Italian Lessons

Sheila Sowder 


© Copyright 2004 by Sheila Sowder

Photo of the interior of St. Peter's in Rome.

Every year my husband and I receive Delta Airline passes from a generous in law to fly anywhere in the world where Delta goes.  That's a lot of world and sometimes choosing our destination is the hardest part.  So we take turns.  Last year I chose Italy.  We'd never visited a country where English wasn't the first language, so we prepared with six weeks of Italian lessons and purchased an Italian dictionary.  I hope you enjoy reading about  our adventures and misadventures.

"All flights to Rome are sold out today." The Delta clerk looks up from her computer with a calculating expression, waiting to see how we'll accept this news.

My husband and I look at each other. "Atlanta." I say.

"Yeah, Atlanta. We have good luck in Atlanta," says Jimmy.

"Besides," I say, "I'd rather spend the night in Atlanta than go home. List us for the Atlanta flight, then Atlanta to Rome," I tell the clerk.

She smiles her approval.

"I've got on flights that were oversold by half a dozen," she says as she rapidly taps on her keyboard. "You just never know."

And wasn't that the truth. Thanks to my brother-in-law, a retired Delta guy who gives us Buddy Passes every year, Indianapolis to Rome costs us about a fourth of normal coach fare. With a good chance we'll ride "up front" in the business elite area where people with either more money than us or lots of frequent flyer credits fly in relative luxury. If any seats are available, that is. And today is Saturday. Most planes to anywhere a vacationer would want to go are probably full.

Flying standby is not for the faint of heart. As experienced Delta clerks say, you gotta know how to play the game. So off we go to Atlanta where we practically walk straight onto a giant Rome-bound 767, stopping short of the coach section to take our huge seats in business class with plenty of leg room, individual TVs, and footrests. Refraining from a tacky high-five, we grin at each other, sip our champagne, and lean back. The adventure has begun.

Ten hours later we emerge into the Rome airport, follow the rest of the passengers through customs, and stumble shell-shocked onto a high-speed train to the center of the city.

"You don't need a cab," says the woman at the tourist office outside the train station. "Your hotel is only a few blocks away. Everyone walks. Just be sure to protect your wallets." All the guidebooks had stressed the proliferation of pickpockets in the city and blamed it on the recent influx of gypsies from Albania. Gypsies, no less!

My arm is aching by the time we stand outside an enormous wooden door sandwiched in a row of shops and cafes. Hotel Martini is on the fifth floor, its web site said. I take a firm hold of my bags, pray for an elevator, and we enter a large empty hallway with an ancient wire cage at the opposite end. As we creak upward I tell Jimmy the ground floor is "0" and the second floor is "1," etc. From the look he gives me, I know he's going to argue the point but fortunately the elevator jerks to a stop and we're in front of a tall door labeled Hotel Martini. We drag our luggage into a small but tasteful reception area and within five minutes are shown to another huge door, this one double, that opens into our room. Feeling like Alice at this point, I enter the bathroom, almost expecting a gigantic toilet. It was the usual size but double. Side by side. Oh, right, a bidet. This trip I'll actually figure out how to use it. And where's the flush handle on the toilet? Damn it, it should be on the side of the tank or at the very least, on a pull chain overhead. I start pushing and pulling everything around that can be pushed or pulled and finally have luck with a piece of plastic that looks like the top of a Kleenex box holder and is mounted on the wall several feet away from the toilet. This hide-the-flusher must be a little game the Italians play with tourists because for the rest of the trip, I never know if it will show up as a button on the toilet, a button on the wall above, a lever on the wall opposite, or a chain overhead. The one thing I never saw was a lever on the actual tank.

Jimmy opens the large casement windows onto a small balcony overlooking the backs of several buildings built around a courtyard. Laundry hangs from apartment windows, on the type of clotheslines you see in old pictures of New York tenements. Here, flapping over the pots of bright flowers on each balcony, the drying clothes look like part of the decoration.

I'm so tired. There's no tired like jet lag tired. Shouldn't sleep though, we know from experience. Caffeine, quick. Fortunately, we're in the right country. Coffee is everywhere, usually in the general proximity of pastries. Italians don't sip--they toss it down strictly for its medicinal effects. Two espressos give us the wide-eyed glare of a couple of coke addicts, and we head back to the train station to catch a double decker bus tour, an activity we think our hyped up but exhausted bodies can tolerate. In line we meet half a dozen other glassy-eyed American couples straight off the plane and compare flight lengths and number of hours with no sleep. The patient guide finally gets us herded into our seats on top of the bus.

Jimmy leans over and says in a low voice. "You were a little rude to that woman from California."

"Perky," I say as the fresh breeze start working with the caffeine in my system to create an unexpected high. "I can't take perky right now."

We glide by sights that resemble the pictures in the guidebooks from the library back home. A beautiful city, Rome. A beautiful day to see it. We start to regret our plan to catch a train tomorrow for Tuscany but console each other with the promise of one more day on our way home. I try to pick out the gypsies among the tourists at the Coliseum, at Trevi Fountain, at the Spanish Steps.

It just doesn't feel right. There's no crowd at track one where we've been waiting for the train to Siena, due to leave in a few minutes. Jimmy gives me that look, the one husbands give wives when they think they're "overreacting. "The sign says Siena," he points out.

"I know."

"You're worried because there's no one else here."

"Hell, the train isn't here."  I smile apologetically, clutching my purse tightly so the gypsies don't get it.

He gives a snort of disgust and ambles over to a nearby tourist office. Comes running back a minute later. "Track twelve, switched, that announcement in Italian." He starts grabbing bags and we move as fast as we can through the crowded station. My heart is near exploding as we get to track twelve, thank God it's still there, where's the first class car? Pay the extra, the guidebooks said, it's worth it. It was.

We sit at our own little table and eat our train station panini, that incredible sandwich that is as far away from our idea of sandwich as caviar is from Mrs. Paul's fish sticks. And panini are everywhere, just like the coffee and pastries. Between them and the pasta, it's quite possible to go for weeks with no fruit or vegetables in your diet and not even miss them.

Cab or city bus. That's our decision after we disembark in Siena three hours later. I look at our four bags and vote "cab." I always vote "cab." Jimmy looks at the price difference, hoists three of the bags, takes off at a brisk pace for the bus stop. A few minutes later we're standing by a gate into one of the most beautiful still-functioning medieval gated cities in the world, looking down at our map.

"Can I help you find something?" asks an American voice. A tall, thin man in his late 60s.

"Our hotel, Albergo Bernini," I say.

"It's very close." He offers to leads us there.

"Where you from?" Jimmy asks the required introduction to all other tourists everywhere.

"Here, Siena, I live here. For the last fifteen years."

Our first ex-pat. We had watched Under the Tuscan Sun right before our trip. We look at him in awe.

Our hotel host, Signor Bernini, has the innocent smile of a Botticelli cherub and speaks no English. He is shadowed by an older man whose American is tinged with New Yorkese. They each take a bag and lead us outside.

"Where are we going?" I struggle to keep up with my husband as we pull the remaining bags down a steep narrow brick street, following our host. "The apartment," he pants. "Didn't I tell you we'll be in our own apartment?"

"A thousand-year-old building," says the host’s shadow, showing us into a two-room apartment with beamed ceilings and brick floors. "Original floors."

"It's beautiful," I say, checking out the bathroom for bidet and flushing apparatus location, approving the small refrigerator in case I figure out the Italian word for "doggie bag."

Jimmy and I are eager to explore. I had no idea these ancient walled cities still function as anything other than tourist sites, but Siena is home to ordinary working people who hang their laundry out their windows and send their children off to school every day.

"The Campo." I’m wheezing, already out of breath from the steep streets. "It's like the town square, where the Palio is run." The Palio, we'd learned from our Italian instructor Rita, is an annual horse race, the richest in the world. We follow the signs up and down narrow winding brick streets and finally break out into a vast shell-shaped open space walled in by tall buildings on three sides, a cathedral-looking building with a very high tower on the fourth, and ringed with the canopies of outdoor cafes.

"The Venetian in Las Vegas!" we exclaim in unison. "Or vice versa," I say lamely, but Jimmy is already ten feet ahead of me, camera in hand, headed for an ornate fountain. Traveling with him reminds me of how different our view of the world often is. I'm enchanted by the flower carts in front of the outdoor cafes, he's mesmerized by a pigeon drinking directly from stream of water flowing from the mouth of a stone lion.

Later, we walk back to our apartment as twilight deepens the shadows of the nearly deserted streets. Voices swell in a song that is one part medieval chant and one part college fight song. A harmonic chorus that echoes eerily yet soothingly off the ancient brick walls, accompanied sporadically by the buzz of a Vespa passing through. The music is coming from the end of our street where gas lamps cast a glow on the gathered crowd. First day of the festival of St. Catherine, we learn later. Celebrated only by the contrade, or clan, that occupies our neighborhood. One of seventeen remaining contrade, into which each Sienese is born, no converting allowed. Each is named for an animal. Colorful flags bearing the image of a goose flutter from the buildings in our area. I picture the geese that have become such a nuisance back home and hope that animal has a better image here.

The next day we establish our routine: coffee and rolls at a café, a trip to the ATM machine for our daily ration of cash. Then off into the countryside in our small but efficient Lancia which has such a high MPG that we don't feel the $5.00+ per gallon we pay for gas. We discover other walled cities, all perched on top of hills, most still functioning as modern cities, updated with conveniences yet respectful of the original beauty. Not cutsied up, as our country often does with old buildings. We wind through the undulating hills of Tuscany, spotting ruins of castles in fields of crimson poppies adjacent to well-tended vineyards. In fact, vineyards come in every size and shape, not only covering vast hillside acreage but also hidden in corners of gardens behind modest village residences.

San Gimignano, Monteriggioni, Cortona, Castiglione del Lago, walled cities all, each one different. Yet the enchantment is the same. Snapshots to be retained forever in my memory. A traditional barbershop in old San Gimignano at dusk, the old men leaning toward each other on a gossip bench at the back of the shop. A pheasant waddling across a country road and into the brush. The waters of the Mediterranean, an iridescent turquoise in spite of the gray sky.

We follow the signs for the Leaning Tower through Pisa for half an hour on both sides of the Arno River before finally reaching the gates of the compound. Jimmy climbs the tower. I prefer to wait out his climbs in a café eating pastries, but today I wait, camera in hand, in front of a store, my purse clutched to my chest in case the gypsies work the Pisa crowd. I think I see him at the top, waving his hat. I aim the camera. Later I see the picture he took of me at the same time with his other camera.

One morning as we are leaving for our morning caffeine and carbs, I realize my purse is missing. Left in the restaurant the previous evening. We'd been seated next to Rich and Toni from Long Beach who, it turned out, were staying in the apartment next to us, having also found the Bernini's through Rick Steve's travel book. They recommended the chianti. We had grappa after dinner, a 40 proof fiery equivalent to our Everclear. We exchanged email addresses. Now I am frantic. The restaurant hasn't opened yet for the day. We go to our host and his English-speaking assistant.

"It's Siena," they say, smiling and shrugging with their hands. "Will be OK." They'll call the restaurant at ten-thirty when it opens. Meanwhile, "Please, come out to the terrace, have some breakfast."

Two women from Philadelphia help distract me from the fact that my passport is in the missing purse. Afterward, Signor Bernini gives us a private concert on his accordion. He is very good but I glance often at my watch. Finally, he makes the phone call to the restaurant. He smiles down at me benevolently and gives me a universal thumbs up.

"It's Siena," says the restaurant manager as he hands me my purse. "Of course it is here." Jimmy slips him twenty euros.

That evening we return to the restaurant. Well, the food was terrific and we feel we owe them. The waiter seats us next to a familiar looking couple--Rich and Toni! I skip the chianti. The conversation doesn't seem quite as stimulating as the previous evening. I drink the post-dinner grappa with my purse held firmly on my lap.

Spending only one afternoon in Florence is almost a sacrilege. I don't remember the buildings. I do remember the pigeon that walked into the pizza restaurant where we were sitting as if he owned the place. The old craftsman high up on a balcony inside a cathedral, restoring a mural, the spotlight illuminating his head and hands the only light in the upper reaches of the ancient building. The artist in a tiny shop by the city gate showing us pictures of his two large paintings of fields of poppies that were hanging in the World Trade Center on 9/11. The bicyclist crisscrossing a rain-slick Piazza del Duomo holding a brightly colored umbrella in one hand while steering the bike with the other. The colorful three-story apartment buildings built right across a bridge over the Arno River.

We'll come back someday, we told each other. Knowing that we probably won't.

American couples are everywhere. We recognize each other by some collective instinct even without speaking. We gravitate to each other, identify ourselves geographically, exchange stories of getting lost, recommend restaurants, drift apart. They all seem like people I'd like to know. We rarely ask for or offer names.

We get seriously lost twice. The first time, coming back from Pisa at night in the rain. The exit off the highway around Florence says Rome, heads south, and is the number we want. We stop at an out-of-the-way local restaurant for the best meal we have on the whole trip, then continued until we pass a sign that says Leaving Tuscany, shocking us out of our postprandial reverie. As we backtrack, we agree the fabulous meal was worth going two hours out of our way.

The second time we get lost we're heading east to find Cortona, the town in the movie Under The Tuscan Sun. We head into mountains, tiny villages. An hour out of Siena we stop at a café where no one speaks English. "Due panini," I say. "Dovè il bagno?" We get food and I am directed to a spotless restroom. When I return to the table Jimmy is studying a large map with a considerate you-are-here arrow. "Here" is an hour west of Siena, not east. I assure my truck-driving, map-expert husband that the scenery was worth the delay. He works hard to keep from sulking.

Each evening when we return to our apartment Jimmy turns on the small TV and begins clicking the remote in the hope that magically an English language station other than BBC World News has appeared. He watches a German film in Italian, old Clint Eastwood "spaghetti western" in Italian, Japanese Sumo wrestling in Italian. From the bedroom where I relax with the book I brought along, I hear him chuckling at the antics of a slapstick variety show--in Italian. He becomes very well-versed on current affairs.

Back in Rome we feel like natives. We breeze through the huge Stazione Termini, the train station, check two of our bags to retrieve the next day before departure, head back to our hotel where we're greeted like long-lost relatives. We spend the day wandering, although rarely in the direction we intended due to my husband's failure to actually read the street names on the map he's carrying. Still, he's the map expert and it's all pleasant. After dinner we pack our bags, lay out our traveling clothes, leave an early wake-up call. We talk about staying a couple more days, even check to see if the room is available. Then decide that if we're supposed to stay, there won't be any seats on the plane for standby. A definite possibility since it's Sunday.

"Tell me something about Indiana that is unique." The athletic-looking young woman at a counter at the American Embassy looks up from the form she's filling out for my replacement passport. "I have to ask since you don't have a birth certificate with you."

Unique? Indiana? "The Indianapolis 500?" I stammer.

She frowns. "Like a state park, anything like that?"

"I think the state bird is a cardinal. Or maybe not.” I think of all kinds of things later but she must have decided an identity thief would have been better prepared because she hands over my passport with instructions to be careful this time.

On the forms at both the police station and the embassy, both of whose systems make our DMV look primitive, I had written, "wallet stolen from purse, probably by gypsies." Yes, they found me in spite of my caution. I was guarding our luggage on a nearly-deserted train platform early Sunday morning while Jimmy bought coffee at a nearby stand. Fortunately the train to the airport hadn't yet pulled out when I discovered my passport wallet was gone. The sympathetic ticket clerk sold our ticket to the next two people in line and refunded our Euros, a gesture I'd be surprised to experience in the U.S. A phone call to the embassy connected me to a helpful aide who instructed me to be at the back gate at 8:30 Monday morning. We reclaimed our hotel room and after a couple of other phone calls to cover our two-day delay, we changed out of our traveling clothes, thanked the fates that held us there, and resumed our wandering. We were getting better at it although the beautiful weather had drawn so many Romans into the streets that we finally settled into a sidewalk café to watch the world go by.

Next morning we again woke early, dressed in our traveling outfits, and headed for the embassy a couple of blocks away with the intention of making a mad dash for the airport to catch a late morning flight if we finished in time. By nine-thirty I had my new passport in hand and we walked out of the embassy into a sparkling morning.

"Let's stay," says Jimmy. "No one expects us home today.".

It's a magical day, a day we were meant to have. In a tiny alley store in the Jewish Ghetto we buy Jimmy a pair of socks from an stout old woman dressed in black. We drink a Guinness in an Irish pub, eat lunch at a Bolivian restaurant, buy a porcelain teapot at a small basement shop on Via Veneto. And finally see some gypsies.

"Look!" Jimmy grabs my arm and points to the elderly couple in front of us being jostled by a group of bedraggled teenage boys. As one boy's hand slips into the pocket of the old man, he turns and begins smacking the youth on the head with his newspaper, yelling words that Rita refused to teach us. The boys dart off, foiled, and we catch up with the couple, giving all the gestures for "nice going" we can think of.

"Gypsies!" The old man spits on the ground, pats his pocket, takes his wife's arm and they continue their stroll.

We cross the Tibor river into the Trastevere section, the area my guidebook had suggested as favored by tourists. We aren't impressed and agree we're glad we hadn't planned our trip with Hanging Out In Italy, the only guidebook on Italy I could find at Half Price Books. There seem to be a lot of night clubs and internet cafes.

We take a trolley back across the bridge and start walking to our hotel past a block of ancient ruins where Julius Caesar was supposedly done in by Brutus. "Cat Sanctuary" is hand-lettered on a large poster with an arrow pointing down a flight of concrete stairs. We'd passed this way several times and had remarked on the number of cats sunning themselves amid the broken columns.

At the bottom of the stairs is a small garden in front of an arched doorway that seems to go under the bridge. Half a dozen cats are sunning themselves in the garden. People are inside. It smells like cat food. OK, it smells like cat urine, too, but not overwhelmingly. We obey the written invitation to enter, browse around reading the information, marvel over the room full of cages, all with open doors. The sanctuary serves over 600 cats, we learn, some feral, some turned loose by owners. Once the cats are neutered and get shots, they are free to roam, coming back inside to the room of cages for shelter and food. We buy a colorfully-illustrated children's book about a real-life one-eyed cat who lived in the sanctuary, for our friend and cat-sitter. The woman who sells it to us tells us to get Deborah to sign it.

Then we meet Deborah and it all makes sense. Deborah is American, loud, hyper, ballsy and altogether delightful. She came for a visit sixteen years ago and never left. Helped start the sanctuary nine years ago. She's passionate about taking care of the cats. Last year they got 1,000 cats, adopted out 300.

They survive on donations from around the world and are occasionally harassed by the Roman police because they don't have any legal right to be at that location. So far she's won each skirmish with threats of negative PR if they're shut down.

She spots Jimmy's camera. They are about to start a campaign, she tells us, to show how they help not only cats but also many old people who have been spending all their pensions on feeding homeless cats. Yes, there are many. The sanctuary helps over fifty of them, giving them cat food or taking the cats in. A beautiful old woman, stooped over with osteoporosis, has entered the room. She has sixteen cats, lives in an apartment with no heat, survives on her pension. She comes here for cat food, spends cold days helping with the animals and staying warm.

She will be our model. Deborah takes us into the ruins by a hidden door and as the cats crowd around the bowl of food the old woman places on a rock, Jimmy snaps his digital. The old woman leans back to minimize her stoop and smiles into the camera. She is truly beautiful. Jimmy and Deborah work for over half an hour, snapping shots and then viewing them until they have what Deborah needs. It occurs to me--this is why we needed to stay.

"Of course it is," says Deborah when I tell her. "I've had my passport stolen three times and there's always a reason. Can you email the pictures to my home?" I wonder where her home is and what she left behind in the States.

We part with hugs. We'll go back. To the cat sanctuary. To Rome. To Italy. Everywhere we went we were treated with respect, with warmth, with humor, and made to feel truly welcome. It's hard to explain how a place can feel both familiar and foreign at the same time. We experienced it in Ireland. Now again in Italy. Maybe it's just people. Maybe that's all there is in the end. The land may look different but people are the same everywhere. Maybe that's the reason we travel--so we can truly know that we're all a part of the same whole, that there's no difference between us and them. That there is no us and no them.

After a career as a media director for advertising agencies in Indianapolis and Washington, D.C., I now work in  a much lower stress part time job--event planning for a large Indianapolis church.  And finally have time to devote to writing.  I belong to the Writers' Center of Indiana, through which I attend classes and seminars and attend a regular writer's group.  I received the Rose Voci Fellowship (for Indiana women writers) in 2002 and used the money to attend the Wesleyan Writers Conference.  I have recently finished a mystery novel and am searching for a publisher.  My husband and I live in Indianapolis and our passion is travel.

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