My niece just got back from a tour of Italy and was telling us about her trip . She had a great time, loved the food and the people and had this noteworthy experience in Milan.The day before Christmas she was standing in line to buy a ticket for the opera at La Scala, Milan’s famous opera house. Suddenly an elderly gentleman approached her , said something to her in Italian and pressed a ticket into her hand. It was for the opera and it had a face value of one hundred euros ( approx. $ 140). Young, pretty, girls traveling alone have to be cautious and she refused to accept it. He persisted and managed to convey to her that his companion had not been able to make it, that the ticket would otherwise go to waste and that he wanted to give it to her in the spirit of Christmas. She still refused but another gentleman, standing in line behind her, who could speak a little English said to her that there were no strings attached and that it would make the elderly gent happy if she accepted it. She offered to pay the old man for the ticket but he refused , repeating that it was a Christmas gift.
It was a wonderful opera.
Such incidents do not happen very often but they are typical of the kindnesses travellers encounter in Italy. My neice said that whenever she asked for directions, passing strangers were invariably helpful , often going out of their way to make sure they pointed her in the right direction. Whether it was Rome , or Florence or Venice or some smaller town , whether it was a shop, a restaurant or a museum she found Italians to be the soul of courtesy and friendliness. Is it any surprise that she wants to visit Italy again ?
Her experience in Italy mirrors our own. We had been to Italy in 2002 and again in 2005 and we were blown away by how nice the people were . It was not just that they were helpful , they were happy to be able to help. Italy is not dependent on tourism the way that the Caribbean is and the friendliness of the people was genuine; it reflected their true nature. They made us feel welcome .
After Italy, the next friendliest people, in my opinion , are the Spaniards. In Spain too we experienced the same warmth , ( genuine) politeness and helpfulness that we met with in Italy. If I do not put the Spaniards on a par with the Italians, it is only because we were in Spain for a very short time, a mere three days, in Barcelona.
On the other hand , I felt that the least friendly people were the Swiss and the British . When I asked for directions, they were courteous and helpful, very correct and proper but also cold. The attitude was ” I’ll help you but I’d rather not have had to do so”. I wonder if climate has anything to do with national characteristics. Italy and Spain are mostly warm and sunny, Britain and Switzerland are usually cold.
By the way, before anyone points this out, I’ll be the first to say that my “conclusions” are very subjective and are based on an extremely limited number of contacts.Your experiences may have been quite different. However, I will say that many of my friends have similar opinions.
Naturally, the question arises” Where do Americans fit on a scale of friendliness ?” It is a difficult question to answer because we Americans are so ethnically diverse and so many of us are new to the country. Again, people in the bigger cities ( espescially New York) are rushed , their brusqueness sometimes making them seem downright nasty; away from the big cities, particularly Down South, people are usually the soul of courtesy. It is dfficult therefore to make a generalization about all Americans. Based on my own, experiences, I’d venture to say that , on the whole, Americans are very friendly, if not quite on a par with the Italians and the Spanish.
Before I’m accused of hometown bias, let me quote from a recent article in the New York Times . It was written by Geoff Dyer, an Eglishman who has visited the U.S and who has since had ongoing contacts with Americans. In a ” Letter fom London” ( New York Times , 12/31/2009) he writes thusly :
(I’ve emphasised in bold some sentences that I thought were particularly relevant.)
“ When I finally got to America myself, I found that not only were the natives friendly and hospitable, they were also incredibly polite. No one tells you this about Americans, but once you notice it, it becomes one of their defining characteristics, especially when they’re abroad……..
The archetypal American abroad is perceived as loud and crass even though actually existing American tourists are distinguished by the way they address bus drivers and bartenders as “sir” and are effusive in their thanks when any small service is rendered. We look on with some confusion at these encounters because, on the one hand, the Americans seem a bit country-bumpkinish, and, on the other, good manners are a form of sophistication.
Granted, these visiting Americans often seem to have loud voices, but on closer examination, it’s a little subtler than that. Americans have no fear of being overheard. …. In America the right to free speech is exercised freely and cordially. ….
If the typical American interaction involves an ostensibly contradictory mixture of the formal (politeness), the casual and the cordial, what happens when one moves beyond the transactional? Like many Europeans, I always feel good about myself in America; I feel appreciated, liked. It took a while to realize that this had nothing to do with me. It was about the people who made me feel this way: it was about charm. Yes, this is the bright secret of life in the United States: Americans are not just friendly and polite — they are also charming. And the most charming thing of all is that it rarely looks like charm.”
Thank you , sir, for your kind sentiments. I couldn’t agree more.