Italy – land of the cut corner?

Some years ago, Norway’s then defense minister JÝrgen Kosmo made a rather glaring sartorial mistake when he appeared at a meeting of European defense ministers wearing a white dress coat. The resulting group picture made him stand out – and one of his political friends joked that he looked like “an Italian pick-pocket.”
At the time, I thought that a rather unfair statement on Italians. But I am now back after my first holiday in Italy, and unfortunately my chief impression is that more people in that country than in any other I have been are out to cheat their visitors.

Here are a few examples:

  • the rental car company (in this case, Hertz), which will wait until you are standing in line to get your car before informing you that the CDW and “theft protection” you have already paid for are essentially worthless and that to be fully protected you have to add another 40% to the price of the rental car. No, I didn’t fall for that one, since I can do basic probability calculations.
  • the waiter in a small restaurant outside the Vatican who will add 45% to the bill – taxes, service and “suggested tip” – despite taxes and service being included in the stated price and most Italians leaving small tips (not the whopping percentages most Americans are used to and most Norwegians seem to think they have to leave). We fell for that one, the first time.
  • the policeman in Sorrento whom we saw openly accepting money from a driver to let him drive into the pedestrian zone
  • the gas station attendant on the motorway who tried to cheat us on our change, big time (got him)
  • the parking lot attendants near Pompei, who wear uniform-like apparel and forcefully tries to wave you into their faraway parking lots as if they were policemen when there is cheaper parking available closer to the entrance (no, didn’t fall for that one either)

I have, of course, seen little schemes like these in other countries, but never as endemic as in Italy. As with driving in Rome, you have to at all times be on guard and aggressive, or people will try to take advantage of you. I have never felt that way in France, Spain or Portugal, where I have been on holidays and business trips. It seems to be openly accepted in the culture that you can try to cheat, and that if people fall for it they have themselves to blame.
That is a shame, for the country itself, its food, culture and nature, is breathtaking. The cliffs and grottoes of Capri, the St. Peter’s basilica, the Vatican museum (not even hundreds of chattering tourists can demean the Sistine Chapel) and the ruins of Pompei are truly unique. Most people are friendly and helpful, especially if you get out of the beaten path and try to remember a few words of Italian. And they love children.
But Silvio Berlusconi – who openly brags about bluffing and seems to skirt the law when he can – appears to be more of the rule than the exception. And that, like driving in Rome, is amusing at first but rather tiresome in the long run.