As a Londoner arriving in provincial Italy it is fair to say I was a fish out of water. Fresh faced and bursting with enthusiasm for my new home, with a wealth of world travel behind me, I wasn’t going to let inhibition stand in my way. Little did I know how many social faux pas (or passi falsi, when in Rome eh…) lay ahead.
Rule number one in the unwritten Italian guide to integrating and not being shunned from every social event, is making sure that in no uncertain circumstances you should EVER risk displaying or doing La brutta figura. What on earth is that? I’ll explain, trust me, I found out the hard way.
In a land of beautiful people, who pride themselves on their appearance, their homes and their food and where the national sport is la passeggiata it is inevitable that you will be observed, judged and therefore gossiped about should you act in unfavourable way. Giving so much importance to how you are perceived, the Italians would rather stitch their mouths shut and forever forfeit another morsel of pasta rather than show themselves in a bad light. The goal therefore is always to make a bella figura a good impression, rather than a brutta figura a bad, or literally ugly impression.
A brutta figura can be anything from being drunk in public (oops) to being seen in public with dirty clothes (oops again). But it doesn’t stop there. Bad dinner parties, mother-in-law jokes, a clapped out banger of a car, running out of change in the supermarket and forgetting someone’s name all would fall under this category. Guilty, guilty, guilty. Bear in mind that I’ve been known in England to go to the pub in my pyjamas on a Sunday night. This was not going to be an easy transition for me.
If you’re a tourist or from a big city, you are used to being anonymous. You go about your daily life not even realising how much of a goldfish bowl you are living in. But of course in a small town where everyone knows, has dated or in some 7-degrees-of-separation thing is related to each other you are going to stick out like a sore thumb It might be ignoring the teeny tiny peanut spoon and going for it with your fingers, it might be wearing a short sleeved t-shirt in February, it might be interpreting karaoke as another word for drunken singing as you always have. Whatever it is, you will make a brutta figura but at least the Italians are so caught up on the bella figura that you will never know!
The problem with the bella/brutta figura is that it can sometimes mean that things can be slightly artificial, a smile a bit too sparkly and people trying that little bit too hard. After all, hasn’t everyone asked for more penis (pene) instead of more pasta (penne) in a restaurant?