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  • Writer's pictureMark Tedesco

Our Italian Adventure: Service workers in Puglia

PART 57: It might be interesting to share how we pulled off living in Italy for part of the year. I will post some steps we took.

We live in Puglia in the Summer and then back again in the winter.

Step 1: From my observations during our time in Puglia, there are two ways that visitors treat local service workers: as an employee or as a person with a job. Let's explore both.

Step 2: Treating service workers only as employees

Almost every morning, we start our day (after the gym) at our favorite coffee place in front of the Ionian Sea. The site has incredible views, friendly staff, and great food. Apart from the manager, most of the staff are high school kids or young adults. They work long hours and deal with many types of people.

This morning we witnessed them being treated as mere employees.

A family is visiting the area; several times, they have come to the cafe when we are there. I will not say which country they are from, but the group consists of a matriarch who sometimes boasts about her Ph.D. loudly and her teenage kids who shout at each other across customers' heads.

Today the matriarch was complaining about Italy in a not-so-quiet voice, and she kept calling the waitress over to her table with different requests.

At one point, this young lady/waitress, a high school student we know by first name, was standing at our table; she was taking our order, and we were chatting for a minute. The matriarch reached over, poked the girl's arm, then shoved a 20 into her hand, saying, "The bill!"

Patrons pay at the register at this cafe, but the visitor didn't ask; she demanded to get the bill paid so she could leave. Her actions seemed to reveal a belief that the waitress was a mere employee and her job was to follow orders.

I like to think of myself as kinder than the matriarch, but I, too, can treat others forgetfully as I rush through my errands while oblivious to the people I am dealing with.

It helps me to remember that service workers are not just employees; they are persons with interesting lives who happen to be working at this job.

Step 3: Service workers as persons

Having worked in customer service, I have experience of how challenging it can be to deal directly with the public. When I remember what it was like, I can pause and realize that the checkout person at the grocery store is not a cog in the machine but has hopes and dreams and is a person I get to encounter today.

Living in Puglia has sharpened this awareness because people here are so amiable!


We went to the grocery store down the street from us soon after we moved here; one of the girls who works at the checkout asked where we were from. "California" is like a magical word, like a fantasy or dream. "I want to go to California!" she said. "Come visit us!" we said. Since that day, we always take a minute to chat and share what we did over the weekend or which is our favorite beach.

When we go to our butcher, I always ask how he is doing before asking for anything. His answers vary, but the rapport is more than "How is the chicken today." A few days ago, he shared photos of his friend's house in town, which he had just renovated and is amazing.

Our favorite gelato maker often shares his new recipes with us, asking us to taste a unique flavor or granita he came up with. We often find ourselves talking with him about his passion for food and his uncanny natural ability to create gelatos, pastries, and even liquors from an idea.

Step 5: Method

I don't want to treat others as only an employee, even in a rush. So I had to develop a method to slow down and be in the moment.

When dealing with someone in customer service, I try to find the opportunity to ask how their day is going. Something as simple as "Come va?/How is it going?" or "Come sta?/How are you?" or, if I already have a rapport, "How was your weekend?"

Asking someone in customer service how their day is going can signal, "Hey, I know you are a complete person, having a tough or great day, and that a job doesn't define you. I appreciate you."

It only takes a second to ask, "Come va?" Sometimes the checkout or store worker doesn't respond or responds with a short phrase. Other times they smile and appreciate the question. But their response is not the point. I ask because I want to treat service workers with respect and as real people.

Insights: Living in Puglia is increasing my conviction that, in the end, what matters most are relationships. These relationships can begin with the butcher, the baker, and the waiter at my favorite cafe. Locals in Puglia are very interested in our lives as we show interest in theirs.

More next time.

My book is "Stories from Puglia: Two Californians in Southern Italy." Amazon US:

And also, on Amazon Italy:

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