I was looking out the window, trying to take in all I could because I was sure many years would go by before I would be able to be there again. The train started slowing down and then stopped, and a voice announced that there had been an incident on the track. With a very kind voice, the railway worker assured us that he would update us in ten minutes.Thanks to the scheduled communications, we had the whole story after more or less half an hour. The incident involved a person, who had died, so the tracks were now a crime scene because they suspected suicide. The police had stopped all the trains travelling on that line, and we were waiting for instructions from the Railway Company.After a short time, the voice informed us the train would take us back to the last Station, where we would receive assistance from the rail station staff. Once in the little Station that I honestly hadn’t seen go by less than an hour before, and after only a few minutes of chaos, I had assistance from a very kind railway employee. I told him my problem was getting to London airport in time to catch my flight back home to Rome. I didn’t know then how far we were from London. So when he took me to the Taxi stand and called a taxi, I thought it couldn’t be too far away. He gave the taxi driver the instructions and told both of us the Railway Company would pay the taxi fee and made the taxi driver sign a form he had been filling in while talking.

We were not close to London. After a very, very long time, for the last part of which I was worried ‘to death,’ we got to the airport in time, and when the man stopped the taxi, the meter read three hundred and fifty pounds. Never say never, but I’m pretty sure I won’t have another taxi ride like that one.

 

The astonishing thing is that no one asked me for my identity card or asked to see my plane ticket. Only when I was saying goodbye and thank you to the taxi driver did he sheepishly say, “I’m so sorry to ask, but am I right? It’s the railway company paying?” I nodded while grabbing my suitcase. “Well, in case I have problems, would you mind leaving me your name and telephone number?” I wrote them on a piece of paper he handed me.

I’m sure they would have solved the problem in Italy too, but I’m not sure I wouldn’t have lost the plane, and I’m more than sure that I would have had to show the ticket, passport, and identity card a dozen times.

Bureaucracy is a burden in Italy.

Foto di Gotta Be Worth It da Pexels    (Westminster)

Foto di Andrea De Santis da Pexels    (taxi)

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