That’s how they do it in Italy

Savannah Morning News column

Sunday, July 6, 2014

It’s always nice to see the light of day when you are sleeping on an overnight train because it means you have actually managed to sleep, but to have someone knock on your couchette and to hear from the top level of your double-decker bunk bed a person in uniform say, “Buongiorno, mi scusi, voulete un espresso?” And then before I can even get out the second “si” as in “si si” because there always seem to be two “si’s” or to have time to resort to my favorite Italian word “prego” that I always use inappropriately (it means “you’re welcome”) because it’s just something I like to say and I know for a fact, 100 percent, I am pronouncing it right (the same with the phrase non lo so, Italian for, “I don’t know”) – and to be handed some high-test brew in one of those cute little white porcelain cups with a saucer and packages of sugar and a little spoon and a wrapped sweet delight, well, it’s almost more than I can take.

But that’s how they do things in Italy, with style – whether it’s the way they prune the oleanders or design a toaster, a drying rack, a drain for the sink or the ladder in your same sex four-person couchette that lives under one of the beds until it’s time to slip it oh-so-nicely into a slot on the wall so you can climb up to your bed with some kind of dignity. Then there the sheets, pillowcase and pillow you see, all laundered, pressed and wrapped in paper waiting for you on your bunk.

I did not see any animals on the train although when we bought our tickets in a machine at the station, we were asked how many adults, how many children and how many animals we intended to bring.

In the morning on the way to the washbasin at the end of car, I passed a priest standing up, facing the countryside, reading his morning prayer from his iPhone. I know this because I looked over his shoulder – the aisle is very narrow – and saw the words, “O, Dio.” I’m pretty certain about that translation. The conductor was pretty clear when I asked about a bar. “Trains,” he said, “are for sleeping.”

We shared the couchette with two other women, one who didn’t say much and a veterinarian who had just dropped her children off in Sicily to stay with their grandparents for the summer. She was returning to her job in Perugia where she faced the unpleasant job of telling farmers they had to kill their livestock because of a certain disease. When she and her husband vacation, they like to go to Africa. Italy, she said, is too expensive, France too snobby, and Germany, well, why go there when they can go to a place like Tanzania and ride their bikes up Mount Kilimanjaro. She, like many Sicilians, identifies more with other countries on the Mediterranean than she does with the rest of Italy. The old north versus the south issue, I thought. It’s everywhere.

Our host at an Airbnb in Siracusa said the same thing about traveling in Italy. She apologized for her English, but as I tried to pantomime, her English is one million times better times than my Italian. When she told us she is getting some kind of degree in music, I asked her to sing something. She did – in flawless, stunning English. When she found out what I do for a living she asked if I wouldn’t mind proof reading a report she had to write in English about a sixteenth-century composer. “Si, si,” I said. “Prego.” As it turns out she also knows much more about music than I do. But I did my best.

She has a dog named Gringo. Her daughter loves American westerns. She uses her thumb to start counting. She wraps her wrist for carpal tunnel. Her house, like most in Italy, spilling over with marble, tile, columns and iron, was built to last. The past is always present. One woman told us of an ancestral family house from the 16th century on the Adriatic Sea. When her “crazy aunt” heard of all the repair it needed she tore it down. Then they found out it was built on top of a Roman ruin. Now it has to be excavated by the government before any more building can be done.

I hate it when that happens.



Italy: it’s all a negotiation

Savannah Morning column

June 28, 2014


If growing old is not for sissies, then traveling is not for the faint of heart. If charades floats your boat, then consider a trip to Italy.

Traffic lights? There are none. But people do stop. To cross on foot, “Look for the zebra lines.” Clothes dryers? Forget it. “Use balcony.” Everyone does. Drying time? Minutes. Do you speak French? No. No French. It’s kind of like Georgia and Florida with Italy and France. So close but no one in Southern Italy speaks French. English? A bit. It helps to be traveling with a friend named Carmela.

Euros? Not from U.S. dollars. This after negotiating entrance to a bank in Sicily where first you stuff your belongings into a locker, then you take the key and enter an enclosed capsule of a space. If you pass the metal detector test, you are buzzed in. This is when you receive the Italian shrug, similar to the Jewish shrug, where the head shakes back and forth as if to say, no, never, never heard of it.

Plastico? Certainly.

Traveling in Sicily: It’s all a negotiation. As one travel pro says, “All will be revealed in time.” Indeed. Just getting on the right bus and watching the bus driver take our ticket is more exciting than sitting through hours of the World Cup and seeing two goals scored. Maybe. High fives all around.

There’s no trouble understanding the pear ricotta ice cream, though. Delizioso. The pistachio gelato? Yowzer dowzer. The rice balls? Can’t get enough. Just roll me home, please.

But language. So difficult. Try explaining Dollywood to someone who knows just a little English.

At the same time language is so wonderful. In Italian, there’s an expression that means, “Full like a can of sardines.” In Naples, if a man or woman is bad you say, “You are an octopus.” In Rome, if a woman is not so nice you say, “You are a mussel.”

I think. Don’t quote me.

It’s so easy to misinterpret. Twice when I asked people what they did I got surprising answers.

“I am architect,” said one. “I teach urban sociology,” said another.

On the overnight boat from Naples to Catania, where we watched television footage of the Rolling Stones in Rome at the bar while sleeping in the couch-like seats along the wall, I woke up next to a woman sleeping in a summer sleep sack who looked like she was a hippy traveling the world. Wrong. She’s an immigration lawyer. About Europe she said, “Here you feel as if everything has been done before. History,” she said, “can be a burden.” Her boyfriend had left his car for her at the port so she offered us a lift to the bus station and bought us a frozen coffee crema with a shot of espresso at her favorite coffee bar.

And then there is the Internet, which has made the world so small.

“Look at those ridiculous cell towers on the top of those gorgeous hills,” I groused to my friend when we got to the 14th century Baroque town of Modica.

Seconds later I heard myself saying, “I wonder what the password is.”