Wednesday, 2 July 2008

The Inner Beauty of Italians

Setting: A bus station in Palermo, Sicily.

Date: August 18, 2007.

Time: Early Afternoon.

Characters: Me, two Italian friends, a local lady in her late 50s, and her friend.

Scene: I am in a bus stop with some friends and a lady in a short distance is with her friend.

We briefly ask for some bus information and continue to wait for ours. A few minutes later the ladies' bus arrives. Before getting on the bus, one of them turns around, looks at me and this conversation takes place.

Elderly Lady: Excuse me, where are you from?

Me: Egypt.Elderly Lady: You're really very nice! May I give you a kiss?Dumbfounded, I smiled and nodded my approval. I was then given a warm welcoming hug and a kiss on the cheek. Yes, that is right, I was given a welcoming hug and kiss on the cheek by a complete stranger in Italy! Not only that, but this lady's motherly gesture extended to my friends who were also given a hug and a peck on the cheek. This was the epitome of the warmth I found in Italy!The Italians are known to be good looking. Yet their warmth reflects an inner beauty that far surpasses their exterior one. I personally experienced their affection this summer, after getting my long awaited visa.

During a one-month course, I also grabbed the opportunity to go around visiting one of the world's most beautiful countries.Overwhelming Welcome As soon as I got my visa in Cairo, Egypt, and as I was making plans for my intensive trip, I started hearing the following phrases from my beloved ones there, "Are you crazy? You're veiled! You're going by yourself? Don't you know how the Europeans feel about veiled women? Aren't you afraid of,1. Being prosecuted?2. Being snubbed?3. Being mistreated?4. Being misunderstood?5. Not fitting in?And the list goes on.As a matter of fact, I was not initially worried at all, but gradually, and as more people started to tell me these things, I did start to worry. What if they are right?The Italians I know in Egypt did none of the above, but what if those who never traveled felt differently?

Nevertheless, I braced myself and my guidebook, shrugged off those worries, and headed to Italy. It turned out to be the best experience of my life!Italy is a feast for the eyes, palate, and soul. I am not going to talk about the visual feast, since no 1500-word article could do any justice to a country that has art at every nook and cranny, at every corner, and in every building. There are books and books that do that so I will not even attempt it.I also will not talk about the palatal feast and all the delicious delicacies of the Italian cuisine.But I will share some of the most beautiful encounters I had on the streets of Italy, of a nation whose people gave me the most beautiful welcome I could ever imagine and whose genuine love and warmth continues to draw a smile to my face even weeks after my return home.Redefining HospitalityI was based in Perugia, a beautiful medieval-old city in the center of Italy. There, I befriended many people like the ice-cream lady at my favorite ice-cream parlor. Though we never exchanged names we continued to talk every time about her life-long dream to visit Egypt. Between licks of ice-cream — yes, Italian gelato melts so fast! — I also managed to tell her how being here was a dream for me, too.

I also befriended, unwittingly, the driver of the city-tour bus who would wave at me every time he saw me on the street. Once he even opened the door and before the traffic light turned green, he managed to greet me and laughingly say, "So, don't you want to go on another tour?" I was on my way to the train station to catch the train to Florence. Because it was raining heavily, the bus that was supposed to take me to the station was late. I was thus at the potential risk of missing my train and having to wait for the one that follows. That would mean a two-hour delay.

Chatting with a lady on the bus, I expressed this worry and she offered to host me in her house for those two hours. "I live right behind the station, it makes sense that you would come over for coffee instead of waiting at the station!" she kindly offeredWe arrived three minutes before my train leaves and she quickly said, "You know what? You can still make it! Do you have your ticket?""No, I still need to buy one," I said."Don't worry about it," She rushed me through the process of buying the ticket, ran with me to the platform, quickly validated my ticket (I was an obvious novice) and quickly said, "Here's your train! You made it! Have a great trip!"A quick "thank you" was all I could say, and sadly I never met her again. If you are reading, kind lady who helped me at the Perugia train station, Thank You! If that is not being helpful, I cannot imagine what is.That is what I thought till I went to Bologna. I spent a night there, and I was planning to do a quick tour the following morning before heading off to Verona in the late afternoon. Upon my arrival to the bed-and-breakfast, I was greeted by the owner's mother who showed me my room. As she was about to leave, I asked her for recommendations on a nearby place to grab some dinner. Little did I know that this would be the start of a lovely evening!"Oh, of course! You didn't have dinner yet!! Do come with me! I'll take you to a fantastic place nearby!" she said. I ended up taking my dinner to-go, dining with her in her home, she made me coffee, offered me ice cream, and then took me around for a night tour in Bologna, which went on till midnight. Over and above the call of duty, if you ask me!"This way, when you tour the city in the morning you'll recognize all the places since you've seen them tonight already." On the phone to her son, she said, "Yes, yes... the young lady from Cairo has arrived. She seems like she belongs to our house, not a guest!""If only more people would greet each other without knowing each other! We'd have no wars! No hatred."

Smile-And-Greet TechniqueVeiled women do exist of course in Italy. I was not the only one out there. But the ones I have seen stick to their families and do not speak the language, or if they do, they do not put it to practice, avoiding the locals. The majority I have seen walk around with somber looks. Why? I have no clue.Actually, I do have a theory. Being dressed differently, veiled women in Italy do in fact attract looks. But they are benign looks of curiosity. This heightens their vulnerabilities and hence leads to more exclusion and detachment. Sometimes the looks are even ones of pity, like I was told by a couple of old women, "Aren't you feeling really hot in this heat?" I usually had to explain how it would still be hot if I did not have my veil on and how the sleeves protect my skin from harmful rays, but the point is that there was no ogling, like what some foreign women get on the streets of Cairo.So yes, being stared at could make one feel uncomfortable, but I have worked out a better way to overcome those vulnerabilities.From the first couple of days during my visit, I would look at staring people on the street, smile, and say, "Salve!" (Italian for: hello) or "Buongiorno!" or "Buonasera!"The results were as follows.1 percent would stop staring and look away (a positive result anyway).99 percent would start talking to me.The first time I used this technique, I was walking down the street with a friend in Perugia, and this lady kept looking hard at me. I turned around surprised her (and frankly myself) and smilingly I said, "Buonasera!" She smiled and responded.My friend asked me, "Do you know her?""No.""So why did you greet her?""She was looking at me, so I decided to greet her."At that moment, a man from Calabria was walking past us with his wife, overheard our conversation, and said, "Well done!! This is exactly how it should be done! If only more people would greet each other without knowing each other! We'd have no wars! No hatred."

We ended up speaking for at least 20 minutes as he enjoyed pointing out the similarities that we have in common — from spending, coincidently, the previous weekend in Venice, to pointing out that he and I, coincidentally, have the same camera brand!Shared StoriesSo with that confirmation from my new Calabrian acquaintance, I decided I would adopt this technique. The Italians I have met were eager to talk to me about where I am from or they would compliment me on my grasp of their language. Sometimes they would tell me, "Salamu Alaikum" or they would try out a few Arabic words that they have learned from a friend or neighbor. Or they would share an exciting piece of news on an archeological Egyptian discovery that they have seen on TV or read in a magazine.Many would share their life-long dreams of wanting to visit Egypt.

One woman in a bus stop in Perugia teared and started telling me with a cracking voice about how much she would love to go to Egypt, how much she has read about the ancient Egyptians, and what it would mean for her to go.Others would tell me stories about their cousins, sons or themselves and their visits to the Red Sea or their cruises on the Nile. The point is — we started to talk; after all, isn't this what human relations are all about? We are social beings, aren't we?A seller in a flea market in Bologna told me he would like to work in the restoration of antiquities and asked me for the contacts of senior museum officials in Egypt! He trusted me enough to share his career aspirations with me. That is what really matters. Many in restaurants would volunteer to warn me of dishes that had pork or liquor and offer suggestions to dishes I can eat. And then there was the old man in Palermo who took me and my friend all the way to the Catacombs, pointing out other monuments on the way, and the snail-seller who taught me how to eat snails — with a toothpick he pulled the snail out of its shell and instead of popping it in his own mouth said, "Open up!" and hand-fed me the snail! Don't squirm; they are delicious!

Lamya Tawfik is a freelance journalist and a journalism instructor based in Cairo, Egypt. She's currently pursuing a doctorate degree at the Institute for Postgraduate Studies in Childhood, Ain Shams University. She can be reached at

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