There are some things you do in a foreign language that require a tremendous amount of bravery. While I have negotiated shades of hair dye with my stylist and emergency dental work in Italian, I’ve never been brave enough to buy underwear. I kid you not; this marks a major milestone in my language development.
There is a reason for this; the anonymity of shopping unfettered doesn’t traditionally exist in Italy. You will be descended on by well-meaning experts who simply do not take “I’m just looking” as an answer or a deterrent.
And it was all rather unexpected. It wasn’t like I woke up this morning, heard the Rocky soundtrack in my head, and thought “let’s do this!”. It’s Labor Day in Italy today so when I schlepped to a large supermarket beyond the historical center, I found it closed. But the lingerie shop across the street had a door that was wide open. It was inviting, quiet and, very importantly, more than a mile beyond the throngs of Anglo-Saxon tourist packed like canned mackerel on the span of the Ponte Vecchio. I would have no choice but to do this in Italian. This was not tourist country. It was now or never.
Where did I get my bravery? It could have also been the communists celebrating the worker with a BBQ and a yard sale in the piazza. We were all comrades, were we not? And we all needed skivvies.
Afraid I would lose my nerve, I turned quickly, crossed the threshold of the shop, and held my breath. I didn’t have to hold it long. A clerk moved toward me with a polite welcome and the offer of assistance. It was very clear that I had her undivided attention, and it wasn’t really an offer so much as it was an announcement of her intention. This was the moment of truth. Yes, I needed her help. I didn’t even try to pass off the lie that I was only looking. We both knew that if I was “only looking” I could have done that from the sidewalk.
It wasn’t so much a matter of what I wanted, it was a matter of what was in style and what would look good on my body. The classic Italian “la bella figura” combination. Leave your false body image at the door. There was little room for negotiation, although it seemed that I had veto power over colors. I was shown a few items that would work. I may have been the customer, but the shop assistant was the expert. If I had objected, it would have been like coming up behind Michelangelo and telling him how to properly carve a piece of marble.
And there was no talk of sizes. No tape measures appeared, she just tilted her head slightly sideways, assessed me from head to toe with slightly squinted eyes, nodded, and assuredly pull out a mysterious drawer full of items in my size. Lace started flying and, before I knew it, I was ushered into a fitting room. This is a professional, and believe me she’s seen it all. In this country, it was most likely on a beach in the light of day. I took a great deal of comfort in that.
When we finally made it to the register, I thanked her with tremendous gratitude for her attention and her knowledge. I felt like we had been to battle together! In the end it was my Italian last name sparked a lovely, and lengthy conversation about New York, Naples, and everything in between. She laughed warmly when I unleashed venom on Victoria’s Secret for being an awful trifecta of neon, synthetic, and loud. I bravely dug deep into my vocabulary and pulled no punches. She complimented my Italian, and we joked about how my New York accent murdered vowels as her Tuscan accent destroyed the Italian “c”. It seems as though neither of us spoke la lingua di Dante.
For something I was so afraid of, I was so sad to see it end.
Sometimes when you are brave enough to take that big step toward what scares you the most, it turns out brilliantly. Or you just end up with a bag of victory underwear. This Italian Labor Day, here’s to the Italian shopkeepers that go above and beyond. And, in keeping with the situation, here’s to the communist red pair of underwear that I bought in honor of the occasion.