30 Apr 2017

Mani talk

How do you shut up an Italian? - Tie his hands behind his back!

This may be an old joke, but it has not lost any of its wit - or its veracity, as we were able to witness on a recent trip to the bel paese. For a sunny spring week, we enjoyed not just the stunning beauty of Liguria, but also the joy of watching Italians... well, be Italian.

I once tried to explain it like this: The Germanic people north of the alps paint their houses white, because they are reserved and conservative. The Latin people south of the alps plaint their houses in gaudy colors, because they are lively and extroverted. And in Italy, that extroversion starts the moment you leave the airport: We were honked at, and had headlights flashed before we even reached the autostrada.

In Parma, kids in the street were fidgeting with palm fronds their parents had received at mass (Palm Sunday and all that) earlier in the day, while in the piazza outside the cathedral, black-robed priests straight out of Don Camillo were using the branches to underline their points like a conductor would.

In the little osteria in Portovenere, the fat owner behind the bar barely talked at all, but with a combination of gestures and expressive mimics directed his hard-working waiters around, while visibly appraising all entering patrons - blonde Canadian women got a nod of approval.

Just as I started to adapt to the beloved Italian way (surprising how quickly foreign swear words come to you when some Alfa Romeo cuts you off), we came across a restrained and strangely non-manual receptionist at a hotel. But I quickly grew suspicious of the accent in his Italian: Sure enough, he was Swiss-German.

At one little convenience store where we filled our backpacks for the hikes along the Alta Via delle Cinqueterre, a cashier petted and caressed a customer's toddler, while at another, two old ladies in front of the deli counter had their hands so high up in the air that I could barely see the salumi behind them.

Not all the gesticulating is friendly: At a supermarket in Genova, we got into an argument with the staff around the price of cheese (yes, loyalty programs were involved) which led to raised voices and those hand movements that you know from Goodfellas and The Godfather - we did not get our cheese.

By and large, though, the handful of Italianità we got to experience was magnificent. Gorgeous landscapes, impossibly beautiful towns, splendid (if strenuous) hikes and delicious cuisine day after day.

Most enjoyable of all, though, was to simply sit in the sun on a promenade, and watch Italians going by. It was thus that we were treated to the observation that reminded me of the old joke: An elderly, immaculately dressed couple was strolling down the street, the man holding on to his wife with one hand and to a cane with the other. Suddenly, they spotted two friends, rising from a park bench and walking towards them. Hugging and greeting ensued.

And then, the man stepped over to the bench, carefully deposed his walking stick, and turned back around to the rest of the group. After all, how could he have talked with his hands full?

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21 Apr 2017

Mister Proper

I routinely entrust pilots and taxi drivers around the world with my life. I entrust chefs in Vietnamese soup kitchens and American burger joints with my health. I rely on fresh-faced bank tellers and computer algorithms to manage my savings. I even trust in Montréal engineers as I swim below the Olympic Stadium's leaning tower. So why is it so hard to entrust my dirt to a cleaner?

We had debated the issue for a long time. With a larger demeure than in the past, long work days and frequent travel, we often found ourselves dedicating weekend days to the mop and the broom. It did not feel like a good use of a precious resource - free time, in this case.

The solution was as obvious as it was awkward. Neither of us was accustomed to having a paid professional clean the house. We weren't even comfortable with referring to somebody else doing our chores (The Economist sympathizes), much less interacting with such a person.

Not so our friends, colleagues and relatives, most of which habitually outsource housekeeping and showered us with references. Reluctantly, I started calling them up, beginning with the sous la table operators that seem most common in the city.

The initial responses reinforced our hesitation: These folks seemed disorganized, uninterested, unreliable, inflexible ("there is no guaranteed parking?") and pretty pricey. I quickly learned that this is a seller's market. Add to that my general aversion to black labor, and we decided that this was not the route to go.

With the dust bunnies multiplying in the corners and the parquet floors losing their luster, I pressed on and called the last number on my reference list: A cleaning company. And before I knew it, I had an appointment for a comprehensive appraisal of the work to be done.

Precisely at the agreed time, an immaculately dressed gentleman ran my doorbell, and swiftly proceeded with a walk-through of our house, clipboard in hand, assessing the work and explaining the tools and methods he would use. The entire process concluded with a remarkably reasonable quote, presentation of a corporate insurance certificate and the willingness to issue tax receipts - I was floored.

And those floors soon became squeaky clean again, as our new Mr. Clean and his wife started their bi-weekly visits. The awkwardness remains: I am not quite ready yet to hand over the keys and let them home alone, so I hole up in the study while the house gets a makeover. I try to be polite and friendly, while at the same time being unhelpful. After all, me not doing the work is why they are here. When the moment comes to pay, I fork over the cash with the same guilt-ridden feeling as one would have tipping a rickshaw driver before escaping into a five star hotel.

But then I close the door, hear my feet squeak on the shiny floors, smell the bleachy air in the kitchen, look at the spotless bathroom mirror, and realize: Yes, I can get used to this.

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