Travelling to the same country repeatedly over a long period of time causes you to slowly but surely acquire new ways of behaving. The foreign mentality and the initially unfamiliar customs and conventions drape themselves over you like a fine, thin coat that simultaneously warms and protects—and also feels quite secure.
Over the past six months, I’ve spent a total of about ten weeks in Italy. My gallivanting around the country has taken me to Rome, Genoa, Milan, Liguria, and Tuscany. And alongside the many well-known clichés that have turned out to be at least partly true—like the Italians’ great love of children, elaborate celebration of meals, and pronounced style-consciousness—I’ve above all noticed their love of music. It’s surpassed only by their love of musicians.
One day, at a seaside car park in the little coastal town of Porto Santo Stefano in the Maremma region, a gorgeous part of southern Tuscany known above all for its large nature reserve and wonderfully wild beaches, I encountered a woman who was standing there singing arias from Puccini’s La Bohème. As in most touristy parts of Italy, you had to pay to park. But instead of feeding the parking permit machine, most of the parkers threw their coins into the hat at the singer’s feet. These folks and other passers-by listened pensively to the repeating songs, responded with enthusiastic applause, and encouraged their children to put chocolates in the singer’s hat. Eventually, one little girl sat down at the singer’s feet and began blissfully devouring the other kids’ donations as she listened with rapt attention.
When the young man from the parking authority finally turned up, sporting a uniform and a stern facial expression, the bystanders admonished him to be quiet. So there he stood—before a row of illegally parked vehicles, a group of music lovers, and a couple of children giving him dark looks. The man soon realised that he had no other choice but to sit down on the curb, wait for the singer to finish her performance, and accept the chocolate that the little girl at her feet offered him with a smile.