Mystery in Bologna
Last autumn in Bologna, I registered for a “mystery dinner” in a room high up in the Basilica di San Petronio on Piazza Maggiore.
I had pictured an Agatha Christie-type game where everybody would play a role and we would have to find the culprit. I had prepared by looking up the Italian word for butler.
The event turned out to be less exciting than expected. Instead of everybody getting a role to improvise on, a handful of people were picked to read a part from a manuscript. This happened in between the dinner courses; a professional actor was the narrator.
Though it was not what I had bargained for, I still had an intriguing evening. Since I was on my own, I was placed at a table for four together with a couple in their late fifties and a lady friend of theirs. We will call them the Wife, the Husband and the Friend. I am La Signora.
“Is La Signora married?” was the first question I was asked after I had introduced myself. I have experienced this several times in Italy. I am not saying that Norwegians may not be just as curious, but they would never ever ask.
Given the fact that I was attending the event on my own, a dead and buried husband would probably have been the most acceptable answer. A divorced one might have been passable, at least if he had been a womanising bastardo who used to beat me up. As it turned out, that would have put me in the same league as the Friend. “Never been married” would have caused suspicion or might have earned me some pity. But a live and kicking husband who was absent was frowned upon. I got off to a bad start.
The Husband asked whether I spoke German. He worked for a company that produced gear for German football teams. I was about to say I did when I sensed something from the corner of my eye. The Wife. If I said yes, the Husband and I would be able to engage in a conversation excluding the ladies. Our teacher in Puglia had given us a lecture on the “malocchio” – the evil eye. I was pretty sure that’s what I was getting now, and it didn’t feel cosy. I said that I was in Bologna to study Italian, so I’d prefer to stick to that. The Husband was visibly disappointed.
I was asked more very personal questions. I didn’t want to be rude and say it was none of their business but, well, it was none of their business. The best way to distract an Italian is by steering the conversation towards the subject of food. You will end up there anyway, so you might as well take the initiative.
“How to make a torta di riso?” I asked. The Friend assured me that hers was the only genuine recipe, a century-old family secret that she would now share with me. What she was describing sounded very much like the recipe the chef in my favourite restaurant had confided me, but I would rather have bitten off my tongue than tell her that.
“At what temperature should it be cooked in the oven?” I asked. “Ha, that is a crucial question indeed, and that is where many know-it-alls would fail. They would say 170, but it was to be 180. Definitely 180 degrees Celsius.”
“180 degrees is a good temperature,” the Husband said, “although 182 is even better.” That earned him a “what would you know about that?” from the Wife and the Friend. “We stamp numbers on football shirts at that temperature,” the Husband said. The Wife and the Friend made it very clear what they thought of football shirts near their torta di riso. The Husband fell silent again.
We continued our rather bizarre conversation. After a couple of hours, the murderer in the play was revealed, we gave the readers a round of applause, and we were waiting for dessert. Suddenly, the Wife and the Friend got up and announced that they would be going to the Ladies’ room, and “would La Signora care to join them?”
I didn’t. So I said “no”. That did not go down well. “No, grazie,” I said, in an attempt to soften my reply. It did not seem to help. The ladies hesitated, exchanged glances, looked at me again, seemed to wait for me to change my mind, realised that they had passed the point of no return and finally went on their way.
I didn’t get it. Where I grew up, and where I live now, people go to the bathroom when they need to go to the bathroom. We do not gang up with a bunch of other women to powder our noses and gossip, the way I often see in films. The ladies’ room was two flights of steep stairs down, I was wearing heels – and I mean Heels! – that would still have to carry me home. I wanted to stay put.
It only dawned on me later what the problem was. At least I think so: I would be left alone at the table with the Husband!
On their return, the ladies didn’t say much, and the silence felt awkward. But there was still one urgent key question left.
“What do you eat in Norway?” the Wife asked, convinced that at least this was a battle I was bound to lose. “Lutefisk,” I said. I had blown it anyway, so I might as well bring out the heavy artillery for a grand finale. I love the evolution in foreigners’ reactions as you explain this exotic delicacy. Facial expressions change from mild interest to vague surprise, then to badly hidden disgust. It usually ends in sheer disbelief.
Now that I think I have broken the code, what will I do next time in a similar situation? In other words, how far should we go in complying with cultural differences? To the Wife and the Friend, this was not a minor issue. It had been rude, probably borderline provocative of me not to accept their invitation. I really did not want to go with them, but on the other hand, I do not want to go upsetting Italian ladies.
I honestly do not know what I will do next time. Just to be on the safe side, I won’t wear Heels. Then I can decide on the spot, depending on the degree of danger I sense in the malocchio.
By the way, the Italian word for butler is “maggiordomo” and, believe it or not, he was the murderer.