Most Italians will give you their opinions on everything and anything without a second thought.
Sometimes it’s fun and refreshing, like when they vociferously explain the proper way to cook their favourite pasta. “Anyone who uses anything but pecorino cheese in carbonara doesn’t deserve to live.”
Sometimes it’s a bit too personal, like when they comment on your clothes, hair or general physical appearance. “You’re fat. Mother Mary, you need to lose weight.”
Sometimes it’s scary. At least it was for my wife Lisa Grassi-Blais and I when several Italians commented on our plans to open a tour company and holiday villa in the Central Italian town of Torre de’Passeri.
The comments ranged from “You guys are crazy. You are making a huge mistake” to “This is Italy. This is never going to work” to the incredulous “You guys left good jobs in Canada to do what?”
With pretty much every penny we’d ever saved being plowed into our dream of opening a tour company in Abruzzo, the Italian region where Lisa’s grandfather was born, these comments were unsettling and ignited a few what-the-hell-are-we-doing moments.
But as we were putting the finishing touches on our villa this time last year, attitudes towards our plan started to change, especially in our home town.
The locals knew we’d bought a historic villa that had turned into a dump. That was part of the negativity. But three years and hundreds of thousands of euros of renovations later, things had changed. The pool was stunning. The grand portico and terrace were impressive. The place looked fantastic during the day and at night with all the lights shining, it literally glowed.
Suddenly, our pokey little alleyway became the most popular walking route in town. Many people who never took walks and lived across town now just happened to be passing by all the time, and, you know, while they found themselves here, why not look at the backyard. More than a few were bold enough to ask to look inside too. We indulged everyone.
Very politely, they complimented us on the villa, but their faces said, “Holy crap, these people are making this happen.”
It was about this time, a rumour went around amongst the teenagers in town that they could have pool-side birthday parties at our place. Over the next few weeks, I had to explain to about three dozen very annoyed young ladies that we weren’t in the pool party business.
Then we opened and week after week a new group of guests arrived, took over the villa and started exploring the town and its shops, cafes and restaurants.
Most North Americans and Northern Europeans think of Italy as a place filled with beauty, art and culture, and it’s true. However, most Italians, and especially those living outside the main tourist areas, think of their country in less glowing terms.
Yes, it’s beautiful and cultured, but unemployment is high, especially youth unemployment, economic advancement is a pipe dream, and the political situation is a joke. The modern Italian philosophy is not far from Homer Simpson’s. “Trying is the first step towards failure.” So, for Italians, places like Abruzzo are places you leave if you can.
This has been the case so long that in Italian lexicon the word “America” is interchangeable with “dream.” As in, “Having a steady well paying job is my America.”
So, for people in our town, the situation was bizarre. We were a couple from the dream place, who came to a place you leave to run a tourism business, which nobody had done before – and it was working. They could see it for themselves in the form of tourists – actual people from somewhere else – walking around their town actually taking pictures.
Almost immediately our stature in town changed from that of misguided dreamers to people to know.
We were invited to events at the town hall and curious people stopped to speak to us in the streets. The gift shop ladies dropped by and asked to set up a display in our villa. The restaurants and bars asked to display our cards in their businesses.
Our guests reported being invited into cafes for drinks. If they looked lost, local people helped them find what they were looking for, and often a car would stop outside the villa and some of our guests would get out and thank the driver for giving them a lift.
Basically, the town people became surrogate hosts, and I dare say it put a little jump of pride in their step. Our street was cleaned more often. The garbage men took much more care to be quite and clean.
“Sometimes it takes a person from somewhere else to show us what we have,” a local man said to us one night. “We’re proud that you are here.”
We’re proud to be here too.
Next week: Here come the kids.