Expect people to stare, and to even ask about you…
Moving to or even visiting Italian villages is a unique and sometimes perplexing experience. Expect people to stare (and I mean really stare) as you walk down the street, without letting it give you a complex. No, you are not funny looking or strange. They just don’t see many outsiders, and curiosity is one thing Italians do not lack!
“But they’re whispering about me!” That’s normal. They want to know who you are. And actually, if they’re limiting it to polite whispers you’re probably in a medium-sized town. In smaller towns they loudly query, with a total disregard of discretion, “Who are they? What do they want here?”
And then there are the villages.
Ah, the villagers. They’re really a breed apart! They cover all those bases, and then if they still haven’t discovered any inside info, come right up to you! “Ma chi sei?” (Who are you?) Or in whichever local dialect they speak, “Who are your parents or relatives?”
Again, no worries. It’s all quite normal. You see, the small Italian towns in most areas are diminishing. People (especially the young) move away to find work. Perhaps through this multitude of questioning, they’re really searching for long lost friends or relatives. It’s hard to watch people go one by one.
And as they don’t get many visitors, they’re searching for a connection. Something that will tell them just who you are, how you fit in, and how they can relate to you.
Most visitors and new comers find this an unmitigated nuisance or downright rude. But I don’t believe they’re trying to be rude. It’s natural to want to connect to others in some way.
But all this nosiness can take a lot of getting used to.
Here in our village, our house is part of a little group. Sort of what you’d call a cul de sac in America. It’s in a u-shaped row of houses, with one little house planted right in the middle. The comune (city hall) has conveniently placed park benches along these little alleys, which make great gathering spots in nice weather.
And we love it! Most of the time. Of course, there are annoying dogs, this one neighbor who loves loud music, and all the rest. But it’s got a real community feel to it, almost like a family!
And we all watch out for one another. Sometimes too much! Bringing home any kind of shopping can seem a bit like running the gauntlet. Everything gets a good looking over. Any large items commented on, and if they tend to be unusual, actually inspected. They do stop short of opening the bags to see their contents. But just barely.
If you come to visit while we’re gone, no need to leave a note. The neighbors will tell us. When we get take-out pizza, they all eye it longingly. And if we leave for a trip, they of course want to know where we’re going, why, and when we’ll be back.
Or if shifty salespeople show up at the door, the neighbors are quick to pay a visit. Don’t buy from them. They’re con artists. Trust me, people up to no good will have a hard time getting past our neighborhood watch!
It’s nice to fit in, but that can sometimes be a hindrance too.
Italians love tradition. And tradition can be a wonderful thing. But they often seem to think that tradition is an equivalent for conformity and uniformity. We must all think alike, act alike, and be alike. The same language, ideas, beliefs, dress code, religion. Anything else is a threat.
Because if I change or alter from this, what will people say?
Like the mom came to see us about English lessons for her son. I didn’t hear her, as our door bell was broken. No problem, the Neighborhood Watch was on duty. They came to get me. Her response? “Oh no, now everyone knows I’ve come here!” This is not a place one can easily hide.
But the real problem was that she was afraid the locals would see her visiting the Protestants!
What would people think? And even worse what would they say? So as you can imagine, sharing the Good News of Christ’s sure salvation is a long and painstaking endeavor here.
We’ve been here 9 years, and we are thrilled that the people have not only warmed up to us, but also love, respect, and trust us. But we’ve only had one woman brave enough to come to our home meetings, for a while. Probably because she too is not from this village.
It will take more time. But even more importantly, it takes lots of prayer.
Pleae keep us and the villages in your prayers!
[Photos are our own.]