Every culture has specific rules of hospitality. Learning when and how to say NO is one specific challenge. For, if you don’t understand the rules, you can get into trouble. My brother Scott found this out the hard way when he visited me while I was studying in Italy.
Italians Enjoy Multiple Course Pranzo
Italians love to eat. The midday meal, pranzo, is an institution that involves a variety of courses eaten in a certain order. It’s a very relational meal, so visitors often stay for hours to enjoy pranzo.
At my relatives home in Cansano, the traditional courses were as follows: first came the bowl of pasta as an appetizer, then a main course like meat or fish often served with some vegetables, then a salad, then some fruit, then coffee or tea and a sweet.
A Visit from My Brother
Shortly after my brother Scott came to visit me in Florence, I took him up to the village to meet our relatives. He had not yet had a traditional pranzo, so I decided to play a little trick on him.
In America, it is polite to eat what is put in front of us, and, if we are urged to take more, we take more (especially if we like it). And it’s okay to say NO if we want to stop eating.
But Italy is quite different. It is considered polite to offer seconds three times. If you really don’t want any more, you decline three times. This is how you effectively say NO! But, if you really do want more, you decline two times, then acquiesce the third time.
My Brother’s First Pranzo
I knew that my aunt is a great cook and that she would try to feed us as much as possible. Her constant refrain, “Mangia, mangia!” (Eat! Eat!)
So, I decided to “forget” to tell Scott about the Italian customs for his first meal. Scott had no idea how to say NO if he wanted to stop eating.
The meal began with a dish of my aunt’s awesome penne alla carbonara, an al dente pasta with parmesan pepper egg sauce with bits of prosciutto mixed in. Scott loved it!
Of course, Zia Nicolina urged him to have another bowl when the first was completed. Scott, not knowing there were many courses to come, enthusiastically accepted.
She brought him a second bowl, then, when he had finished it, urged him to have more. He said NO, but upon the second urging, thinking he was being impolite, said “Yes.”
This led to the third and fourth bowls. Scott had no idea he could say NO to these offerings. By this time Scott was getting really full and managed to decline three times and was thus relieved of further urgings.
Leaning back completely contented, Zia brought in the meat course, a wonderfully seasoned veal with Italian capers.
“I can’t eat another bite,” Scott whispered as I began to chuckle.
“How many more courses are there?” he asked as he began to understand that something was up.
I was enjoying the veal, and Scott was managing to get a few bites down when the vegetables came out, and Scott began to understand my trick.
“You are so evil!” he said as he kicked me under the table.
After that, I explained the basic pranzo courses, so that Scott could enjoy it a little more the next day.
Later that night, I passed by the kitchen while Zia Nicolina was speaking to her son in Italian.
“I can’t believe how much pasta Scott ate!”
Do you have a funny story of cultural misunderstanding? Share it!
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