OK, so I made a mistake. After I helped our guests get money from the cash machine in town, always a challenge in a foreign land, I forgot to go back to using our Italian bank services when I needed cash, and kept hitting the button for international withdrawals, as if I weren’t now an accomplished quasi-resident with a bank account. The machine wouldn’t process an international withdrawal from my Italian bank account. But I didn’t realize it was my own fault, so I went to my bank to see if there was a problem with my card. There is but one teller at our bank, the indefatigably gracious and impossibly efficient Graziella. Given her sunny nature and dedication to the utmost professional and personal service, you can generally wait about 45 minutes for your turn to see her, even with only two people in front of you. It is, however, totally worth the wait.
When it got to my turn, we chatted effusively about the exploits of her three children. We got down to business and realized the problem– that I was pushing the wrong button on the ATM. Graziella then unwittingly confirmed my theory about how Italians deal with a problem you might be worrying about. They don’t just give you advice or brush you off if, say, your lawn mower is broken. Rather, they think long and hard about it, ask all their friends if they’ve had a similar experience, and expound broadly on possible theories for your suffering. Then they are likely to come down to your house to see your broken mower and bring their mower along to compare mechanisms. They may then take pity on an ignorant foreigner, and mow your lawn for you. They may also bring a big bag of homegrown tomatoes, or a bucket of pears or some frozen cinghiale from last fall’s hunt. But the short answer is rarely the norm.
Similarly, Graziella doesn’t just tell me to press a different button on the cash machine. Rather, she leaves her sportello, joking with the three clients waiting for her attention (probably joking about the ineptitude of foreigners), and comes outside the bank with me to the cash machine, to make sure I’m now doing it properly and can get my cash from the ATM. Then we go back inside so she can print out my statement, show me where all the transactions appear, all the while regaling me with stories of her recent trip to London with her husband and the 3 kids and the many trials and inconveniences of flying with an entourage on Ryanair. I apologize for taking so much of her time and she replies, “Niente, niente!…” and tells me how glad she is to see me.
On another occasion, we ask Graziella to pay our electric bill directly from our bank account. She cheerily agrees and asks to see a copy of the bill. “But, it eez not due for another mahnth,” she says giving us a puzzled look. “Oh, that’s okay,” we say, “It’s okay to pay it now.” She is incredulous that we would do anything so foolish. “In Eetaly,” she explains, “There is no reason to pay until the day the bill is due. I will make a note in my diary and pay the bill on the first of the mahnth when it must be received. Why would you let the electric company earn interest on your mahney?” There we stranieri go again– tripped up by Italian logic with its basic distrust of government and other forms of authority.
Graziella must be the equivalent of Banca delle Marche’s Employee of the Month program, as we notice her picture on a promotional poster hanging in the bank with one of those deceptively welcoming bank invitations, “Apri un conto corrente!” And she deserves the recognition– she epitomizes pleasant and accommodating. We’re heartbroken when she is transferred to another branch. This is the sad fate of the foreigner– to feel like the person who makes your cappuccino at the bar or deposits your checks in the bank is your best friend. Because as I pointed out earlier, it is in the nature of most Italians to be friendly, helpful and genuinely interested. And that, after all, is one of the big reasons we bought a house in this country. So even if Graziella is not really our friend and we’ll likely never see her again, we still feel enriched by having her part of our story and having known her even so peripherally. And judging by the pleasure she expressed when we once brought her a gift, and the warmth with which she gives 100% in serving her clients, we feel certain that if we ever run into her again, she would embrace us with sincere amicizia.