Patti Chiari - My "Other Place"

Fri, 03/05/2010 - 03:51

Words by Pat Eggleton

One of the shocks you can receive when you move house, even within in your own country, is that suddenly you are unknown to the people around you and you can start to feel “invisible”. When you move abroad, that sensation is much stronger.
I knew that I was going to miss friends and work colleagues but somehow I hadn’t realised how strange it would be to walk down the street and not be greeted by anyone; nor had I given much thought to the fact that being unknown to all the shopkeepers I would visit would feel odd, too.

Italians, of course, are naturally friendly and it will not be long before some kindly person introduces themselves and shows genuine interest about where you come from. But you have to remember that you are the stranger in their midst and you are going to have to make a big effort to show local people that you are interested in them, too.

One of the first people to speak to me was a neighbour who is also a teacher. We had exchanged the usual courtesies several times and she had said that I could always call upon her in an emergency. One day I met her as I was walking home at one o’clock and she finally posed the question that she had been dying to ask:

“Are you going to cook pasta now?”

When I replied that this was, indeed, my intention, the ice was truly broken, for I had revealed myself to be a normal person in her eyes. Besides, she wasn’t going to have to worry about me starving!

Another lady whom I met every day in my street ignored my greetings for a whole year and I began to wonder if I existed. But I decided to just keep on being polite and one day she said “Buongiorno”. When I saw her in a supermarket a few days later she offered me a lift home. Now she chats to me as if I am an old friend, always asks after Simi the dog and gets quite concerned if she sees me out and about without her:
“Dov’è la piccola?” [“Where’s the little one?”] she will ask.

I don’t remember exactly when I first wandered into a bar called the “Altro Posto” [“The Other Place”] but I’ll always be extremely glad that I did: from the moment I sat down I felt at ease and, once the staff realised that I was going to be a regular at lunchtime, they went out of their way to be helpful. I soon got a discount whenever I had a two-course lunch. I knew I’d been accepted as an habituée one lunchtime when I came out of the bank opposite and saw the barman waiting for me on the terrace with a tray of antipasti and my usual aperitivo.

The “Altro Posto” serves very good antipasti indeed and every day the selection is a little different. I am a woman who is blissfully happy with a simple plate of olives, but add a mini-arancino [rice ball] and I am in heaven. The bar also serves unpretentious, excellent food, made from the freshest ingredients which you see the staff buying if you are out and about in the morning. In summer you can relax on the terrace and try one of Giorgio the manager’s new ice cream flavours [this year it was green apple] or perhaps a deliciously cooling “coppa di frutta”, his speciality.

As I sat there observing the comings and goings in my new town I also observed, yet again, the instinctive kindness of Italians: every day, without fail, a small, elderly gentleman who looks hot whether it is winter or summer comes into Giorgio’s bar at lunchtime. He just sits there for half an hour to wipe his forehead and get his breath back, for wherever he has come from, he has hurried. The staff give him water and no one ever suggests that he should order or sends him on his way.

Now my work schedule does not allow me to go to Giorgio’s for lunch but I still go there for a “coppa di frutta” in summer and on hectic days my boss and I often send someone over to him to fetch a sandwich or a tray of biscuits made on the premises. And yes, I still get a discount!
My visits to Giorgio’s in those early days were my way of seeing people and connecting with my new world. I didn’t go there because I couldn’t be bothered to cook or even because I was particularly hungry but because I felt I had to become known.

I would advise anyone moving to Italy on their own or without a lot of contacts to find a bar they feel comfortable in and frequent it. Read the local paper there, let the staff know who you are and what you are doing in their area and they will start to introduce you to other customers and give you valuable information about your new surroundings that you will not find in a guide book.

In Italy show interest in the language, food and culture and you will soon have many friends.