I’ve been aware from the start of my Italian adventure that Italians have no problems getting up close and personal. Being a native New Yorker, and spending copious amounts of time in New York City for various reasons, I’ve always held my personal space in high regard. So when one of the people I’d come to know so well at the café Giubbe Rosse got additionally close to me-on Valentine’s Day nonetheless-I was predictably extremely uncomfortable.
The perpetrator was a man I originally dubbed “Grandpa.” My friends and I who frequent there don’t actually know this man’s name other than my nickname Grandpa (we don’t call him this to his face, however, even though I suspect he’d greet it with a hearty chuckle). Grandpa has always been particularly fond of me, as the bartender is particularly fond of bouncy Sharon, and the other bartender is particularly fond of the bright blonde Kristen. Grandpa was always the first to greet me with a kiss on either cheek and/or a hug, accompanied by English and Italian conversation (we flip-flopped depending on how much we could explain in each language). Well, on this particular Valentine’s Day, Grandpa managed to kiss me six times, each time getting closer and closer to my lips…not ok! He held my hand and wrapped his fingers between mine, also not ok, and each time we laughed (my laughter forced) he would pull my head to his chest and hug me and pat my back. Maybe this was just the combination of Italian culture and personal familiarity, but to me it was an invasion and intrusion upon what my mother and I call our “purple circles.” My personal space,my “bubble” as most people say, was violated and I was, and still am slightly, put off by this show of affection. Silly old Italian men!
What I found the most interesting about this little exchange of ours, however, was the pause Grandpa took specifically to ask me where my boyfriend was. My boyfriend had visited me in Florence while on leave from the Army and had met Grandpa and the rest of the crew. I replied, “in Alaska”. Grandpa’s eyes bugged out, “Alaska?! Perche??” He’s in the military, I responded. “Did he call you?” Grandpa asked. Unwilling to explain that my boyfriend was, in fact, in California for deployment training and his phone had been confiscated at the beginning of training, I simply answered no. Grandpa then immediately interpreted my tiredness (it was 10pm and I had a 9am class the following morning) as sadness, and took this as an opportunity to pull me closer, hug me more and repeat, “Non sei triste! Non sei triste!” Don’t be sad! Don’t be sad! He reassured me that he, the staff, and my friends could be my Valentine’s. I couldn’t help but smile as I thought about saying, “The staff and my friends, yes, but you…” I know that’s mean, but it was amusing in a cruel way at the time.
At the end of our visit, during which we were bestowed free drinks and wine in return for our gifts of chocolate goodies, my friends all but had to pry me out of Grandpa’s grasp. As we fled I burst out laughing. That’s what I get for being friendly on Valentine’s Day.
– Kathryn Herbert