Faux Pas

May 6, 2015

So I’m at the fruttivendolo, greengrocer’s, a charming hole-in-the wall.

I’m cooling my heels waiting my turn while the vendor and a customer with a nest of snow-white hair lament Italy’s problemi. Every so often the snow-white customer points to a cucumber or a pile of chicory, which the vendor oh-so-carefully picks up and weighs. Ten minutes pass. The two men are pretty riled up–hands flail all over the place–about the fact that Prime Minister Renzi got his electoral reform law (Italicum) passed. Will the right to strike be affected, they fret? Because Italy is a striking culture: teachers & pilots & baggage handlers & bus drivers & train operators & truck drivers & museum workers & taxi drivers walk off the job on a regular basis. You cannot take that away from the Italian 99%-ers, can you???

Anyway, the snow-white man finally shouts a hearty parting to one and all (Buona giornata e buon pranzo! Good day and good lunch!) and steps out the door, trailing a bag chock-full of chicory.Chicory, copyright Jann HuizengaI’m up next. Lemons, please! We engage in an animated conversation about how the mayor is spoiling the village with his vulgar signage. The vendor pulls me onto the street and points out an ugly sign that has gone up on the corner, right next to an ancient stone fountain. Back inside I point out some big bright oranges. And then we’re onto the next topic: the vendor’s recent malady. This is how a transaction goes in small Sicilian markets.

I’m still being served when in waltz two americani. They do not say buongiorno. No greeting at all! Strike 1. Then they head for the tomatoes, and–horror of horrors!!–fondle the juicy red orbs with their own filthy fingers, scooping up the ones they want themselves! I suppress a gasp. Strike 2. And, yes, it gets worse: they march up to the cash register, pull out their euro bills and push them at the vendor. AND I’M STILL IN THE MIDDLE OF MY TURN!!!! Strike 3. The vendor is gracious, as am I. But the episode makes me see how easy it is for innocents abroad to commit faux pas, and in these innocents, I see myself. And yes, there is a strike 4. They waltz out the door with nary a word, wishing us neither a good day nor a good lunch.

The Greengrocer's, Sicily, copyright Jann Huizenga


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42 comments to Faux Pas

  • Catherine

    Ok so not saying hello and goodbye is pretty rude. It doesn’t happen in big stores here in America, but in small stores, it can’t/ shouldn’t be avoided. The owner is usually standing at the front of the store. I am however guilty of “veggie feeling” but that is just from simply not knowing. That doesn’t exist here in the US. People would probably think I was crazy if I stood around waiting for someone to hand me my produce. 🙂

  • Anitre

    The behaviour of the American tourists is rather appalling, especially when the shopkeeper isn’t acknowledged. However, I’ve been elbowed and barged past more in Italy, India, France, Asia and South America than in the US. I’m used to the more genteel queuing system in the UK.

    • Jann

      I think the Brits must be among the politest people in the world. I too have been elbowed by Italians, but they usually apologize profusely while they elbow their way forward–they’re terribly late or something.

  • Carmela Romano

    When I first came to the U.S. being raised in Sicily, I didn’t know you could pick pretty much anything yourself in a store. My first foray in a grocery store was a bit nerve wracking because I was just learning english and to make it worse, I didn’t know how to behave when shopping in a small grocery store. I wanted to get a carton of milk and when I politely asked the owner, he pointed to the refrigerated dairy case to show that I could get it myself. I was so embarrassed but after that it got easier.

    • Jann

      Carmela–what a sweet story! Welcome to the blog. It’s so interesting to hear from someone who has gone the other direction–from Sicily to the US, and to hear what you went through trying to adjust to a new culture. Hope to hear from you again & grazie.

  • dennis

    I’m with you Chloe.

  • John Schinina

    Ciao Jann, as they say in New Jersey, furgetaboutit, I wish Debra the best in Milan, she seems to have that special artistic talent and regards to Captain Mimo may his voyage in beautiful Sicily have calm Sea’s forever. As for the rude Americani, I have to say rude always follows tourist, I have seen them all living and being a Realtor in Florida. If I was asked who I taught was the rudest, number 1 Israeli’s,2 Canadians,3 Germans,4 British, when your done talking to them, they leave as if you never existed, however I came to a conclusion that tourist simply don’t care to impress anyone and therefore are oblivious to there actions. Thanks again for your wonderful blog

    • Jann

      🙂 Maybe some tourists think I’m on vacation! Let me do my own thing! Who cares about rules or customs!

  • Your story made me think of my last visit to the Win-Dixie pharmacy to pick-up my Mom’s meds. The pharmacist was going on and on about something that was important to her , while the lady’s sweet adult challenged son and I were impatiently but politely waiting behind the WAIT line. Finally the son yells at his Mother. “Let’s Go” and they depart. Now it is my turn to listen to all the places you can get your watch battery replaced. “I don’t wear a watch”, I said, but to no avail, on goes the pharmacist about when she had her bracelet repaired while I patiently wait to be dismissed. It happens everywhere people want to tell their stories or complain.

    • Jann

      🙂 You probably wish you’d had someone at your side yelling “Let’s go!” Thanks for dropping by, Vicki.

  • I am going to go to bat for Americans here. I have lived in both Italy and France for a total of twenty years and have seen few ‘ugly Americans.’ With perhaps two or three exceptions, most of the Americans I have seen are exceptionally polite. I know few people better at jumping lines than Italians and have many times been pushed out of the way as they loudly proclaim that they are in a hurry. I love Italy and I love France, but I can’t agree that their manners are any better than those of Americans. As for handling produce, it is something that we do in the U.S., but if the ‘no touch’ rule was explained I am sure that it would be followed. I was happy to see that some of your readers and you could see that not all Americans are rude, but possibly nervous or just not aware of another countries rules. With your great blog, you can keep us all aware of others customs. Great photos by the way.

  • It should only take one visit to such a shop for us to learn the protocols. I’ve seen less courteous Italian vendors remonstrate loudly when the veggie feeling is noticed.

    • Jann

      I like your “veggie feeling” Ken! Ha. Yes, some vendors get pretty riled up–it’s like you’re putting your hands on their wallet or something.

  • This is not an innocent faux pas- it it just plain rude!! Rude and arrogant. Unbelievable!

    • Jann

      🙂 I’m still not quite convinced. But maybe being unobservant = ego-centric = rude? But I’m still going to give my fellow pilgrims the benefit of the doubt.

  • Paula

    Lovely article thankyou! Yes saying good morning, goodbye and waiting your turn is good manners at both home and when travelling. It seems these people do not usually do that at home or they would have at least made an effort even not knowing the no touching rule. After all how hard is it to learn hello and goodbye in Italian!

    • Jann

      Ciao Paula–welcome! Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting. You’re right: just a few basic phrases will go a very long way in a foreign land.

  • nan @ lbddiaries

    Buongiorno!! OK I think you’re being excessively gracious and understanding. My mama taught me better than these two acted. Yes we lived in Europe twice and learned it is important to understand local customs (and also very polite to learn this). You standing there would indicate that something was going on – so chalk it up to “this is how their mama raised them” – ugh. It really is a shame that most nationalities lambaste the Americans but then again, it is usually based on some experience they’ve had so who can blame them? Every group has rude people – and every group has gracious people like you and the vendor who will ignore their faux pas!

    Besides! I learned from your blog post NEVER to touch the produce! They should read you before they go – they’d learn so much. Have a good lunch! (SMILE)!!

    • Jann

      Hee hee, Nan–and a very good lunch to you too! The Italians are very funny with their little rituals, one of which is to always always upon parting, wish each other a good something for whatever is coming up next: a good day, a good lunch, a good walk, good work (buon lavoro!) a good “continuazione” of whatever you’re doing, a good dinner, a good vacation, a good evening (anytime after 4pm), a good night (if it’s after 11pm, or good fun (buon divertimento) if you’re not working.

  • Love your stories, Jann. Thank you for bringing
    me on your shopping trips.
    btw, rudeness is intolerable!


    • Jann

      Thanks for coming along, Kim. I’d like to have you here in person to introduce you to all these characters. They’d swoon over you, I’m sure.

  • linda

    We have guests arrive every week from every corner of the planet. Even if they have traveled to Italy (up north) before Sicily can be a shock to the system. What I have mistaken sometimes for rude or entitled was actually hesitation , nervousness, just someone not wanting to look like a fool. I think transactions in stores rate right up there with your first Italian telephone conversations. Rudness or feeling entitled has nothing to do with where you are from but shows how you were raised. Our experience has been that mal educazione has no nationality.

    • Jann

      Totally agree, Linda. It’s often just plain old fear of interacting. Funny the “first Italian telephone conversations”–I’ll never forgot them because they were truly terrifying; but I also remember the first time I felt at ease talking on the phone in Italian. What a high!

  • Sam

    And I think that a lot of tourist feel that almost everything they do or say will be wrong, so the less said the better.

    • Jann

      🙂 Sam, yes–that’s almost how I felt about this pair–they just wanted to get their tomatoes and get the hell out of there as fast as possible.

  • It takes a while to get the lay of the land in a foreign country. I try to wise up any of my visitors to the way of things here. I’m sure we all did the wrong things at first, but hopefully we learn. Lucky for us the locals are very understanding.

    • Jann

      For sure, Debra. And for sure I’m still doing lots of things wrong (like sitting alone in a coffee bar for too long, brutta figura.)

  • Toni

    I wish more people would read up on the local culture before traveling. As the other people have already said, Americans do tend to act entitled and rude even when they are at home.

    • Jann

      Yes, reading up on the rules might have helped… and maybe observing better and not assuming that one follows the same rules in Italy as in the US. That said: I’m sure I’ve done worse things!

  • jan walcott

    When we spent our week in Scicli in a lovely apartment built into the stone cliff above the town, we shopped at a tiny mercato similar to what you are describing. The lovely old couple who ran it were so happy when I spoke Italian, and she then served as our personal shopper, accompanying us throughout the tiny confines, slicing our cheese and salami selections and and wrapping them lovingly in waxed paper. The funniest part was when she took a quart of yogurt from my husband, checked the pull date (way expired), gave him another, and then put the expired one back on the shelf!!! A week later when we were leaving we received hugs and kisses as we took a last photo with them. And this is one lovely memory!!! Greeting with bon giorno is de rigeur for sure!!!

  • Hummmm….my daughter works at a Whole Foods store in a big university town here in Colorado. She says most of her (probably well heeled) customers are pretty rude. She knows just how to respond sweetly, though, and I love that about her.
    It seems to me that we Americans are just entitled, or believe ourselves to be so.

    • Jann

      Caterina, I think in this case it was just cultural clueless-ness. I guess my point was just to show how easy it is to look rude when you act in a “normal” manner just like you do at home. They just didn’t know the rules in Sicily. And really, can we expect them to? (I’m sure I’ve done many worse thing here, without meaning to!)

  • Pat

    Jann … It’s so lovely to have your words and photos back in my in-box. I’ve missed you!
    And I agree with Nancy … Your Yanks sound a lot like some of the shoppers I encounter at Trader Joe’s … but their behavior is perhaps magnified when set against a more gracious background.

  • People like that give all Americans a bad name, don’t they, Jann? You’d think they’d at least try to behave, but perhaps rudeness is deeply ingrained. Love your descriptions of going to the market — way different from our penchant for stopping by Wal-Mart and feeling of all the produce, ha!

    • Jann

      Yes, the Italians would be pretty shocked to see how we all handle the veggies in the States. In supermarkets here, you may sometimes touch the produce if there’s no one around, but you must use the plastic gloves that are provided.

  • Nancy

    I’m sure those Americans are just as unfriendly at home. Even if they can’t speak Italian, a smile and a nod goes a long way

    • Jann

      Nancy, I’m not sure they were unfriendly. I think they were just trying to sneak in and out, in a polite way, without making a fuss. That would be considered polite in the US…and I didn’t know when I first arrived that it was such a crime to touch the veggies yourself. And because I was engaged in a conversation with the vendor, the americani probably thought I was just a friend or something. Who knows. I give them the benefit of the doubt, as I shudder to think about the faux pas I’ve committed unknowingly.

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