As a traveller I’ve always done my best to immerse myself in the culture of the countries I visit, with the ultimate goal being that someday I might even be mistaken for a local – and not just by another visitor, but by a local himself. This actually happened to me when I was living in Rome in the mid-80s, but this achievement came with a price – in the form of a backhanded compliment that I am proud to say I found a dignified way to address.
I had been living in Rome for almost 2 years, working in an advertising agency in EUR, Rome’s modern ‘business suburb’ of sorts, so it was safe to say that I had adopted many of the routines that went along with living in Italy. And because I was working full-time in an office, I had exchanged the tourist uniform of comfortable (read ‘fugly’) shoes and wash’n’wear clothing for a more suitable professional wardrobe. I was even attempting to emulate some of the stylish fashion I admired everywhere on Roman women.
So it was dressed in my version of Italian work chic that I found myself one day in an enoteca near Piazza di Spagna, sharing a glass of wine after work with Eddy, an Italian friend of mine.
Just as Eddy left our table to pay the bill, a group of 3 men walked in and sat down next to my table. One of the men was Italian, and had taken on the role of self-appointed guide for his two companions, speaking in English for their benefit since they clearly didn’t understand any Italian. The ‘guide’ began explaining that an enoteca was a wine bar where you could enjoy any wine by the glass, sample appetizers, and even purchase full bottles if you liked. He went on to talk about other aspects of Italian culture, as I began gathering my things to leave.
I stood up at the moment this Italian ‘guide’ was telling his companions how beautiful and fashionable Italian women are, when suddenly I overheard him refer to me in his heavily-accented English. “For-a example”, he said to his two English companions, “thees-a one, I would-a give a seex, maybee seex-and-a-half.”
Realizing I had just been ‘rated’ slightly above average by this vocal local, I wasn’t sure whether I should be complimented or insulted! Clearly, my critic had genuinely mistaken me for an Italian who didn’t understand English. So I must have been doing something right – yay! But obviously not right enough, based on my middling score.
I decided to take the high road and ignore this ‘insultiment’, leaving the table to join Eddy who was waiting for me at the entrance of the bar. It was then that I remembered that we needed to buy a bottle of wine for a dinner party we were going to, so we went back into the bar to select a bottle from shelves near the table where my critic and his 2 companions were sitting.
Apparently, I am more attractive front-on than in profile, because upon seeing me approach again, my critic revised his ranking, telling his friends, again in English, “No, I was-a mistaken…I think-a I would-a give her a seven, defeenately a seven.”
At this point I felt it was time to teach this local a lesson. So in the best Italian accent that I could muster, and using the most formal and polite grammar that I had learned, I looked straight at him (my best side, apparently) and said “Thank you, sir, but don’t you ever give an ‘8’?”
The look on my ‘admirer’s’ face was priceless! Blindsided by my response, he was speechless for the first time since he entered the bar with his friends. I took advantage of his silence and followed up by advising that: “One should be very careful what you say in Rome, because you never know who may speak another language.” And with that, I smiled politely and turned around, only to hear an enthusiastic, if sheepish response from my admirer as I was walking away, this time in Italian: “Otto! Otto e mezzo! (Eight! Eight-and-a-half!)”
Even though I knew his English friends had not understood this last exchange because it was spoken in Italian, I left the bar feeling pretty good about myself, having taught a local Roman know-it-all a lesson he probably never forgot!
Best of all, when I explained the whole ‘conversation’ to my Italian friend, we had the biggest laugh! After all, I had often been mistaken for an English foreigner who couldn’t speak Italian, but I had never in a million years thought I would be mistaken for an Italian who didn’t speak any English!
Making this the most treasured backhanded compliment I’ve ever received. (Well, sorta kinda.)