A Lesson In Generosity

“…And since your guide could not participate in the wine tasting with you today, we would like to offer her a bottle to take home,” the 80-year-old winery owner proudly announces in Italian to an English-speaking group I had accompanied to his winery for a degustazione dei vini (wine tasting).

“Oh, it’s not necessary, thank you,” I smiled graciously at him. He was such a sweet little old man, but really, I shouldn’t accept. This was Brunello wine, D.O.G.C.,  not some cheap concoction that had been brewing in his bathtub!

“Signorina,” he starts disapprovingly, arching his eyebrow to communicate his seriousness. Although this man barely made it up to my shoulder and walked with a cane, I sensed I was in trouble. “When someone offers you something, you say, ‘yes, thank you’ or ‘no thank you’ and that is all. Now, I’d like to offer you a bottle since you didn’t get to taste any today…”  Although 80 years old, he has a stare that commands my obedience and makes me immediately comprehend what he was saying. Shut up, be grateful and don’t make things more complicated than they have to be!

“Sì, thank you. I’d love a bottle of your wine. Mille grazie!” I try to convey my gratefulness through a wide smile and much nodding, all the while feeling like a little kid after being reproached. He hadn’t been unkind. No, not at all. But he did set me straight, and I leave cradling a bottle of his wonderful wine in my arms and thinking about what had just taken place.

This little episode got me thinking about our idea of “manners” in Canada. We’re an ultra-polite society that believes in everyone pulling their own weight, and that looks down on taking freebies from others. I feel that often we would offer to do something for someone or give something to someone, however we don’t reallly want to do it, or we offer already knowing that the other person won’t accept. We offer because we feel we should, out of politeness, and we don’t accept other peoples’ offers of help, kindness or generosity because we feel we shouldn’t, out of politeness. How does that make sense?!?!

So I started asking myself why I’ve been so conditioned to say “no, thank you” or “I couldn’t possibly,” or “it isn’t necessary” and “I wouldn’t want to put you out,” when someone offers to give me something nice or to do me a favour. I think it partly comes from the idea of not wanting to inconvenience anyone, which is very true. However, I guess sometimes it doesn’t occur to me that people take pleasure in helping others, so when they offer, they actually mean that they’d like to do it. And really, what harm is there in accepting a bit of help or kindness from someone? Really?

Example #2 goes along the same lines, except this time, it’s a good friend, not a stranger with whom I’m having this conversation.

“Do you have a ride to work on Sunday? If not, I’ll take you,” my friend offered, knowing that public transit doesn’t run on Sundays for me to get to where I work. He had made this offer before, and of course, I had always responded in the following way.

“No, it’s alright. You don’t have to. I couldn’t possibly make you do all that driving. I’ll find some way to get there. Thanks though!” It was my automatic response. Taking me to work would have meant extra driving for him, and he would have had to get up early to come get me. No way could I allow him to do that. I’d take a taxi. Or walk. Or ride a donkey. It was only 10 kms on foot and about 17 euros by taxi. Surely I could procure a donkey from somewhere….

“Sarah!” He almost yelled, he too catching my eye to convey his seriousness. “I know I don’t have to do this. But I’m offering all the same because I have the ability help you, and so I want to. I wouldn’t have offered if I wasn’t prepared to wake up early, come get you and take you to work. Why can you never just accept that sometimes doing something nice for you could also make someone else feel good? And here you are, denying me the chance to take pleasure in helping you. And for what? I’ve seen you act this way with other people too! Explain to me! Is this a Canadian thing?! Why?!”

Again, I found myself apologizing and promising to let him know if I couldn’t hitch a ride with one of my colleagues. From then on, I vowed to stop automatically saying “no” to peoples’ kindness and to start accepting graciously. It really would be better for all involved, and I could avoid being told off every time I thought I was doing the right thing by politely declining someone’s offer of help.

These two specific instances, plus about a million more experiences in my everyday life here in Italy have brought me to the realization that Italians are some of the warmest, most generous and helpful people I’ve met. They take such pleasure in helping others, and they don’t mind asking for help from a friend or relative if they need it. Instead of being ultra-polite and politically correct, Italians just go with the flow and  keep in mind that although they’re helping you today, tomorrow it could be you helping them, so it all evens out in the end.

This is another thing that endears Italy to me. I love this atmosphere of giving freely and allowing yourself to be given to (not taking, there’s a difference) because in my mind, it really helps to solidify friendships and relationships. It reinforces the idea that you have people that you can count on. And as someone who has come to Italy alone, and who felt very alone, alone, alone when facing a few problems at the beginning of my stay here, the generosity, kindness and understanding of my Italian friends, acquaintances and even total strangers continues to astound me and warm my heart.