The holiday travels are over for now but I can share with you some of the stories our tour director, Sergio, told us while we were travelling from one place to another on the bus. He’s in his mid-forties, rather overweight and with one of those mobile faces that can get a whole paragraph across without saying a word. And yes, of course he used his hands. He’s Italian.
Sergio comes from the heel part of Italy, I gathered from a working-class family, but these days, he lives in Milan. He has a degree in architecture and was employed for a time in a design office. But he explained that in Italy, most of the work revolves around designing the interiors of heritage-listed buildings. Just about all of the buildings are heritage listed. Sergio was more interested in the bigger picture. He told us privately he’d love to visit Canberra. After we stopped guffawing he said it was because it was a city designed before the people moved in. And I could see his point. Canberra is beautifully laid out, with its wide boulevards and public areas. And, of course, a parliament house built into a hill.
Anyway, that’s something of an aside. Sergio is one of the best stand-up comedians I’ve ever seen, with terrific delivery, all accompanied by amazing body language. Please read these little stories with an Italian accent and wave your hands around to get into the spirit.
Sergio felt he wasn’t getting anywhere, so he packed it all in and went off to London, I think to join his sister, who had gone there to work and met a man, married, and stayed. Sergio didn’t speak much English but he was willing to try just about anything, so he took a job with Costa Coffee, a chain of coffee shops often found in train stations and the like. Carlo, another Italian working there, taught Sergio all he needed to know when talking to customers – the types of coffee, size of cups, food on offer, and where to find the toilet.
Sergio’s doing all right, getting out the orders, when a man comes in. “I’ll have a large cappuccino, one of those blueberry muffins, and”, leans forward, “where’s the loo.”
WherestheLoo? Sergio panics. WherestheLoo? What the hell’s a wherestheLoo? He looks around, looking for Carlo, but he’s nowhere to be seen?
“Sorry, Senor, we don’t have any wherestheLoo”
Customer rolls his eyes. “No. Where. Is. The. Loo?”
Sergio’s still none the wiser. Loo? What the hell’s a loo?
Carlo hoves into view. “Carlo”. He beckons, breaks into Italian. “He wants to know where the LOO is? What do I say?”
Carlo pats him on the shoulder, apologises to the customer. “Sorry. He’s new. Over there, just around the corner.” To Sergio he says, “That’s what they call the toilet here. Or they might say bathroom, gents, ladies, mens, womens, lav, washroom, WC…”
Sergio’s back on the bus with us and he laughs. “The best one I ever heard was an American lady who asked for ‘the powder room’.
London seems to have been quite the learning curve. When people came to the counter, they would often say, “How are you?”
Sergio thought about it. They’re asking how he is. That’s nice. He lines up his English sentence. “I had a sore throat this morning but I’m feeling better now, thank you.”
The customer blinks, then says, “I’ll have an espresso and a piece of raisin toast.”
Eventually, Sergio consulted with his friend, Carlo. “They don’t expect you to say anything but maybe ‘fine, thanks’. It’s not like in Italy,” he explained. “It’s just another way of saying hello.”
“Now in Italy,” Sergio said back in the bus, “You can go to a shop and if you’re third in the queue and the customer says, “How are you?” it starts a whole conversation.”
The lady serving says, “Well, I’ve got a nasty sore on my arm that won’t go away.” Shows her arm.
Customer says, “Oh that’s bad. Have you been to the doctor?”
Server says, “Yes, I went to see Dr G. He gave me some ointment, but it doesn’t seem to be helping.”
Another customer chimes in. “Dr G? Eh. He’s no good. You should see Dr T. She’s excellent. My grandma went to see her for her sore back. It’s all better now.”
And so it goes. In Italy don’t ask someone how they are – unless you’ve got plenty of time. Differences in culture, you see.
On another occasion he told us about his brush with HM tax collectors (Revenue and Customs). He’d been paying tax in the UK, of course. Or at least, Costa Coffee did, on his behalf. One day, Sergio received a letter. An official letter. Window face with a Government logo.
His heart beating a little faster, he opened it. The long and the short was there was a discrepancy in his tax, he was entitled to a refund, and he should go to the head office to have the matter attended to. Sergio was petrified. If you got a formal letter from the government back home in Italy, you were in deep doo-doo. But he hadn’t done anything wrong!
He phones his father back home in Italy. “Papa, I have to go talk to the tax people in London. But I haven’t done anything wrong!!!”
His father sighs. “Sergio, Sergio. You should have stayed in your nice job in the architect’s office. But no, you had to head off to foreign parts. Now you’ve fallen foul of the government. Oh Sergio! I’ll have to visit you in jail.”
Papa was a great help.
Eventually, Sergio plucks up some courage and presents himself at the office in London, where he eventually speaks to a po-faced clerk who asks how he can help.
Sergio hands over his letter. “I got this in the mail. But I haven’t done anything wrong.”
Unsmiling, the clerk reads the letter and looks up at Sergio. “It seems you’re entitled to a refund for overpaid tax.”
Overpaid? Refund? Refund?? Really? They were going to give him money? Back on the bus, Sergio turns to Roberto, the driver. “Do they pay you refunds in Italy, Roberto?”
But Sergio got his refund, paid in cash.
He also gave us some demonstrations of Italian hand language. That’s too hard to describe, so I won’t try. Suffice to say he told us about a time when he was in one of those tedious, over-long meetings. His only Italian colleague was seated some distance away, but Sergio was able to communicate “this is boring, let’s leave for coffee” without saying a word.
Another time, back in London, he saw a man on the other side of the road attempting to take money out of an ATM with an obvious lack of success. Sergio crossed the road and said to him, in Italian, “You look like you’re having trouble. Can I help?”
The man’s eyebrows shot up. “How did you know I’m Italian?”
“You were trying to have a conversation with the ATM using your hands.”
Sergio was a great stand-up comedian. I think if he entered the Edinburgh Comedy Festival, or better still, the Melbourne Comedy Festival, he would be a certain hit. We did suggest it. But I think he has a good life taking tourists around Italy and France. He would have been totally wasted working in an architect’s office. It was a pleasure to meet him.