Etiquette, Italian Style

A year or two ago, I was in Florence, being a flaneur. I got lost. How? Good question. Florence has always struck me as a small town. One with great art, stunning architecture, jaw-dropping history and wonderful people, but small nonetheless.

Somewhere behind the Santa Croce, I was wandering helplessly in a labyrinth of cobblestone and stucco. All the streets, doors, and buildings looked alike. I stoped at a small intersection and spun helplessly, exasperated and defeated, staring at the sky as if it was a big, blue GPS. It wasn’t. It didn’t help.

When my eyes returned to earth, I found myself looking at a well-dressed elderly gentleman who was standing in a doorway, expressionless. He said something in Italian. It was a question, and I assumed he inquired about my destination.

“Piazza della Signoria?” I replied. He stepped into the narrow street, nodded for me to follow, and off we went.

Two quick, short blocks along our way, and I felt like an idiot. I was seeing landmarks that I remembered. I knew exactly where I was. Now. I offered my primitive Italian, “E buono.” I’m good. Thanks!

But, no. He waved me quickly off with an elegant but firm hand and a quick comment I didn’t quite catch. And he continued to walk. So I followed, like a schoolboy on his way to the principal’s office.

He walked with purpose and an understated dignity. I checked the cut of his jacket. It was an old piece, but exquisitely cut. His shoes were a flawless brown. He limped a little, but he could have been twice my age.

As we walked through the city streets, I accepted my fate of being walked back to the piazza by an older gentleman with an exaggerated sense of my helplessness. Then I noticed that the people we passed let slip an air of deference to my guide. Subtle but tangible, their nods were slower and deeper, their quick “Buonjourno”s had an extra delicacy to them. An instant flash of recognition–quickly shadowed–came to their eyes.

My guide responded evenly. Smiling, replying quickly, but staying on purpose with his stride. He was taking me to the Piazza della Signoria and God help the person who tried to stop him. This was his mission, I realized: to set an example of how a person assists someone in need.

And the people we passed who knew him, or this, knew this was what he was doing. They watched. They nudged their young children to pay attention. They admired. They absorbed. They confirmed this principle in action.

Now, I was curious. I looked at him again, trying to formulate some question in my bad Italian that wouldn’t be rude. But it was too late.

Before I could speak, he stopped. “La Piazza della Signoria”. We were there. He looked at me and smiled softly, his mission accomplished.

I extended my hand. He shook it firmly, then turned on his heel and strode away. I crossed the piazza to my regular sidewalk cafe. The waiters watched me approach.

They nodded, smiled, pulled a chair out. I sat, ordered up a coffee, looked across the piazza at Lorenzo de Medici, happy to be back on familiar turf. My waiter checked on me…was everything alright? Yes, of course. I’m in Italy, I’m having a coffee at a sidewalk cafe. What’s not alright? Something to eat? No, I’m fine, but thank you.

Still, he–and another waiter–lingered, too close and too attentive for these perfect gentlemen. I looked up at them. What’s up?

My waiter leaned in, politely but earnestly, and asked, in almost a whisper, “How do you know the prince?”

Old Money is polite, especially to strangers in need. Especially to those who can do nothing to them, and nothing for them.

– BGT


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