After six years in London I couldn’t wait to move to Italy.  To eat food that wasn’t some shrink-wrapped offering withering under supermarket strip-lighting. To linger in bars drinking great espresso at sixty cents a cup. Fashion, culture, the Pope and the mafia.  So long British rain, hello Roman sun. I’d read the books, seen the movies and was ready to buy the t-shirt. But even after three years here now the things that they leave out still tend to catch me out.

Like when struggling home the other night with bags of heavy shopping I admit did see the neatly typed A4 notice in the entrance lobby informing residents of the upcoming annual flat blessing.  I just didn’t read it.  I wanted to get my fresh zucchini blossoms back before they were pulped to inedible mush at the bottom of the supermarket carrier bag.  Anyway the notices you often see pinned to walls or bits of plastic tape cordoning off streets usually just indicate some public work or other of little interest along with a reference to whatever article of Italian law should be respected (and most probably will be ignored) when its carried out.    

So I was somewhat surprised when later that evening my door buzzer sounded. A quick glance through the spy-hole revealed a priest, cassock, collar and all the other priestly accoutrements with which, due to my good protestant roots, I am completely ignorant.  I had already settled in for a quiet night and was lounging around in a pair of decent and unfetching Marks and Spencer’s pyjamas.  As usual my hall was cluttered with computer detritus and various other things that had no place there, an untidiness that in Rome suggests your morals lead towards the inferno.  Cleanliness certainly seems to come before godliness in the Roman litany and I wasn’t sure a ‘feng shui’ excuse would cut it with a priest.  So I dithered a bit before deciding it was politer to invite him in and not mention that I am not of the Roman Catholic (or indeed any) kind of persuasion, than pretend to be out. Welcoming a free blessing with good grace seems the least you can do if someone is sacrificing his evening to offer you one.

We greeted each other, me apologising embarrassedly and profusely for my attire and general state of the flat, he politeness and understanding itself about both, and then he started to pray.  Eyes shut he stood for a few seconds, swaying slightly and uttering what I assumed to be Latin. As to me this was mostly unintelligible, I hoped my understanding wasn’t necessary for its efficacy.  Then, after quickly sprinkling holy water from a smart bronze container in each of the four corners of my hall, he made his farewells and left.    Without even an attempt to convert me, perhaps he knew a lost cause when he saw one.

My friend however was spared any such dilemma.  She arrived back at her block to find a polite cardboard slip, much like you get when you’re out and a parcel arrives, pushed through her letterbox.  On it was a number for a Father Pellegrino and a message offering to arrange a more convenient time if she cared to ring.  I fear though despite the dial-a-priest service both she and her flat are still in no state of grace. 

There are times when living here drive me crazy.  Sometimes the effort needed to overcome the inertia and petty bureaucracy involved in getting what seem the simplest things done pushes me to my limits. But other times I’m struck by the way in which most Italians, like my unexpected priest, are so welcoming and friendly.  People here are mostly understanding and really try to put you at your ease when something unfamiliar has tripped you over.  At times when even the great culture, food, shopping and style aren’t enough, I think this sheer kindness makes the rest well worth the effort.  


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