As many of you know, I love languages, but also take many tours, especially the first time in a given city, or if I am off the beaten track, like in the Middle East. One thing I noticed quickly was that everywhere I was assumed or known to be English (other than at an American hotel chain), I would be addressed Lady. Not Lady "Chiara," as one of our lovely British male Insiders stated, but just Lady, as in "Lady, do you want some falafel?" When I spoke a language well, like in France or especially Italy, I was usually called either Mme/Mme. le Professeur or Signora, Professoressa, Dottoressa, or -- interestingly -- Madame. I have a dear friend who is a male tour guide in Italy who whenever being multilingual on tours always addressed women as Madame or Mesdames, and this in my experience seems unique to Italy (except of course France). I also get the other designations in Italy, usually based on the kind of hotel, how I have signed my emails, etc.
But I have found elsewhere in continental Europe (except England and most Germanic countries), I get called Lady. It happened all the time in Turkey, sometimes in Egypt, sometimes in Israel and Palestine, and definitely in Spain. I was always struck by it since as Americans we would never approach a woman to say something like "Lady, can I help you?" (Sounds like an offhand remark from a gas station attendant.) The definition of lady has changed over time!
It was only as I was writing to my car hire tour guide in Sorrento that I suddenly started to realize the distinctions. Madame means 'my lady', even though it connotes a certain status in France (and now all big Italian cities, where I rarely get called anything else). But, "Lady, you want to buy a carpet?" doesn't sound nearly so enchanting, even if meant exactly the same way. Or "Lady, Do NOT take a photo of THAT!"
I think this is part of what long ago began as the Frances Mayes' effect, when an American divorcée moved to Cortona, and her life story became known through her books and "Under the Tuscan Sun." Florence in particular, and the large cities of Italy as well, made a concerted effort to make their cities inviting to single or divorced American women; they almost always will address a woman d'un certain âge (the translation from French basically means mature but without negative connotations) as Madame. I find it quite lovely, in Italy, much more so than Signora, or even Professoressa or Dottoressa. I think the Italians have figured out what word works in the right way, at least aimed at tourists from Anglo countries (and I include the Germanic ones).
Again, sorry for a boring email; I just love the way language works in different countries.
I don't know if I explained very well what I think is happening, but in English, Spanish, Italian and Middle Eastern countries, the female married word's translation is the norm -- hence Senora, Signora, In Greece, Κυρία means both lady and 'missus'. So when translating into English most of those countries except Italy (and of course France) go straight for just 'lady' since they don't know you usually. And it sounds very odd and off to the American ear, till you realize why.
By contrast, Madame (as long as it's not pronounced MAH'dam) always sounds chic, respectly, and indiscriminate regarding your age, marital status or social class. So I love it when Italians refer to me as Madame, even more so than in France where I expect it.