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  • The Culture of Scratching Your Back
    Learn about how southern Italians help each other out with discounts and trade-offs
    Our Paesani

    by Francesca Di Meglio

    My husband "has a guy" for everything you could possibly need whenever we're in Italy. Need a gelato? "I have a guy whose friend owns a gelateria," he tells me. Need a plumber? "I have a guy who could fix your toilet with his hands tied behind his back." Need a key in Ischia, our home base in Italy? "One of my best friends from childhood owns a key shop." And the list goes on. Hubby isn't the only one on the island, who "has a guy." Pretty much everyone does.

    Of course, they do. It's an island, so everyone knows everyone else. You're bound to know a construction worker/plumber/key shop owner with a gelato stand. If you're this guy's friend, you will never have to worry about being overcharged for your construction, plumbing, key, or gelato needs. In fact, you'll most likely get one discount after another for any of the things you need that fall into these categories. Sometimes, he'll even give you stuff for free.

    Your family members and other friends will come to you to go to "this guy" whenever they need something that falls into the construction, plumbing, key, or gelato categories. It will become your responsibility to negotiate the deals because, after all, you "have the guy" who does whatever it is they need.

    Remember those discounts and other freebies I mentioned? Well, they're not really free. Sure, you won't be paying much for them up front. But in the culture of scratching your back, sooner or later, you'll have to return the favor. The saying is, "If you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours."

    One day, the construction worker/plumber/key shop owner with the gelato stand will ask you to get a discount for his out-of-town guests who want to stay at the hotel where you work. And you'll have to at least try to oblige (depending on what the owner says). Then, the construction worker/plumber/key shop owner with the gelato stand and his wife and four kids will be visiting Australia, which is where you spend the winter with your Australian wife. And you'll have to let them stay in your place…for free…for two months…and you'll have to show them around the city. Don't you worry. You'll pay eventually for everything you have ever bought – and then some.

    Another downside to the culture of scratching your back is that you are forced into buying one product over another just because that's what your friend offers. For instance, if the construction worker/plumber/key shop owner with a gelato stand has pistachio gelato and you want fior di latte, which he doesn't sell, you have to get the pistachio and keep your mouth shut.

    Yes, you might be tempted to pick up that fior di latte from Giuseppe's stand down the street, but if your construction worker/plumber/key shop owner finds out you went to someone else's gelato stand, you could be banished. You certainly will never get your discount again. Chances are you'll end up having to let him, his wife, and kids stay at your place in Australia for four months now.

    Of course, none of this is good for business. If you're always giving your friends discounts, you aren't making much of a profit. You're also undoubtedly overcharging your other customers. Obviously, they are not getting a discount, so even if you're charging them what should be the normal price, you're overcharging them. But you might even have to overcharge them (have them pay more than the normal price even) to make up the difference from the discounts. I wouldn't be surprised if you were doing this to the tourists, even the American wife of a native who has more relatives on the island than her hubby but who is still American and therefore must be too stupid to realize what you're up to.

    The lessons? Never shop without a native, who "knows a guy." And if you do take a go at getting that fior di latte gelato from the other guy, be sure to wear a good disguise, replete with wig, hat, and oversized sunglasses – all at your own risk.

    Di Meglio is the author of Fun with the Family New Jersey (Globe Pequot Press Travel, 2012) and you can follow her life and work on the Two Worlds Web site.

    Article Published 7/7/13


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