The Kindness of Strangers

The Kindness of Strangers

Thursday, October 14th, 2010

On one of my first trips to Italy I roamed around quite a bit. Lazio, Tuscany, Umbria and Campania. There were a lot of interesting things from that trip but the most memorable ones from a people perspective were in Umbria. I was in Perugia with an ex-girlfriend. She decided that she really wanted to get a haircut. I guess it was just one of those things. Perhaps you know what I mean; everything seems to be going fine and then one day you just wake up and your hair is  just too long and it is suddenly very irritating.  You just can’t wait to get it cut. How else can you explain a sudden desire to get a haircut somewhere that you don’t speak the language. So after some very interesting inquiries involving lots of creative hand motions we found a place that did women’s hair. So, since I was there I decided, what the heck, why not get mine cut also. But, no, they made it clear that they didn’t do men’s hair. They did their best to tell me where I would find a barber shop but they might as well have been speaking chinese. It was impossible. So then the most amazing thing happened. The proprietor assigned a young woman to lead me over a half mile away to a barber shop and to make sure that I could get the point across about getting a haircut. Can you imagine that happening here?

There were two similar if less notable experiences in Orvieto, that very dramatic and beautiful town in southwestern Umbria. We were looking for the cathedral there (magnificent by the way)  and stopped at a shop to ask directions. Like in Perugia, he could have been speaking chinese but he came out from behind the counter and led me out into the street to point the way. I understood enough to get to the first turn and there asked another shopkeeper and he did the same thing. Again I was struck with how so many Italians seemed very willing to go out of their way to help me. That was part of the growing love affair with Italy.

Just one more item – a little bit different. When I spent a month in Rome I frequented a combination bar/tabac very close to the apartment where I was staying and talked regularly, if briefly, to a woman there. While I really enjoyed the month there I was really glad to be getting home at the end of my stay. I told her that I was really happy today. She said something like “ Oh, you’re using the superlative! What makes you so happy?” (she really did say “superlative” but in Italian of course). I said that I was leaving to go home tomorrow. She gave me a genuine look of concern and said, “Oh, that’s too bad that you have to leave Rome.”

Of course I will not go into great detail about the rude Italian waiter in Milano – but of course that is a world away from central Italy and even in Milan was a bit unusual.

Have you had any experiences in Italy that you found especially endearing? Or have you had rude waiters or others that crossed your path?

4 Responses to “The Kindness of Strangers”

  1. Jamie Pillers Says:

    I’ve only been able to visit Italy once, some 30 years ago! 🙁 But I have many memories that involve mostly the wonderful ‘strangers’ there. Most notable was “Mama Busetto”. She owned the Venice pensione I stayed in. She was probably 80 years old.

    My bedroom had a balcony looking out onto the little local piazza (Is there a word for small piazza?). Mama Busetto would invite herself in if I was around and take me over to the balcony. She would go to great length to describe the life we saw below and I would describe my pleasures being there. And neither of us spoke the other’s language! We made do with gestures, smiles, frowns,… whatever… until we thought the other understood. And she would keep at it until she felt I was ready to go out into her world and experience another pleasure.

    Ciao, Joe

  2. Joe Says:


    That’s a great story. Of course it reminds me of a similar one with a housekeeper at an agritourismo. I couldn’t understand what she was saying so she just said it louder. I thought that only Americans did that but it must be a more universal urge.


  3. Brenda Buxton Says:

    When my husband and I were on our honeymoon in Italy in 1994, there were a lot of strikes and blockades protesting the Berlusconi cuts to pensions. We were on a train to Naples and for once, oddly enough, were the only English speakers around. The train stopped — for a long time. Finally lots of Italian on the loudspeaker. No idea what on earth was going on. A young woman in our train compartment over heard our bewildered conversation and although she didn’t speak English, knew that Naples=Napoli, so she politely grabbed our hands and led us to a train that took us a bit closer to Naples (to a very smelly station called the Phlegrean Fields, which I dimly remembered had something to with the gates to the underworld yet here it is a train station, which gave me an intense frisson of today/ancient combined in one spot which makes me LOVE Italy) and we although we never actually got to Naples, I will always remember that woman who tried to help us despite the language barrier. To this day I still have the impression that kindness to strangers is something with which the Italians are particularly gifted.

  4. Joe Says:


    Isn’t it great to have help offered by strangers. After the experience I described I always offer to help if I see someone struggling with a map or guidebook. Karma.


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