When traveling in another country, it’s often the everyday differences that stay with us. That’s why I love going into grocery stores, hardware stores, etc. Everything is a little (or a lot) different, from the signs on the walls, to the packaging, to the checkout lines. It can be humbling, too, when you have to ask for help while doing a basic task. That’s one of the reasons I feel compassion toward foreign travelers in the US.
In Italy a few months ago, I had a couple instances of “now what do I do?”
At the post office in Padova I couldn’t for the life of me remember the Italian word for stamp. (That would be francobollo.) My phrase book was useless and I didn’t have my postcards to wave about in universal sign language. I couldn’t just walk up to the counter because there were 15 of them, each with a flashing number. There had to be some system here, but what was it? I couldn’t find anyone who spoke English. Finally, I went to the one clerk who wasn’t waiting on someone and kept saying, “stamps?, stamps?” and she knew what I meant. She took me back to the entrance and pointed to a bright yellow machine I’d totally overlooked, a complex multi-category “take-a-number” dispenser. She pushed the correct button, handed me my number, and led me to the correct line. I never would have figured out that one on my own.
Then, at the grocery store, also in friendly Padova, I was happy to find drinkable yogurt, olive crackers (yum!), and bananas. When I went to check out, the cashier held up my one lone banana, shaking her head, and said something to me. But what? “Scusi, non parlo Italiano,” I answered. Instead of chastising me and putting the banana aside, she said, “I show you. Come.” She led me back to the fruit section, placed the banana on the electronic scale and pushed the little banana picture to get a price label. “Grazie, grazie,“ I said with a wide smile. I was so grateful for her kindness, though I’m not sure the people behind me in line felt the same way.