Rita started it.
The day we moved into our villa in Naples she was at our front gate. A small dark Italian woman with laughing brown eyes, she came to our house the first time with Italian coffee.
The following week, the button on our security gate was pushed a dozen times by Rita. Buzz, Italian coffee. Buzz, pasta. Buzz, homemade wine. Buzz, Limoncello. Rita was a giving machine.
After two weeks, I started to dread the sound. Not used to such enthusiasm, I was anxious to reciprocate but not sure how. It was evident my spicy cooking wasn’t going to be appealing to Rita. My specialties were Thai and Mexican. In fact giving her food at all didn’t seem right. She was welcoming us to Italy with authentic Italian fare. I didn’t want to take away from that.
So what would be right gift to say Thank you?
Maybe flowers would be a simple and adequate gesture.
“Who are these flowers for?” The British woman working behind the counter at the flower shop was skeptical. Startled, I paused. “My very kind Italian neighbor, who keeps bringing me food, why?”
“I was afraid you’d say that,” said the woman who later introduced herself as Maggie. “I’ve been married to an Italian for 15 years. Don’t give her those,” she warned, pointing at the bouquet of roses in my hand. “Roses signify secrecy to Italians and don’t give her Chrysanthemums or Carnations – they are only used at funerals. Don’t use gold or black ribbon – or anything purple!”
A sinking feeling ensued. Guided in the right direction, I left the flower shop with a medium size bouquet of Lilies and Gerber Daisies. That night, buzzing Rita’s gate for the first time, it surprised me to see the embarrassment on her face when I handed the blooms to her.
Rita wasn’t used to receiving gifts.
The next day the annoying buzz I was finally becoming accustomed to echoed through the house again, and there was Rita. Opening the front door, I watched her walk toward me carrying a bouquet of yellow flowers so enormous I couldn’t see her head. Shoving them into my arms, she smiled gleefully and with a “Ciao!” skipped back across the street.
Putting the large stems into the largest vase I could find, I wondered if my bouquet had seemed small.
The following day Rita’s husband, Franco, was out working in their yard. Like most Italian men, Franco made his wine at home, and I’d been thinking of asking him about the large glass “demijohns” in his driveway. I knew Italians used for wine making. The giant light bulb shaped vessels of thick green glass were like the art pieces – but Italians view them as strictly functional. I thought Franco might have some useful intelligence for me on where to find them.
Translating the question from English to Italian on my iPad, I walked across the street and noticed an unfamiliar face peeking out of their garage interior.
“Ciao! I am Franco’s daughter – my name is Simona. I’m visiting from Rome. You must be Laura? I’m down here sorting things in the basement to take home.” Her English was perfect and after our introduction, Rita and Franco joined us in the dark basement which clearly served more like a wine cellar.
I explained to Simone that I wanted to ask Franco where to buy demijohns – that I had been unable to find them. Franco responded by immediately pointing at one empty, medium sized demijohn sitting among many others full of wine. Then he pointed at me.
“Oh no, I didn’t come to ask for one of yours!” Horrified that Rita and Franco might think I was there to request one of their beautiful glass globes for free, I turned to Franco’s daughter. “Please explain to them that I cannot take this unless they allow me to pay for it.”
“They will not take money from you,” Simona explained, and they want to know which size you like. Maybe next time my father goes to buy some, he will get you another one.”
Embarrassed but thrilled by the offer, I pointed to one of the largest demijohns in the garage, corked with Franco’s latest wine harvest.
“Those, the 54-liter bottles are the most beautiful,” I said. “I will give him the money in advance to buy one of those for me, but he must also let me pay him for this one he is giving me now.”
The largest demijohns would cost 24 euros each and Rita agreed she would let me know when Franco was on a buying trip. But both refused to take cash for the demijohn gifted out of Franco’s collection.
Walking across the street with my green globe, accompanied by Simona, she said in a conspiratorial tone, “you know, if you would like to do something nice for them, they like that fruity body cleaner sold in the American stores. If you could just buy a bottle, they would love that.”
Fruity body wash? Now I knew how to thank my new neighbors adequately. Not knowing which fruit was the best, I’d have to wing that part. So it was off to the American military base to find the sweet-smelling bath products that would adequately express gratitude to our Italian friends.
Later that night, I proudly showed my husband the four bottles of strawberry and kiwi liquid neatly packed in a wine sack. A thank you card was tucked inside with them – written from an iPad translation like all of my communications with Rita. Walking across the street feeling triumphant, I hoped I was about to hit a home run with the neighbors.
Rita answered the door and gushed over the first bottle. “Grazia! Grazia!”
I felt myself glowing with her appreciation and watched as she read the card giggling at my attempt to translate a simple thank you. Back at home, I was relieved. Finally, we were on an even playing field with our new neighbors. Now hopefully they were aware of how much we appreciated their largess. Maybe now we were all evenly settled with gifts.
I wasn’t prepared when the security buzzer blared the next morning. It must be a solicitor. They were frequent here, and the last one, selling seafood from his truck, had waved a fish at me over the fence. I ignored the buzz and continued with my work.
Buzz, buuuzzz, buuuuuzzzz. Whoever this was, ignoring them wasn’t working. I looked out the window, and there stood Rita. But instead of standing at the pedestrian gate where visitors on foot entered, she was peering through the bars of our large driveway gate.
Baffled, I scrambled for the remote that would open the big iron gate. As it rolled away, I could see tiny Rita clutching two enormous demijohns. Bolting up the driveway and up onto my porch, barely able to hold the heavy globes by the neck, she carefully set them down at my feet then ran back to Franco, who was waiting with two more. I could feel my jaw drop.
Depositing the next pair on my front step, Rita said something in Italian, gave me a hug and a kiss on both cheeks, then darted home. Overwhelmed by the display of green glass on my front porch, I pondered the math. If Franco had purchased these four demijohns, that was almost 100 euro. My fruity gift to them had cost less than five dollars. This gift wasn’t even close to equitable.
I couldn’t accept this. It was too much.
That’s when it hit me. Italians are passionate about many things. They love big, fight big, yell big, laugh big and eat big. Birthday parties are celebrated with fireworks. Trying to live like an Italian means doing everything with great appassionato! I was probably no match for that. My Italian neighbors have their own personal passion and there was nothing we could do but accept that they give Big and Rita’s gifts would always be bigger than mine.