Though we flew into Rome, our first real taste of Italy was Naples, which we entered by train the following day. Naples -- or at least the part of town we were in -- is a rather brash city, every surface teeming with graffiti, its streets rife with teens on mopeds, often two or three to a bike, riding in parallel with other bikes, noisily flirting or arguing.
The traffic patterns were bizarre: "What is a traffic light in Italy?" asked one of our guides later in the trip. "A suggestion!" was the answer. Every driver and pedestrian seemed to believe that he or she owned the roadway -- even little old ladies would cross a four-lane road, during rush hour, in the middle of the block, without a crosswalk, shaking a fist at any driver who dared to cut around or in front of them.
The waiters were rude, the service was slow, and at least one meal I was served in that city was unabashedly horrendous. And everywhere you looked there were young people locked in torrid embrace, oblivious, like this young couple, to the stares of passers-by.
What intrigued me about all of this was that I never saw any sign of an apology anywhere. There was an arrogant confidence in every interaction, and yet no sign of grudges carried or overweening fury; quite the opposite of the passive-aggressive politically correct behaviors that so characterize the Pacific Northwest.
I couldn't help but contrast this style with my daughter's admonitions over the summer to "stop saying you're sorry, Mom!" Since I hadn't yet managed to extinguish that behavior, I decided to watch the Italians and learn. And over the course of the trip I realized that there was a good middle ground between my apologies and the Napolitan arrogance: I learned to substitute "Thank you" for "I'm sorry."
Instead of saying "I'm sorry I'm late" I learned to say "Thank you for waiting!" Instead of saying "I'm sorry, I just can't carry this any more," I learned to say "Thanks so much for carrying this for me." And instead of apologizing for all the ways I inconvenienced my husband, I thanked him for his patience with the recovery period from my recent operation, and his willingness to support me on the trip.
Speaking of this yesterday on the phone with a friend, I was concentrating more on the consciousness it took to stop myself when the sorry word began to step out of my mouth. But she pointed out that in making the shift I was claiming a rightful place in the world. Sorry, she said, is shorthand for "poor little me, I don't deserve this." But thank you implies a gracious acceptance, an equality between parties, with value on both sides of the equation. Thank you is something that can be said by a good queen to her loyal subjects, conferring and engendering respect on both sides.
Which does not mean "I'm sorry" has no place in the world -- in fact, studies have shown that many lawsuits could be avoided if the offending party would just say those two little words. And the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa was all about the importance of those words, of admitting the damage done, taking the responsibility, and apologizing. So I don't recommend completely eradicating the words from your vocabulary.
I guess this comes down to another call to be conscious, to be present in the moment, to watch what you're doing and saying, to be aware. Because we DO deserve -- each of us -- a place in the world. And constant apologies can contribute to and even exacerbate a lopsided relationship, low self-esteem and guilt while the unapologetic party is allowed to feel put-upon, or superior, or simply impatient.
So I would like to thank the Italian people -- especially the Napolitans -- for inspiring me to set aside my unnecessary apologies and step out with confidence. And to all those young lovers I say "thanks for the inspiration -- my husband loves it -- but, PLEASE! GET A ROOM!"