This spring is being iffy, but the good bits of the iffiness are truly a delight – like the other evening as I tried to rescue the honeysuckle from the weed mass up the bank towards the orchard and the afternoon clouds evaporated to reveal a sky of such blue limpidness that I stayed there, hauling and lopping, until 8.30. There was just time to fill a basin with broad beans and peas and artichokes and strawberries from the garden before darkness fell.
Just as well there are moments of bliss, because I’ve been causing myself all kinds of headaches over the last few days.
Firstly, trying to juggle rather too many work things – something I’m generally fairly competent at – I have made a brutta figura (bad impression) to a very nice new client whose tiny space in front of her holiday residence should have been a dawdle. Instead I’ve made it into hard work.
This is someone who has lived in Italy, who speaks the language, and who knows how things work in this country, for better and for worse. Usually when I work with non-Italians, I am the Anglo in the equation – the guarantee that no one is going to try to pull a fast one on an unsuspecting foreigner. But when I do a rough estimate for the work that comes to x, then get her a quote from one of my trusted contractors that comes to almost 2x, and I send it off to her without a second thought, as if that were perfectly normal, I can see that she might start to wonder whether I’ve gone native and am in on the fast-one pulling. All of which begs many questions, not the least of which centres on how Italians are perceived and whether they deserve their reputation. From my very personal point of view, though, it’s just a case of making a fool of myself.
Are Italians slippery customers, always looking for an opportunity to take advantage? Generalisations are as pointless as they are misleading, though it’s true to say that many Italians see slowness of uptake on the part of other people as an invitation to benefit in some way. But I don’t think it’s only Italians who do that: on the contrary. Of course I am constantly hearing of foreigners whose experience of dealing with Italians in setting up house here is dire; but often I suspect that the expecting-trouble wariness of the foreigners, and their presumption that anything they don’t understand is probably a ruse to trick them does much to muddy the waters.
It often makes me laugh, too when Anglo visitors to these shores marvel at tales of Italian corruption and scoff at the well known ‘fact’ that most Italians don’t pay their taxes – then immediately ask if they can pay cash to avoid sales tax… just as happens in the UK and elsewhere. There, though, it’s considered plain common sense – no one thinks of it as another case of tax fraud.
All this has no bearing on the case at hand, where my client is perfectly at home in this country. And where the main problem – besides my reprehensible carelessness – was abject honesty, if such a thing can be said to exist. It’s not uncommon in these parts, and leads the perpetrators into all kinds of grief.
This particular contractor is so afraid of upsetting people that he often pitches quotes far higher than he ever actually charges: clients tend to be shocked at the end when their bill is 30 percent or more below what they expected. In this case, he also made a genuine mistake, calculating far more soil and soil-hauling labour than would have been needed – something he would have rectified as he went along.
Here, this kind of over-zealous buffering almost cost him the job (I sat down with him eventually – when I had gathered my own wits, and realised the impasse I was forcing myself into by not focussing adequately – and re-wrote the quote, bringing it to below the x I had originally forecast). Elsewhere – and I know several such cases – the desire to be more or less line-toe-ingly honest can cost a business and a livelihood. It really is a tribute to their integrity that they bother to persevere.
This country has a staunch backbone of excellent artisans, many of whom (in this neck of the woods at least) are by nature as honest as the day is long. But there’s no reward for virtue in the Italian system: in fact, stick your head out above the honesty parapet, and you simply get hammered. “Here’s someone who pays up easily,” the tax office appears to think. “Let’s take him/her for all s/he’s got… so much easier than trying to flush out tax-dodgers.” So solid businesses flounder and sink, people lose livelihoods and the country loses another piece of its greatest treasure. I personally know several crafts people who have thrown (or are thinking of throwing) in the towel.
For every Italian who’s taking you for a ride, then, there are many others who are quietly going to the wall because they won’t stoop to dishonesty or who ingenuously thought that in trying to get ahead they would find support and encouragement but in fact found themselves up against a Kafkaesque machine. But I’m digressing, and this has nothing (or little) to do with the case in point.
My other major snafu of the past few days (and in my own defence I should say that perhaps my preoccupation with this one clouded my vision in the previous one) was over my Rome apartment.
I’ve been thinking for a long time that it represents a whole lot of money tied up in something we reap little benefit from. I have even advertised it, in a lacksadaisical way, on a Rome ex-pat chat group. Until lately, I have had a few desultory visits and some polite “very nices”. Then last week I suddenly found myself with two people vying for it.
First reaction: total panic. Do I really want to sell our home of 30 years, the place where we were married from, and C was born and grew up? Do I really want to pull out of the city definitively, knowing that we will probably never be able to afford to buy back there should we want to?
In rational moments, the answer to both those questions is a resounding yes. But I’m not always rational. And my handling of the business was definitely no triumph of level-headedness.
A French man made me an offer. It was too low. He we quiet for a couple of days. I showed it to a woman we know, someone L works with at Internazionale. She loved it and wanted it immediately. I failed to make it clear to her that I needed to contact the French man, who as first-comer had first refusal – if he could match her higher offer. She went ahead and started to make arrangements as if our deal was 100% certain. He matched her offer and I told her I was going ahead with him, by which time she had put all kinds of irreversible wheels in motion. I felt like a complete rat, with seriously disturbed sleep patterns.
How can I have done that to her? It’s my tendency, when discombobulated, to pretend everything is fine, everything will resolve itself – and most especially not to say anything clear and decisive now that might hurt anyone… though knowing deep down that all it will do is cause complications further down the line. Not a good way to sell a house; not a good way to run a business.
A third possible human-relations upset ended, thankfully, in a faith-restoring encounter with an Ebay vendor. The prehistoric web design programme I use to tinker with my website will not work on my snazzy new computer – a real head-scratcher as the most recent versions of that software are not only immensely expensive but – as it’s designed for professionals and not dilettantes such as myself – have become fiendishly complicated. Through much research I pinpointed the one older version which was both compatible with my computer and retained the non-pro features I needed. I ordered it second-hand through Ebay, from the US.
What turned up was something completely different. Scam, I thought. But the vendor sent the correct CD immediately. It was not, as advertised, a full version but an upgrade. Scam, I thought again. Even had my ancient version been upgradeable, I would have needed its serial number, and I certainly didn’t have that.
The vendor, though, seemed genuinely mortified, and when I told him my dilemma produced a very old serial number which, miraculously, worked. Not a scam at all. A serious human being dealing competently with his own haste-induced snafus from California. How refreshing.
Now when will I find time to master this new version and catch up with my hopeless behind-hand website?