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The Great Italian Pizza Fiasco of 1994

Here’s what I remember:

We only have a small amount of Lire left and we need to eat dinner.

I’m with two friends in Brindisi, an Italian port town, where our ferry to Greece originates. We’re about to leave on a 20+ hour voyage to Athens so we find a grocery store and stock up on the basics: Bread. Cheese. Orange Fanta. Chocolate.

Then, we set out to find an inexpensive yet filling dinner.


photo by Rubber_Slippers_In_Italy

A small, very brightly lit pizza restaurant looks most promising. Before sitting at the table the waiter offers us, we ask how much a pizza costs. Perfect. Just under the amount of Lire we have left.

We eat our pizza. The check comes. Each of us looks at the total, then each other.

It’s way more Lire than we have.

But the waiter told us exactly how much the pizza costs! He pointed to the price in the menu! Why is he now charging us so much more? He must have miscalculated!

We motion the waiter over to our table. We point to the unexpectedly high amount on the bill and wait for him to recognize his mistake.

But the waiter simply points to several numbers on the bill and then to the empty bread basket, the salt and pepper, the ketchup, and the table.

He walks away.

But we didn’t order the bread! You put it on our table! Why should we pay for something we didn’t order! And we didn’t use the ketchup or salt or pepper, so how can you charge us for something we didn’t use?

Why didn’t you tell us that sitting at a table cost extra? All we wanted was a cheap pizza!

We’re upset. Indignant. But since we don’t want to miss the ferry to Greece, one of my friends hands the waiter her visa card.

We fume all the way to Athens, through our days Corinth and Tolo, on the ferry back to Brindisi, and on the long train ride through the Swiss Alps and into Germany, where we’re studying for a year.

We’re convinced the waiter scammed us.

Overcharged us because of our U.S. citizenship. Because we’re young women. Because we can’t speak Italian.

We leave Italy with a very bad impression of the entire country. All based on one experience in one restaurant in one city. We decide we’ll never go back to Italy.

But then, the more I think about the incident during the next few weeks, the more uneasy I become.

Is it possible that the waiter hadn’t scammed us?

duhphoto by striatic

Soon after leaving Italy, I have the opportunity to go back for a week.

As I travel to Venice, Rimini, and Rome, I make a point to observe what goes on in restaurants. I use the O-DIVE Model to better understand how I’m interpreting things. I ask questions and for others’ observations.

I notice a service charge on every restaurant bill. Sometimes we pay extra to sit at a table, sometimes not. Bread and other condiments often carry a small extra charge.

I realize that the waiter hadn’t scammed us at all.

I think back to the pizza restaurant experience and realize we’d asked the waiter how much a pizza cost. And he told us how much a pizza cost.

We assumed sitting at a table, rather than at the bar, was free.

We assumed the bread that the waiter placed on our table was free.

We assumed that the salt, pepper, ketchup, and other items were free.

Then it hits me. If it hadn’t occurred to me to ask if there was an extra charge to sit at a table, it probably never occurred to the waiter to tell us that the pizza wouldn’t be the only item on our restaurant bill.

The Great Italian Pizza Fiasco of 1994 was a cross-cultural turning point for me.

By the time I went to Italy, I’d lived in Germany for 1.5 years. I’d become way overconfident in my ability to navigate new cultures. In reality, there were a multitude of invisible cultural moonwalking bears, and I needed to improve my ability to see them.

This incident was – is – embarrassing. It’s hard for me to look back at, not to mention share with the world, because I felt like a cross-cultural failure. But really, we only fail in such situations if we don’t learn something from them. And from this experience, I learned to be a cultural sponge, not a cultural hammer.

What’s something you’ve learned from a less than successful cross-cultural experience?