January 9, 2007

write it down

My younger son just returned from Riga, Latvia where the Italian national youth volleyball team won its qualifying tournament for the European games in April. I didn’t realize until last night that I didn’t know at what time his plane was arriving. Not even my son knew until yesterday evening. And you wonder why Italians love cell phones and text messaging.

Information dissemination is an interesting cultural phenomenon. As always, it takes wit, curiosity and gleaning all you can from the environment to put together the facts. At least for me, then again I did not grow up Italian. It often seems that everyone around me somehow “knows” all kinds of things that were never explicitly explained. How do they do that? A mystery for another day. It is about context, which I envision as thousands of invisible radar devices that encircle Italians as they walk down the street. I need someone to tell me, or even better to give it to me in writing.

“Please humor me and just write it down”, I often think to myself. Particularly at meetings when I would delegate tasks, give time tables and such. Or when giving a long list of last details for our apartment renovation to the head workman who would just nod as I got more and more nervous, “there is no way he is going to remember all of this”. A list, what a novel idea. A “check” list to be check off. A “to do” list. Even just a doodled list. Linear with dots and sub-dots, step A followed by step B.

This has been a tough nut to crack for me. I would like to have clear, ordered information on the offices I have to visit and fees I have to pay in order to register my birth certificate with the city hall and finally renew my identity card. “Don’t you have all these steps written out and photocopied for distribution?” Blank stare. I continue taking dictation on the back of my third bus ticket as the line lengthens.

The first lesson is that Italians are very wary of putting anything in writing that might have to be changed. Change can be negotiated if the question and its provisional solution have been left suspended verbally in air. Words can be rearranged as they land and certain thoughts or details can fly away unseen and unheard. Change to written documents is very, very complicated. Written documents need heavy stamps and words are thick, black on white and chained to the page.

Writing it down also implies that someone wrote it and that someone is therefore ultimately responsible for what is on the page. It has to do with the role of the individual and his relationship to the world around. Standing out. Putting your name on it. I am.

Italians learn to memorize and repeat at school through “interrogations” in the place of written exams. The oral emphasis starts in kindergarten. Teachers don’t even use blackboards to summarize concepts. You listen and remember -- skills we did not acquire.

The second lesson is to always have a small notebook along, to jot down those essential bits of information you will never remember, like postal banking codes of 10 digits.

1 comment:

Shelley - At Home in Rome said...

Interesting ... I was AMAZED the other day when I called to make an appt. for a bureaucratic paper I need for getting married, and the woman told me to look up all the info. on their website (this is the Roman tribunal, heart of the bureaucracy, for goodness sake!) for the tax stamps, etc. I have to bring to my appointment. I almost didn't believe her and thought I'd have to call back, but sure enough, a list all spelled out. Relief! Maybe some things are slowly changing....?? Who knows!