I had heard that Italians were nice, but I didn’t know how nice until I lived for a month in Rome. I remember the lady at the market who weighed my carrots, imitating the way I said “okay” in English. The baker who gave me a free loaf of bread rather than make change for my clumsy bills. Our Airbnb host who insisted he come over before our departure, wishing us well.
Fred had to get used to the idle chit-chat of cashiers, chattering away with customers instead of being bastions of ruthless grocery efficiency. But I liked it from the very beginning – I, who can’t stand to waste a moment’s time, because these people seemed happy.
I learned a little Italian during the trip, and other times just tried to speak French with an Italian accent, adding o’s and a’s on the ends of words. But the most Italian of all Italian words that I learned was “prego” – please – because Italians say it all the time.
Letting you pass them on the sidewalk? “Prego,” and a wave of the arm. Offering you a seat on the bus? “Prego,” and a little smile. The expectant waiter arriving at your table to take an order: “Prego.” The word on their lips every time you say thank you, without fail: “Prego.”
Why does this word mean so much? Why has it been glorified into a tomato sauce brand? In my philosopher’s mind, it’s more than a “please.” It’s a “don’t trouble yourself, dear; we’re happy here and your taking this chair or passing us by won’t disturb us.” It’s a “you are welcome in this country, even if your Italian sounds like bad French.” It’s a “Don’t be so bashful or hesitant, we’re all family here.”
Italy charmed me with its beauty, its history so rich that everywhere you look is something you’ve seen in the movies. It charmed me with its food, carby and rich and exquisite. But most of all, it charmed me with its happy people, happier than anywhere I’ve ever been.
Here’s a little taste: