Today I’m welcoming guest Sarah Mastroianni who is going to share a story from the perspective of a Canadian expat living in Italy.
My first ever glimpses of the Italian countryside were enjoyed from the back seat of a speeding Mercedes convertible on a steamy summer afternoon. It was from the same back seat of the same convertible on the same steamy afternoon that I witnessed my first example of the fine art of Italian rule-bending from our driver Franco. It went something like this:
Our speeding car careened around the corner onto the main street in my dad’s hometown and skidded to a stop, just inches away from an imposing metal sign.
STRADA CHIUSA AL TRAFFICO. Road closed to traffic.
Franco (whose “enthusiastic” driving clearly communicated his desire to drive Formula 1) let out an entertaining string of Italian curses as he hopped onto the pavement by launching himself over the car door. Like any good Italian, I later learned, he knew exactly what this situation required and immediately flew into action.
“Ragazzi!” He called to us over his shoulder with gusto. “Come out here and help me move this out of our way!”
It was at this point that I began to worry; not only did this man think he was Mario Andretti version 2.0, but he obviously could not read. ROAD CLOSED TO TRAFFIC was pretty clear to me, but there he was, beckoning us to help him remove the very official-looking roadblock from our path. My brother and I exchanged puzzled looks as we got out of the car and went around to the front.
“Franco, the road’s closed.” I felt that stating the obvious was the best place to start. “Isn’t there another way to get where we’re going?”
“The road is closed, cara, only to those who are naive enough to think that!”
Hmm. Interesting. Not quite the way we would have approached the situation in my native Canada.
He gestured to the empty street before us. “Vedi, there’s no reason for the road to be closed. Nothing there. Niente! They’ve probably closed it for a festa that doesn’t start until much later. Ovviamente we can still use the road! What are they gonna do, ticket us for interrupting a festa that isn’t even happening yet? Non ci credo proprio. I don’t think so!”
Yes, obviously we can still use the road. Obviously! How silly of me to think that a “road closed” sign actually meant that we couldn’t use the road! How silly of me to worry that the police or bylaw officers may ticket with us if we did use the road! I shook my head, amused, and climbed back into the car. Once the sign had been manoeuvred out of our way, my brother and Franco jumped back in the car, and we sped off senza problemi – without incident – towards our destination.
The moral of the story? To an Italian, rules are as bendable as a strand of cooked spaghetti. And he who fails to bend rules in his favour, is quite obviously, a sucker. Now, with just a cursory look at this interesting little cultural nuance, one might feel compelled to think that the Italians think themselves above the law. But no! Non e’ cosi’. That’s not how it is at all. (Most of the time.)
But it’s the law! You think. You have to follow the law! Yes, it is and yes you do. But Italians have a somewhat different view of laws in general, so it works. Let me explain further.
Quite simply, Italians have always prided themselves on being good thinkers. I mean really, look at their ancestors: Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo Galilei, Dante Alighieri, Niccolo’ Machiavelli… Lots of good thinking going on there. And good thinkers don’t just blindly follow rules simply because they exist. Certamente no! Good thinkers only follow rules that directly apply to them, in their specific situation, on that specific date and at that specific time. Good thinkers (who are also often smooth talkers and dizzying rationalizers) can plainly see when a certain rule doesn’t apply to them, and will quickly and shamelessly make their case for not following it. That’s why we were able to use the closed road; it had been closed for a festa that would take place later that day. We weren’t interrupting the festa by using the road at the time we did, so there was really no need to heed the sign. Even the most law-abiding citizens can see the reason there. If not, well clearly you’re not using your head.
In addition to the “good thinker” aspect of rule-bending, there’s also the “special circumstance” card that can be played at any time, which usually yields at least some success. The fact that these practices of bending rules and plying people with woeful tales of “special circumstance” work in Italian society also speaks to the compassionate nature of Italians. Think about this. A guy in an Italian supermarket queue (read: chaotic, riot-like mess) wants to skip ahead and get out faster. He goes over to a shop clerk and pleads his case. This is what goes through the clerk’s head: of course I’ll let that guy skip ahead! He tells me he’s got his precious little bambina waiting for him in the car. Tomorrow that could be me, in a rush with my daughter impatiently awaiting my return. Of course I’ll let him skip the line this one time! The man is playing on the shop clerk’s sympathies, and since Italians seem to have spades of compassion for their fellow man, it works. No problem.
Additionally, for centuries Italian society has rewarded craftiness and cunning – often called furbizia in Italian. If you can find a way around something, you should. And if you can make money doing it, more power to you! Case and point: the seatbelt shirt.
The story goes that when seatbelt laws were first introduced in Italy, they were met with a smidgen of resistance. (You don’t say!) So what did the crafty Neapolitans do? Well, they quickly had piles of t-shirts made up with a dark stripe going diagonally across them. From a distance, this stripe gave the illusion that the person was wearing their seatbelt, and thus was not bothered by the pesky polizia. Soon enough the police caught on to the scheme, but you can’t blame the Neapolitans for trying! You could even admire their audacity…
Now please don’t take away from this that all Italians are lawless hucksters. Only some of them are! On the whole, Italians are big fans of enforcing laws that protect others: That guy beat his kid? Lock him up! That girl stole a car? Throw her in the clink! However: That guy parked illegally? Ahh, leave him be. Who’s he hurting? That girl didn’t validate her bus ticket? No big deal, she probably had a lot on her mind. You could even say that the Italian approach to laws and their enforcement is more reasonable than in other places, and I appreciate that. It’s just another one of the many little things that keeps me going back.
Sarah Mastroianni, although a proud Canadian, is a lover of Italy and all things Italian. Her blog, Not Just Another “Dolce Vita”, her adventures travelling, living and working in il bel paese. You can also find her on Twitter @s_mastroianni.
Thanks so much Sarah for the funny and informative tale of how some Italians have a tendancy toward rule bending. I think its safe to say that this seems to apply in some other places in Europe and maybe us Canadians are just to straight forward/accepting sometimes?