15 September 2013

LIFE: My Italian Life

CHIAVARI, Italy - In the early days of my Italian life, I lived in Genova and taught English at a small private language school. They paid me under the table as I was only sort of legal, that is, I was in Italy on a tourist visa not a work visa.  
Sometimes when I would come into school one of the owners would give me a sign, raise her eyebrows or roll her eyes, and I would understand the Guardia di Finanza, the Italian IRS, were in the office inspecting the school’s books. Her look was a warning for me not to say anything. As long as the police didn’t hear my accent, they would never suspect I was a fake Italian working without legal documents.

The Guardians of the Finances knew the language schools hired illegal aliens, especially English mother-tongue illegals, but stereotypes being what they are, they were on the lookout for blonde, California types and wispy English Roses, not someone who looks like me. Since I really am Italian, and I look Italian, I could stand there and smile and no one was the wiser.  
One of the Gates to the Old City,
We illegal mother-tongue English speakers were a hot commodity, a two for one. We actually spoke English, a huge plus, and we didn’t complain if the schools kept us off the books. Given a choice, the schools preferred to not pay all those niggling, nasty taxes governments like to collect like Social Security and contributions to the health care system.

I knew I was not being paid what Italian teachers, or foreigners who were here legally were paid, but I was happy to have a job. I had been out of work for six months and my bank balance was shrinking fast.  
Genova Nervi
So with the little bit of money I was earned at the school I started putting together my Italian life. I was living in a furnished apartment in Nervi, a small borgo about half an hour out of Genoa. With no car, my only means of transport to and from the center of the city was the bus. I would get off on Via XX Settembre, Genoa’s main street, and walk the few blocks to the language school passing a rather posh china and gift shop along the way. They had the most beautiful things in that store and I remember how I would stand and stare in the shop window and wonder if I would ever be able to afford anything they sold.

January and July are the State designated sales periods here in Italy and so shortly after Christmas my favorite shop filled their window with all the bits and bobs they were willing to part with at a discounted price. That’s when I spotted them – the gold rimmed Richard Ginori plates with the small roses. It was love at first sight.
My Beautiful Plates
Every afternoon, on my way to work, I would stop and stand with my nose pressed against the glass and look at them, dreaming about how nice they would look on my dinner table. I had no real idea how much they cost as I was still a bit shaky dealing in lira. If a newspaper cost 1,000 lire, and a cup of coffee cost 1,500, how many thousands or millions of lire would the dishes cost? And how much was that in real money? Dealing with such high numbers was not only confusing, it was downright overwhelming.

Then one day, fearful the plates would be snapped up and gone forever, I gathered my courage and went in the shop. In my halting Italian I told the young clerk I wanted six of the Richard Ginori plates in the window. She knew immediately which ones I was talking about.

“There are only ten plates left,” she said. “Why don’t you take them all?” 

“I wish I could,” I said, “but I am a poor English teacher and I don’t have enough money to buy all of them.”

I knew that Richard Ginori is the Giorgio Armani of the porcelain world. The company was founded in 1735 by the Florentine Marquis Carlo Ginori, and their early pieces were made for the court of the Medici family, the godfathers of the Florentine Renaissance. So whatever those dishes cost, it was surely more than I could afford. As it was I was convinced I would have to eat bread and onions for a month just to pay for the six plates I asked for.
The Sea Walk in Genova Nervi  
The clerk nodded. She went to the window, got the plates and then disappeared into the back room. A few minutes later she reappeared with a package all done up in brown paper and tied with heavy string. She put it on the counter and rang up the sale. I don’t remember what I paid for those plates, now that we’ve converted to Euros it’s hard to remember what things cost back in the day when Italy’s currency was the lira, but I remember thinking it wasn’t as much as I thought it was going to be. 

I carried the package to school that afternoon and it wasn’t until the next morning that I opened it and checked the receipt. That’s when I realized she had given me all ten plates at a deeply discounted price.  
 Via XX Settembre, Genova's Main Shopping Street
When I was in Genova on Saturday I looked for the shop where I bought the dishes, but I couldn’t find it. It made me sad, but time goes on and things change, including cities and Genova has changed a lot since I lived here last.

I’ve been very lucky these past twenty plus years, I’ve met a lot of nice people in my Italian life who have helped me more than they will ever know. I may not know all of their names, but like that clerk, they are not forgotten. Every time I use those beautiful dishes I think about her, and how much her kindness meant to me, a foolish woman living on her own in a foreign country. I have tried, over the years, to pass that kindness on and I hope that in some small way, I have.  


  1. Very interesting article and I love the story about your plates. Too bad the shop was closed up when you returned - if it was still open what would have you done or said?

    1. Good question. i really don't know what I would have done. Most likely I would have gotten all teary eyed thinking about those early days.

  2. What a beautiful, touching memory. Italy is filled with these small, quite gifts.

  3. I think that's so true, it's the little acts of kindness that make Italy worth living in. Lovely post.

  4. Alberta Manfredi-WoodallDecember 2, 2013 at 9:05 PM

    We are sisters of the heart, Phyllis, because I too have a love for beautiful dishes. I have a few Italian hand painted serving pieces that I have found discounted in fine stores, but my real love is British Royal Worcester. (Might be because I was raised in New England with a big English influence). There is something innately Italian, I think, to have that desire to grace your table with lovely dishes - my mother was the same. I enjoyed your touching story of the store clerk who gifted you with beautiful dishes and memories. Thanks for sharing your Italian life.

  5. Dear Alberta, thank you for your kind comment. I'm glad you enjoyed the post and I hope you will find other posts interesting as well.