The Importance of Having a Name

Seems everyone knows me by name. Maybe because I’ve been around so long. I used to have a shop and if someone whose child was having problems with English, or the Carabinieri or the hospital when whoever they were dealing with didn’t speak Italian, would turn to Erika. At this point, the Carabinieri and the hospital have someone who speaks English. The shop still exists in the memory of, by now, older ladies who remember buying Christmas presents there for their mothers when they were children.  Now, fifty years later, people have gotten used to seeing me and my dog on our daily walks. Most of them also know my dog’s name, Teah. Even tourists, strangers passing through, often stop and ask about her and what her name is. Dogs certainly are more magnets than just plain old human beings. Although babies come in a close second. Nobody’s going to stop and ask me what my name is.

Photo Credit: ©Catherine Karnow

I’m not good at remembering names. But I’ve decided that addressing a person by name makes them more than just an anonymous individual to whom you say good morning sort of automatically. It’s a courtesy; it’s recognizing they have an identity. Addressed by name, not just hi or hello or good morning. Calling someone, you need a name. Not just hey there, or waiter, or nurse, or doctor.

There’s a rather solitary man who often sits on a bench in the piazza. He and his brother, who was custodian of the church of Sant Andrea, were inseparable. Then about a year ago, the brother died, leaving his shadow alone. I have often said good morning as I passed, but then I decided I should also know what his name was, so I asked him. And now when I say good morning, I add his name.

There’s another lost soul who is always sitting on the steps of San Giuseppe, maybe smoking a cigarette. I greet him by name too.

And there are those who show up sporadically – Erin, Catalan, almost emaciated, long grey hair and beard, all his belongings in a bundle next to him as he crouches on the cobblestones next to the wall of one of the buildings leading to the market, crocheting small bags. He seems not to believe in handouts for if you give him something, he will insist on giving you a bag. He’s has had an interesting life, wandered all over Europe, even has a tent in his bundle which he puts up at night somewhere on the outskirts of the town.

And this morning passing down the street by the restaurant where the waiter always greets me, I asked him what his name was. He always addressed me by my name and now I can reciprocate.

I can’t help but think of Oscar Wilde and The Importance of Being Ernest.  When I was reader in a language high school, with the 5th year class we read parts and I had to explain English customs as well, including cucumber sandwiches.

Perhaps, most of us pay little attention to names. It’s easier to recognize faces although there are some, like Oliver Sachs, who had absolutely no memory for faces, and I suppose that was why one of his patients mistook his wife for a hat rack. I recognize a lot more people and where they fit into the mosaic of Orvieto life than I do their names. That man I encountered this morning had a butcher shop, and that woman works in the pharmacy, or at the bank. And the man with a rather wild grey moustache, whom I frequently see eating at the trattoria by the city hall was a local cop, not to mention the other one whose name I forget, who was on duty in Piazza Duomo when I had my shop and said that if he had known the car was mine (not really parked illegally but someone who was, had complained) he wouldn’t have given me a ticket.

So even if you use someone’s first name, you add Signor, Signora, Dottore, Avvocato as a sign of respect. Shortly after I was married, I was working in Rome with Americans. Of course in the office, we called each other by our first names. One day my Italian husband was grouching around and I couldn’t imagine what was wrong until it turned out he thought the fact that a colleague had written me a note, addressing me simply as Erika was a sign of disrespect. Or worse, that he was being too intimate.

Yes, using someone’s name is a sign you recognize him or her as an individual not just another anonymous person you say hello to in passing. I shall try to remember and add as many names as I can to my list.

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