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.”
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.)
READ MORE: Ogling is nothing new to Italy, and there is an iconic photo by Ruth Orkin which captures a moment in 1951 when another woman was being ‘assessed’ on the streets of Florence by some male admirers. To read more about it, click here.
Jane Canapini is a member of the Travel Media Association of Canada and the North American Travel Journalists Association. She established GrownupTravels.com in 2014 to share information and tips based on personal experience so her readers could get the most out of their travels.
Different cultures bring all sorts of “laughable moments”. About 10 years ago I based in Saigon. My wife would come out twice a year for a month each time. On one memorable trip, I brought her to Shanghai where an employee (at the time) took us to a major department store.
In the Ladies Department, a lovely young salesgirl, trying to be complementary, said to my wife: “Oh. You must have been very beautiful when you were younger”! A double whammy in just one sentence. We laughed & it still comes up in conversation. My wife is still beautiful, at 64.
From Shanghai we flew to Hanoi & made our way down the coast to Saigon. We arrived very early from DaNang, made our way to the hotel, showered & changed for a meeting with one of my suppliers. They promptly picked us up at 9:00 AM. We got into the tiny mini van, with my wife at the back seat & I in the middle. The very pretty young sales assistant looked at my wife & stated: “I am shocked! I am shocked that a woman as beautiful as you are is married to a man who is so ugly”!!
“However, when a beautiful woman marries an ugly man, it means that he is a Man of Quality”…
We had a hard time to stop laughing & after the successful meeting, returned to the hotel, where I informed our mothers & daughters of the day’s events. From that moment on, & on many subsequent trips, I signed off;
“Woman of Beauty: Man of Quality:
Safe travels & take it all in stride.
Love this!!! The best part about all these incidents is that they give us stories to tell and laugh about! And what’s more beautiful than that?
Love it! Can I use insultiment now? Maybe it will catch on. Hope so.
Absolutely! Maybe I’ll turn it into a hashtag (if it isn’t one already!)
I will think of your story (and give you credit) when I steal your newly coined word, ‘insultiment!’
Go for it, Kristin! Adding to the dictionary could be my greatest accomplishment yet! 🙂
Bella figura! The Italian way to say “well done” more or less translates to well-dressed or tastefully done. I’d say you accomplished all at that moment.
I like your story.
Grazie! I thought I handled myself very well, too!
That’s a great story and your comeback was excellent in so many ways! I’m sure he’d have given himself a 10!
Thanks! It’s always fun to teach a poser a lesson! 🙂