Cultural Assumptions

What You Think You Might Know About Somebody… Might Be Wrong

Years ago, before we were even living in Italy, Enrico and I spent a night in Courmayeur, on the French side of Mont Blanc, on our way to somewhere. Our hotel included breakfast (most of them do), eaten at large, bare wooden tables with benches. We were asked what form of coffee we wanted, then crusty rolls, croissants, jam, butter, etc. were brought, and we began eating, scattering crumbs all over the bare table just like everyone else.

The waiter overheard us speaking English.

“Are you American?” he asked.

She’s American, he’s Italian, we explained, as usual.

“You’re American!” exclaimed the waiter in horror. “Then you want this!” And he rushed to set the table with paper placements.

I wonder what traumatic encounter he’d had with an American to fix that notion so firmly in his mind.

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I picked up some pictures that had been framed, and remembered at the last minute that I should have told the framer to put two hooks on the sides, rather than one hook on the top as Italians always do. With the two hooks, I can run a wire between them and have the picture hang from a hook behind it, rather than seeing a hook in the wall at the top of every picture. This seems an obvious improvement to me, but Italians prefer a hook at the top, perhaps because that way the picture lies flat against the wall.

The framer was happy to do what I asked. “You must be English,” he said. “The English always want the two hooks that way.”

Once Enrico and I were on vacation in the mountains. He would go off hiking all day, I was working intensively and happily on my novel, but would go for brief walks to stretch my legs and enjoy the scenery. To amuse myself on these walks, I collected wildflower seeds, to try planting them at home. I strolled along a level path that had once been a railway line, and found a huge meadow full of flowers. I was in there, collecting seeds, when a young man passed by, supporting his aged mother on her daily constitutional. Half an hour later, when they came back the other way, I was still there, intent on the plants.

“Crazy Germans,” the man muttered.

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Oct 21, 2003

Last October we drove to Munich for a friend’s birthday. On the way, we stopped in Vipiteno, a town on the Italy side of the German border. We’d been looking for an enoteca (wine shop) to buy Markus some wine, and found a very good one there. We sampled several good wines, and had selected two or three bottles when the shop owner asked us: “Who is this for?”

“A friend in Germany, it’s his birthday.”

“Oh, then you don’t need to spend so much. Just get him this [pointing to the six-euro stuff in the window]; he’s German, he won’t know the difference.”

We still got him the good stuff; Markus does know the difference.

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