In 1965 I and a friend of mine visited an Italian girl in Naples we’d got to know in London in a language course the year before.
We knew nothing about her family, we only had her address, we found the street, a big one near the station. In 1965 mass tourism wasn’t such a phenomenon as it is now, besides, it was only March, the holiday season hadn’t begun yet and we were conspicuous: two tall, blonde and pretty young German women, obviously an overwhelming sight for the Neapolitans. Respectable, elderly people came up to us and touched us! Hordes of papagalli followed us (literally ‘parrots’, the nickname for young men who follow young women, whistle at them and suggest hanky-panky). We were embarrassed, nobody had warned us that the reception in Naples would be like this, we were glad when a single young man approached us and asked politely in English if he could help us.
He asked us about our friend and then gave the information back to us, after a while we were convinced that he knew her. We got to the house and discovered that our friend’s father was a physician, the maid who opened the door for us wasn’t informed about our visit and ushered us into the waiting room. We didn’t know what to say, our new acquaintance took over and explained that ‘we’ had come to see the daughter of the house.
When our friend appeared together with her father, they wanted to know who the young man was. The cheeky fellow said that he was our friend, we denied that fiercely and told them that he had pretended to know our Italian friend. Father became furious and threw him out. All prejudices about blonde German tourists keen on Italian males were written on their faces.
When the intruder had been sent away, we sat down to lunch. My friend and I had never eaten spaghetti at home. We didn’t know about Italian meals, either, well-off families don’t eat only pasta for lunch, they have it as a first dish, the second is meat or fish (or both) with vegetables followed by dessert. The family was well-off, when a maid put a bowl of spaghetti in front of us as the guests of honour, we both heaved a big amount onto our plates, we were hungry. The family stared at us in disbelief, they knew that the main dish was still to come, we didn’t. And then the fight with the spaghetti began! We were sweating, blushing, feeling like oafs, the family was oh so polite, they didn’t laugh or help us, they just looked away.
One year my Sardinian husband (boyfriend then) and I decided to spend our summer hols not with the family in their village and drive to the beach for half an hour every day but to stay on a camping site near the beach. We got to know a young Australian couple there, the woman was of Italian descent and looking for her roots. They were happy when we invited them to come on a day out with us, we wanted to see the Costa Smeralda in the north of Sardinia, one of the spots where the international top jet set spends their hols. When we had seen enough luxurious yachts and villas we decided to take a ferry to the island of La Maddalena and go from there to the adjacent island La Caprera to visit the house of the Italian national hero Garibaldi.
When it was time to get back to the main island, we split up, I got the task to buy ice-cream for all, the others wanted to go to the bathroom and we were to meet in the harbour at the ferry. I bought the ice-cream, went to the landing-place and saw the ferry moving slowly away; I can’t say what came over me, I became panicky, I was convinced that the others had thought I had already gone onto the ferry, had driven the car onto it and were moving away without me. I yelled at the top of my voice in Italian and in German, waving my four ice-cream cones about until a passenger on the ferry noticed me, he started yelling as well, the captain heard it and moved back to the landing place. I think you can guess what followed, just when the ferry touched land again, all passengers at the stern looking at me sympathetically, my three fellow travellers came round the corner wondering what all the hullabaloo was about. Unfortunately there wasn’t a hole to sink in, I was standing there with my ice-cream cones, my face red like a fire-extinguisher, and had to yell at the ferry people again that all had been a mistake and they could leave now!
My husband studied in Florence, one year when I visited him, he told me that he had to take something to the office in the university. He tried to park the car near the entrance but couldn’t find space, so he did what Italians do in such a case, he double parked, i.e., in the second row like some other drivers had already done. He would only be away ‘for two minutes’, but just in case he left me the key. In case of what? Now you must know that I don’t drive and that we had a German number plate then.
Two minutes? I don’t remember for how long I waited, but long enough for all cars which had also been standing in the second line to move away and also for the ones in the first line, meaning that our car was the only one standing all alone nearly in the middle of the street. And then a bus came and couldn’t pass! I was sitting helplessly on the passenger seat, the bus driver waved at me to drive away, I got out and told him that I would like to oblige but unfortunately couldn’t drive but I had the key… Of course, all passengers looked at me, can you imagine how I felt? Gosh, I was embarrassed but I needn’t have been because this incident happened in Italy. The bus driver climbed out, got into our car, parked it perfectly at the side of the street, got back into his bus and drove off, waving a friendly good bye and none of the passengers looked furious because of the delay! In Germany there would have been shouting, calling of names, especially if a foreigner had committed the crime, the police would have come, the car towed away and we would have got a fine for obstructing the traffic. Praised be the Italian mentality!
My husband’s brother had asked my husband and me if we would be witnesses at his wedding which was to take place in a church in Milan, we agreed although we’re both not religiously-minded. We had to sit on either side of the couple and thus couldn’t communicate. Had we been able to, the following incident wouldn’t have happened.
I didn’t understand much of the ceremony which wasn’t due to language problems but to the fact that I’m not a Catholic and don’t know the rites. When the priest had finished his sermon, he made a gesture with his hands meaning that we had to stand up, then he waved us towards him. I looked at the couple, they moved forward, so I moved forward, too. My husband remained seated, strange, but I couldn’t ask him why. The couple knelt down, so I knelt down, too. They received a host from the priest and so did I.
When the ceremony was over, my husband and I rushed to each other and asked each other simultaneously, me, ""Why didn’t you take the host?, he, "Why did you take the host?" My husband told me that he never did, I said that I thought it was part of the show and that I had had to take it. My husband asked, "Did you go to confession before you came here?" He knew very well that Protestants don’t go to confession, what I had done was against all church rules, I had taken the sacrament without being prepared for it. For years the Protestant and the Catholic church have argued about an ecumenical sacrament, up to now they haven’t reached an agreement, unintentionally I had already anticipated what one day may be permitted.
I was embarrassed because I thought the young couple wouldn’t believe that anyone could be so stupid and not know how to behave during a Catholic wedding ceremony and that I had committed the blunder on purpose or that it would invalidate the ceremony. My husband vouched for me that I was indeed so stupid and they weren’t miffed. On the contrary, this story has become part of the family folklore and has been re-told many a time to everyone’s satisfaction.