Italian Customer Service


Uttering the words Italian and customer service in one breath is as bad as using King Herod and child care in the same sentence they just don’t go together, except in the case of our local macellaio. Mario knows this particular pazzo Inglese can be forced to buy his wonderful homemade sausages, fillets of steak and other tasty produce, all Mario has to do is point at them and say ancora? And I will nod happily and say si si.

I also receive incredible service from the local corner shop. Maria who serves behind the counter always serves me before anyone else in the shop. It doesn’t matter who is waiting to be served or how many people are queuing to pay she always says prego prego as she gestures me to the front of the queue. No no io sono bene. I will reply. But the other women who are either gossiping about local village life or queuing to pay soon join in prego prego they chant.

So I am forced to go to the front of the queue and using my appalling Italian start purchase my shopping. When Maria and the women first started to invite me to queue jump I initially thought it was due to the respect Mrs Sensible holds as the local school teacher; she is not called Mrs Sensible in the village but Maestra. It took the episode of the peaches for me to realise why they always let me go to the front of the queue.

Mrs Sensible sent me to the shop one afternoon to purchase five peaches, now I know you normally buy fruit by the weight but I am aware of my limitations when it comes to ordering in Italian so I began with Io Bisogno cinque pesche per favore, (I understand that I should us “vorrei” and not bisogno but it never sounds right when I say it) Maria gave me one of those looks that are saved for the village idiot, I hadn’t noticed at this point that one or two of the women were already giggling and snorting into their handkerchiefs, I just thought there was a cold going around.

Maria disappeared into the back of the shop where the freezers are kept. I thought this was really odd as the peaches were in baskets just to the right of me. Stupid old bat I thought. Maria returned with one box of fish fingers, one frozen fillet of fish in a box and what looked like a piece of old shoe leather that might or might not have been dried fish.

Fish Fingers

Fish Fingers

Erh no no!! I said, pesche I repeated pointing at the basket of peaches cinque pesche. Maria grinned and said pesca Peter pesca.

The women behind me were dabbing their eyes and thinking the pazzo inglese never fails to let us down this time he ordered five fish instead of five peaches. With as much dignity as I could muster I worked my way through the rest of my shopping and thankfully left the shop.

Back to Skool

Today is back to school day for most of the children in Italy. Mrs Sensible is a teacher in scuola primaria. This year she is tasked with teaching the little blighters angels English, maths and music in one school and in the other English and Italian. While I sit here typing this blog Mrs Sensible is colouring in posters for her new classrooms. The little quip I made about I hope you have finished all your work before you started colouring in your pictures was almost met with physical violence.

I was first forced to attend school some forty-five years ago and I don’t believe it has fundamentally changed in the last forty-five years for either the children or the teachers. I can say this from bitter experience because Mrs Sensible forced me to go to the local evening class to learn Italian. I suppose forced is maybe a bit hard, my mum forced me to school by threatening me with the slipper, Mrs Sensible used the “If you want to stay in Italy you need to learn the language, I am tired of translating for you maybe we should go back to the UK”

I have never found my lack of Italian to be a huge problem I can order wine, grappa and food and request the cost of items. In fact my lack of Italian has been quiet useful, Scusi io sono inglese mi dispiace non capsico, has saved me from buying expensive items or helped me escape from street traders trying to sell me bags and belts.

So as my good wife had become exasperated with being my interpreter she enrolled me in a basic Italian night class on a Thursday night for immigrants run by the local municipale. The lessons were held in a senior school in Casale Monferrato. The teacher Maestra Piera was in her late 50s. Her eyes glitter with excitement as she explained to my wife that all I would have to do to learn Italian was to listen to everything she said. Oh and importantly attend her class regularly. This seemed far removed from the way I was taught in school. I seem to remember it took the threat of the cane and detention for me to apply myself to the lessons.

During the first lesson I was determined not to draw attention to myself. As I entered the classroom I calmly walked to the back of the room and chose a desk in the corner.  As I started to sit down, Maestra Piera pointed at me and announced to the class “Lui e’ Inglese si chiama Peter.” She then pointed to a desk at the front of the class and shouted “Vieni Peter, vieni qui.” My cover blown I slowly walked to the front of the class and sat down at the desk right in front of the blackboard. The horrors of my former school life quickly returned. I was beginning to wonder if I would have to produce a sick note signed by my wife when I decided to skip a lesson.

The classroom was the same as any schoolroom that I have sat or stood in the corner of. The only difference was the desks were scored with graffiti in Italian, Giuseppe Ti Amo Loradana. As I sat waiting for the lesson to begin I started to thumb through my new Italian – English dictionary wondering if I would have to back it in brown paper for homework.

As I sat there wishing I was somewhere else I become aware of all the different languages that were being spoken in the room. Near the door was a group who were either Russian or Ukrainian. Behind me near the back of the classroom I could hear French and in the middle of the room another language which I later found out belonged to the Albanians who outnumbered all of us.

I started my first lesson with a simply subject. How to change a singular noun into a plural noun, while remembering to change the article at the same time. We also needed to remember that the rules are different for male and female gender nouns. Not only is it mind-boggling, but all the explanations the teacher gave were in Italian. Logarithms without a table or calculator would have been easier. It wasn’t until I showed Mrs Sensible my notes later that night that I became aware of what I had been listening to for the previous two and a half hours.

At one point during the lesson Maestra Pierra looked at me and said with a huge smile and a nod. “Peter hai Capito?” I slowly shook my head no. Huge mistake! She walked to my desk smiled at me, leaned in close and raising her voice to a shout proceeded to give me the exact same explanation that she had given the class less than 5 seconds ago, again in Italian. “Oh ok ok io capisco” I said. I never made that mistake again.

In the early lessons I think Maestra Piera thought I was her perfect student. I never asked her to repeat anything twice and I wrote down almost everything she said. It was only later that she cottoned on to how badly I was progressing in her lessons. One of the problems with the lessons, was I didn’t understand Italian therefore I didn’t understand the teacher.

The second problem was the class had a massive mix of abilities. There were the French, Spanish and Rumanians who with their Latin based language could argue with the teacher over the correct structure of a sentence and then there was me who needed pictures of cats and dogs with gatto and cane printed beneath them.

I struggled through two years of classes with Maestro Piera and I know it was as much a struggle for her as it was for me. The symbolic certificate she gave me saying I had attained level 2 in Italian was presented more for my dogged attendance and also to make sure I didn’t re apply for a third year.

This summer during July, we bumped into Maestra Piera while we were shopping. I did try to follow the conversation between my old teacher and my wife. I smiled and nodded in the right places and shook my head as they shook theirs. I also got the distinct and mortifying feeling that my wife was organizing year three of my Italian education. I caught phrases like dovra’ cominciare al  livello uno and in Settembre. To date Mrs Sensible has not mentioned my date for going back to school so I am hoping against all hope that she has forgotten our meeting with Maesta Piera, unfortunately I doubt she has because she has an incredible memory and is probably waiting for the perfect opportunity to spring my new term date on me.