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A Little Appreciation Makes Big Italian Friends

Feb 1, 2008
I'm going to tell you a secret about how you can make people's faces light up as soon as they see you or think about you.

Every Christmas I type about 50 personalized letters and snail mail them, to thank all the wonderful restaurant owners and chefs, hotels, guides, food producers and farm families in Italy who are part of our cooking tour itineraries there.

I thank them for contributing to the success of our tours. If someone really goes beyond the call of duty, I recall warmly what happened and give that individual special thanks.

In fall 2001 we had a group of 14 Californians, very nice people, but very demanding, wanting many changes in the itinerary, special requests and extra stops.

At our favourite restaurant on the Cinque Terre in Vernazza, Gianni's, some group members wanted to split plates, others wanted no onions and so on. Our 30ish, cute waiter, spoke great English, joked away with them and satisfied every demand. So helpful!

In my Christmas 2001 letter to Gianni's, I said with our Californian group who had many requests, the young man who spoke English well was wonderful, so flexible, so willing. Unfortunately I said, there was no nice woman his age in our groups for him.

In October 2002, I took some couples to Gianni's. I saw the young waiter, but he wouldn't know me from the thousands of people who go there every year. I said a few words to him, "Sorry no nice young women in our group this year either.

"The letter", he exclaimed, "you wrote that letter!" A letter his boss had got 10 months ago.

"We really appreciated your help," I said. He beamed and beamed.

In May 2003 we took a group to Gianni's." Oh!" he cried, "My friend!" He threw one arm around my shoulder and gave me a squeeze. In June 2003 I ate at Gianni's by myself. Same reception. A nice chat. He gave me 10% off my bill. "You're a VIP."

Fall 2003 we met him on the street. Big smile. We chatted at length like old friends. He'd left Gianni's for another job.

In May 2004 I was by myself in the Cinque Terre town of Monterosso, five minutes by train from Vernazza. I felt like dinner with a view of the sea and found a restaurant with tables outside right at the old town port. There he was.

I waved to him. He ran up, "Ciao!" shook my hand, kissed me on both cheeks. "It's so nice to see you!" He ruffled my hair. I have curly hair, so no hair style to ruin.

"I'm working here now. I don't know anyone in Monterosso. You're a friendly face!" He rambled on and on. He was my waiter so we talked some more.

At the end of my dinner he gave me a little glass of limoncello, a lemon liqueur. I looked around to see if other customers had limoncello. Nobody did. I went to shake his hand goodbye and got a big smile and kisses on both cheeks. "Come back soon!" He waved, "Ciao amica! Bye my friend!"

My last few times in Cinque Terre I haven't seen him. I wonder how many people have ever thanked him for any of his kind acts. One letter with a short acknowledgement meant so much to him.

About five years ago a restaurant owner in the little Tuscan town of Montefollonico gave extra nice service to a couple celebrating their 20th wedding anniversary on our cooking tour. She'd made a lovely cake, "Happy Anniversary" and their table looked beautiful.

That Christmas I wrote her a thank you letter, with a special thanks for her thoughtfulness for the couple. It was always a pleasure to see her and dine well in her restaurant I said.

The following spring when I entered her restaurant, she ran up to me and gave me a big hug. "Thanks so much for your lovely letter, she said. It made my Christmas. I cried when I read it."

I thought, "Has nobody ever thanked her? What did I write in her letter? Something extra special?" Back at home, I re-read the letter. To me it read like a nice little thank you note. For her, it meant much more.

Last fall (2007) I took another group to her restaurant. In a quiet moment she said, "I still have that letter." I've sent her thank you letters every Christmas, but we both knew which year's letter she was thinking of.

The owner and chef of a well known Tuscan restaurant, a worldly, 35ish man, has received about eight Christmas letters from me. Recently with a trace of a smile, he said, "We really appreciate your letters every Christmas. We put them into our book that chronicles the history of the restaurant."

Every year when I go to Italy for our tours, I know someone will mention their Christmas letter. It's always a surprise who it is and how it affected them.

It takes only a short note, a little time to acknowledge someone for their kindness or for doing a great job, to make them feel special, so every time they see you, their face lights up. So few people take the time. Stand out from the crowd. Be one of those people!
About the Author
Margaret Cowan of Vancouver, BC owns a tour company, Mama Margaret Italian Cooking Holidays at http://www.italycookingschools.com.

They ran their first Italian cooking, wine and walking tour in 1995 and now offer tours throughout Italy.
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