Lunch at Lola’s is a true taste of Tuscan theatre. Every day for the better part of a year my colleagues and I have squeezed in the door at half past twelve in efforts to beat our neighbors to the corner table. The menu is written on a paper place-mat and hung on the wall weekly, but if we all order different things Lola scolds us for bringing confusion to her brain.
Food in Italy always brings about some sort of debate. Now that it’s summer Giovanni has taken to ordering an ice-cream sandwich every day after lunch. Half is chocolate and the other half s vanilla. There is always suspense at the table before he tears open the wrapper. If he opens it on the chocolate side, it is destined to be a good day. Vanilla first brings bad luck. After three weeks of continued dessert-induced suspense, I finally asked him. ‘If you want to eat the other side first, why don’t you just flip the ice-cream around?’
‘Flip it around?’, my colleague asked, appalled by the suggestion. You can’t manipulate il destino like that!’
‘Giovanni, it’s not destiny. It’s an ice-cream sandwich.’
‘See!’ he said, slapping his hand on his knee. ‘This is where I see you are American. Flip the gelato! That would go against Italian fatalistic principles. You Americans are always convinced you have the power to make a situation come out the way you want. You think you have contro over the current of life’s events!’
‘No. What I think is that you are completely neurotic and should limit your caffeine intake.’ My friend laughed. Odd as the conversation was, it was destined to become odder before our coffee was through. ‘Well, at least tell me why “vanilla first brings bad luck?'” I wanted to know. ‘Because I like vanilla better and would prefer to eat it last.’ Everyone else at the table agreed. lt’s always best to finish with one’s favorite.
‘Actually, I always start with my best flavor’, I mused.
‘It must be an American thing. You come from the society of instant gratification. You want what you want and you want itfast’, Giovanni told me.
‘Yes, and what I want right now is to kick you in the shins. Stop taking every word I say and making it into a cultura study on the American mentality!’
‘Look who’s talking! You can dish it out but, you can’t take it, little Miss Italian Language and Culture.’
I frowned. ‘Are you being mean to me on purpose or are you doing it by accident?’, I asked Giovanni was genuinely surprised. ‘Mean to you? I’m not being mean to you! Ti prendo in giro. If I didn’t tease you a bit, you’d never know how deeply I love you.’
Intercultural relationships are never easy. But somehow, we seemed to be having a particularly difficult day. There are several elements of this exchange that I find worthy of discussion. But first thing’s first. For those who are wondering, Giovanni does not, in fact, ‘love me deeply’. At best, he thinks I’m smart. At worst, he thinks I’m a pain in the neck. The feeling, of course, is mutual. Another day, I would make sure to inform him that English­ speaking men would risk their inheritance if they declared ‘deep love’ to a lady-colleague on lunch break. Right then, though, I wanted to talk about teasing.
‘Listen, Deep Love’, I told my friend, ‘Don’t prendermi in giro too much. I’d much rather love you than fight you.’
‘Oh Linda, sometimes you are quite slow to understand’, Giovanni sighed. ‘In Italy, when we tease a person, it means we hold them in high regard. We consider them smart enough to capture the core of the joke. Intelligent people can always face themselves without offence.’
An entirely Italian concept, Ifound his.reasoning quite profound and it got my mind ticking. If translated literally, the expression ti prendo in giro can be translated as ‘I take you around’, which to me, sounds like an invitation to see the city. It is an invitation in a way but, the landscape you’ll be taken to see may surprise you. Tiprendo in giro implies a free tour of the true you. Let your enemies be false to your face and tell you your talents. In Italy, trust your friends to tattle your truths. Ti prendo in giro means they are going to take you sight-seeing, but your weaknesses will be the monuments you’ll be forced to visit. Admittedly, it’s a bit of a torturous trip at first, but it can prove quite worthwhile once you get the hang of it. Italians tease mercilessly. The more merciless the giro the deeper the bond.
‘Okay, Giova’, I sigh, ‘Let’s pretend I get your point. Teasing is a form of high regard. Va bene, fine, I believe you. What I can’t believe is that you order chocolate ice-cream every day when you don’t even like it. Why not choose the sandwich that has only vanilla?’
‘And miss out on the suspense? Suspense is much more pleasurable than ice-cream, Linda, and if you’d open your mind, you’d know that.’
‘Let’s make a deal, Giovanni. I’ll open my mind if you shut your mouth.’
My colleague smiled. He loves it when I’m mean to him. In Italy, it’s just more proof of ‘loving deeply’.

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