Customer Service – Italy vs US

I’ve mentioned this topic in several different pieces, but I think it’s important enough to have its own blog.

To reiterate:  Most of the businesses we see in our area are small, family owned and run…..whether they’re restaurants or clothing shops or the little grocery stores called alimentari that were surely the inspiration for our 7-Elevens. Even most of the hotels in the smaller towns are family owned.

If you go to a hotel regularly in the US, I can pretty much guarantee that you will never see the same face twice. In Umbria, you would become alarmed if you didn’t find the person you expected behind the counter because it could only mean that they were dead. You would probably know them by name, as well as the names of their children. They would have your passport information on file and know which room you preferred. The closest we get to that in the US are our B&B’s.

The same goes for restaurants. The waiter in the first restaurant where I ate in Orvieto 21 years ago is still there. It’s not a place we go to often, so I’ve never gotten friendly with the man, but I’m sure that when we do eat there, it clicks in the back of his mind, as it does in mine, that we’ve been seeing each other for an awfully long time.

The service people in Italy have pride in what they do; it’s a respected career, not something to fill the time and wallet while waiting for “real” life to begin. Whether or not they are a family member, they still treat you like a guest in their home, because where they work is their home. And like a good guest, you should give them the courtesy of a greeting when you enter, and patience if they can’t get to you immediately.

Occasionally, however, you will run into a family member who truly should NOT be in the service business. We have one near us who is legendary for his lack of hospitality. Anyone reading this who has spent time around Orvieto knows this man well. Upon entering, he will immediately make you feel like an unwelcomed guest who has ruined his day by your very presence in his restaurant. His body language lets you know that he considers you totally unworthy to eat the delicious food that comes from his kitchen, and if he could, he would return to watching TV with his back to you in hopes that when he turned around again, you would be gone. Fortunately, the rest of his family members are incredibly nice and the food is so good that the restaurant warrants the return customers and packed house that it has most days.

While this man is the exception to the nice-people-in-small-business rule, his ilk can be easily found in the larger chain stores – particularly those in the shopping malls that seem to have mysteriously appeared along the autostrada recently. I’ve never found the kind of department store in Italy that I’ve seen in the US, England, France or Germany, but the closest is a chain called Coin. I’ve been to Coins from Torino to Palermo, and not once have I ever gotten the correct information about whatever I was looking for. If they are out of something, it would never occur to them to see if more might be coming in at some future date, or if they have an alternative. It seems their training stopped right after: “We’re out of those”. In the US, department stores have a disarming number of people whose only job is to ask if they can help you. At Coin, as soon as the sales people see customers, they scurry away to an agreed-upon hiding place, where they stay until the customers get tired of waiting and leave.

Large grocery stores are the exception to the big-store rudeness; people there are always helpful and they know what they’re doing.

So….what’s the bottom line on all of this?

– Smaller places are more fun than big ones.

– Be courteous to the people in small businesses. They work long hours in their shops and appreciate a greeting and patience.

– You will probably be disappointed in a large store, so if you must go, set your expectations low.

– You can raise your expectations up if the large store is a super market.

– It is possible to overlook rudeness, but only if there’s REALLY good food at the end.

Which just goes to show you that somehow, whenever you’re talking about Italy, it almost always comes down to food……


Changes – 2014

Thought I’d fill you in on the changes I found when I returned to Italy this year.

First the Rome mime/living statue update:  You might remember from past pieces, we had:  perfectly still Statues of Liberty; golden Egyptian mummies; and the guy who looked like he was dashing to catch a train, with his coat and tie flying back, his arm with the briefcase swinging forward. I don’t think I told you about last year’s team statues. Picture a swami sitting cross legged on the ground in a long orange robe, with one arm held straight out, holding up a thick pole at the top of which is another swami dressed in the same kind of robe, sitting up in the air in the same position. Very dramatic. They’re still around this year, but have been joined by the headless men in suits and ties. The tops of their real heads are hidden just below the shirt collars, and above is a thin metal wire framework made of line-drawing-like features of eyes, eyebrows, hat, etc., which jiggle as the man moves. We actually saw a group of the headless men, and I think they must have been in training, because one of them was having a difficult time breathing through his shirtfront. I’m not sure he’s cut out for the mime business… least not in Rome, during the summer.

As for Orvieto – there were only a few changes that I could see. First would be that there is now an overabundance of underwear shops on our version of Main Street – 3 within about 100 feet. There was a shop front being redone within that 100 feet, and everyone was hoping it would sell something other than underwear. It turned out to be a gelato shop, which now makes 3 good ice cream shops within 100 feet. I think we can all agree, however, that 3 gelato shops are much more meaningful to everyday life than 3 underwear shops.

And speaking of stores – awhile back I wrote a piece about the possible future effects from a large new grocery store that had opened in one of the 3 little towns at the base of Orvieto. Well, we returned this year to find that our favorite grocery in another of the towns, the Coop, had opened its new store in our area’s first “mall” complex. As malls go, it’s not particularly impressive, but it pretty much has 1 of everything – women’s clothes, men’s clothes, children’s clothes, shoes, jewelry, coffee shop and a fairly large electronics store. The problem for the mall employees is that when they were individual stores, they closed during the afternoon – just like most small shops still do up in Orvieto proper. However, now that they’ve joined the mall concept, they have to stay open all day, which certainly must take a huge toll on their lifestyles.

Meanwhile, back up on the rock, Sidis was our only full grocery store up until a year ago. Since it was the only game in town, it could choose to close from 1:30 to 5:30 every day, and all day Sunday. Last fall another grocery, Meta, opened – staying open all day and till 1 on Sunday.  Sidis had to follow along.  You can definitely see where all this is leading. If ever I see a 7-Eleven and can get milk anytime I want, I might just have to reconsider my choice of where to spend half the year.

I was looking forward to trying a new restaurant people were talking about that had opened after I left at the end of October, and was surprised when it closed before we got the chance.  To go to the trouble of refitting a beauty parlor to open a restaurant during the winter when business is notoriously slow, and then close it in the spring, before it picks up again seems….to say the least….odd.  I’ll leave it up to you to try to come up with a scenario where that makes good business sense.

The biggest change for us, however, is that we got a new bed. For 6 years, we’ve been sleeping on what could be the most uncomfortable bed this side of a bed of nails. Calling it either “firm” or “hard” would be overly generous. It was much less comfortable than sleeping on the tile floor, and you always woke up with something hurting….your back, your shoulder, your neck, your hip. There was no such thing as making it through the night unscathed.

As you might remember from my 8/17/11 blog (“La Cucina Nuova”) – the first thing we did when we moved into our rental apartment SIX YEARS ago was put in a new kitchen. We don’t cook. But we do sleep – or at least try to. And yet it took SIX YEARS to finally have the light bulb go off above our collective heads with the idea that perhaps a new mattress and bed might help to make us a bit more perky and less grumpy in the morning. So while I hate to be selfish, the most important change as far as I’m concerned is that we sleep soundly, smile more, grumble less….and we don’t need nearly as much Advil.