Monday, April 18, 2011

Try, Try, Try

After writing about the heckler in my previous post, I thought a little more explanation is in order. In the north, I found the people to be very accepting of limited Italian, and they would hold conversations with my friend and I in Italian, letting us stumble through and try our best. Not so, here in the south. If I try to go beyond anything basic, the person either immediately switches to English (if they know it, which is not common here in Naples) or, more likely, the person looks at me with utter disgust. It's very demoralizing. I know I don't speak the language well. I know my accent is horrible, and I mix up the words, the verb tense, and the masculine/feminine articles. I know all that, but I'm trying. While the people themselves are generous, open-hearted, and welcoming, engaging in any conversation just seems to be a big chore. So my already limited Italian grows rustier and rustier with each passing day. And as wrong a response as it is, there are days that I stay home rather than go out and try to engage. The mental exhaustion can just be too much.

There are, as with any huge generalization, exceptions. The jewelry store in Anacapri I mentioned is one. The owner and her son let me talk and talk. They ask questions. We converse. I wonder if it might be the difference that tourism makes. In heavily touristed towns, friendly shopkeepers sell more goods. So while trying to talk, in their native language, to a bumbling foreigner may not be the highlight of their day, those shopkeepers know better than to show it. And the towns we visited in the north are certainly used to tourists - Venice, Florence, Siena! The best of the best. Or maybe  those shopkeepers are people-people, and enjoy getting to know their shoppers, where they're from, what they think of Italy, etc. So far, in Naples, I've seen virtually no friendliness or openness towards tourists. Many times, shopkeepers just seem irritated that I'm in their store. At the larger tourist sites, the ticket window can more likely resemble a slog through the airport's Passport Control line, with no attempt at even a smile from those manning the information counters and ticket windows.

Despite all this, the people in the south are so very generous. Back when we were house hunting, a potential landlord sent us home with five bottles of his homemade wine and a bag of fruit. A friend's landlord spent 20 minutes slogging through muddy fields to find our rascal of a dog when he slipped out her gate and ran off. Our local salumeria owner always, always greets us with a hearty "Ciao," and a handshake. The local produce guy went digging through mounds of empty crates to find a few scraps of individual basil leaves for me, based on my forlorn look when he told me he didn't have any basil left. So I've yet to grasp the real issue as to the distance I feel on the majority of occasions. Is it  really annoyance? Is it supposition that I, the foreigner, am not even going to try to learn their language? Is there some protocol that I breached right off the bat? Is it a lack of desire to connect with people beyond their own families and friends? Or is there some other issue, some other cultural divide that I've yet to bridge? I hope, that after three years here, I will at least begin to understand.

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