After moving to Italy, we encountered a seemingly endless series of challenges that had to be overcome.
First, there was the language. We made a decent effort to learn the language with its complex variations and conjugations of verb tenses, the proper use of masculine/feminine nouns and pronouns, and plural forms of words. My wife, having younger and more copious brain cells, picked it up much faster; she is now fluent and can even participate in arguments over the phone. I look on in awe, trying to follow the rapid-fire repartee.
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Which brings up the next challenge, Italians speak fast. Very fast. I am often two sentences behind before I fully understand what is being said to me. There is an awkward pause of several seconds while my brain catches up in order to allow me to reply.
We frequently have to ask neighbors and friends to slow down – “Lentamente, per favore” – when they shift into fifth gear and launch into a long exposition.
Then there is the challenge of the dialect. Oh my. The Duolingo program does not reveal that there are dozens of regional dialects. We discovered that many people in this village speak in the dialect.
As hard as we would listen, we could make out no understandable Italian. Most can certainly speak Italian, but they are used to employing their dialect in everyday situations. We sometimes say that Italian is the common “middle” language we share with locals.
Then there is the infamous bureaucracy – the burocrazia. There are four levels of government to deal with: national, regional (comparable to states), provincial (comparable to counties) and cities. Each has their own array of functions, officials, procedures, required documents, internet sites, records, and permits. And different ways of getting appointments and receiving notices of impending due dates.
Some use email, some texts, some regular mail. Some, nothing at all. They are also notorious for not returning emails. We are speculating that no one wants to have a paper trail, lest they mistakenly say something incorrect.
But the bureaucracy is not just in government. Its similarly complex and baffling with utility services, repair services, banks, clinics, pharmacies, and even in the purchase of appliances. We have slowly learned to keep every single scrap of paper we receive in labeled folders, as one never knows when someone will not provide a service unless you can produce a particular document first.
And don’t even get me started on obtaining a driver’s license. American tales about experiences in a DMV pale by comparison.
I could continue for many paragraphs with challenges, both old ones we have met and surmounted and ones that are ongoing. Living here takes considerable resolve and tons of patience. Nothing — and I mean nothing — moves quickly. If someone moves here expecting American-style customer service and efficiency, they will have a miserable life ahead.
On the other hand, Italian officials, whether in government or the private sector, are fiercely proud of their jobs and the authority that their job title represents. If they are treated with respect and deference, we have found most will be accommodating and helpful. It’s only when they encounter people displaying a sense of entitlement or arrogance that things can quickly go sideways (I’m looking at you, entitled Americans and Brits). Officials can make your life easier or they can easily make it a living hell.
But perhaps one of the greatest challenges I’ve personally encountered is not a linguistic or a social one, but rather a physical one. I am referring here to the bidet.
Now I consider myself reasonably well-traveled and worldly. But using a bidet has for some reason always eluded me. During many visits to Europe over the decades, the bathrooms in hotels and rental places always had one. But I would give them the side-eye. The shiny porcelain plumbing fixture would remain unused by me.
I was, frankly, flummoxed. Weren’t they intended for the other gender? How would I approach one if I wanted to? And what is the…umm…proper protocol? I suppose I was embarrassed to be seen fumbling by using it incorrectly. I still recall my mother suddenly bursting into the bathroom during an inopportune moment as a teenager.
Of course, its not very likely that one’s time spent in a domestic or hotel bathroom would be intruded upon by a stranger who would give out with a mocking laugh. Still, it was the fear of the unknown that prevented me from making an attempt. So the thing just sat there in the bathroom for years, with me occasionally contemplating, then dismissing, its use.
One of our cats figured out how to use it before I did. She spent considerable time, with her head cocked, watching us both use the toilet. Then one day, she jumped up on the bidet and did her business. I imagine she concluded that the larger bowl was for the bigger animals and the smaller one for the smaller animals. Of course, her occasional use is not exactly a dainty or discreet one. It requires one of the big animals to clean up the aftermath.
A couple of months ago I had enough of being reticent. I read a few tutorials available online, with their sometimes hilariously descriptive details. I followed the instructions and took on the adversary. My first reaction, after the maiden voyage was: “Oh my God, what took me so long?”
Now, it seems, I could not live without it.
Mark Hinshaw is a retired city planner who moved to Le Marche with his wife two years ago. A former columnist for The Seattle Times, he contributes to journals, books and other publications.