The first time I went to Italy, I was doing the semester abroad thing with my university. We were stationed in a large dorm-style guest house in Florence. I had two years of Italian language classes under my belt and was surrounded by professors and savvy fellow students who pointed me in all the right directions. It was just after my father had died and being so far away from that reality was more healing than I could ever have imagined. I had a wonderful time. We learned, we explored, we shopped, we flirted. My roommate, Trish, fell in love with a guy named Gaetano and returned a few years later to live out the life we had fantasized about on the balcony of our pensione.
The second time I went to Italy, I was working as an advertising copywriter in New York and had been invited to visit Trish & Gaetano in Milan. Gaetano worked for a local sports media company; Trish had found a job at an advertising agency in the thick of the city. Still a novice at international travel, I screwed up the time zone and told her I’d be arriving on Tuesday rather than Wednesday. I was actually leaving on Tuesday night and arriving the next day, which my ticket clearly stated but the flush of the opportunity had rattled my brain. Trish was kind and forgiving, however she had used up her day off from work so I would have to find my own way from the airport when I arrived. “Okay, I’m a big girl, I can figure this out,” I gulped.
As I flew over the Atlantic Ocean, I practiced my directions in Italian for the taxi driver. I obsessed in my head over the Milanese accent, the casual intonation, the precision of the phrases. Hello, I’d like to go to this address in that neighborhood, please. Please take me to this address in that neighborhood, thank you. Miracle of all miracles, it worked. I arrived, made my way through customs, collected my bag, and waited in the taxi cue as Trish had instructed. When my turn came, I hopped into the taxi and confidently recited my directions to the driver in Italian. “Si, Si!” he said and away we zoomed into the busy city.
During the drive I sat staring out the window and quietly freaking out about the fare. I wondered how much to tip. Would I have the correct change? I practiced the exchange in my head. Again with the accent, the intonation. Cool, calm, Italian. Then, as we approached the neighborhood where Trish’s office was located, the driver turned to me and said ... well, hell, I had absolutely no idea what he said. It was fast and energetic Milanese Italian. Drat. I’d been found out. I was a fake, a failure. I had been so close to victory. So close to being a just another smooth international traveler touching down in Milan. Now I was humiliated. “I’m so sorry! I don’t speak Italian very well!” I blurted, in Italian. (I’d practiced this phrase too, just in case.)
Certain he would be angry with me I braced myself for his response, fully expecting him to dump me on the sidewalk with a rude gesture and a scoff. But, to my surprise, “Hah!” he laughed. “You spoke such beautiful Italian I thought you were a local!” he declared with a wide grin. And there it was, the heart of what I love about Italy. Even in Milan, so close to the you-should-have-known-this Germans and the if-you-don’t-know-I-won’t-tell-you French, Italians are delighted, not angered, by surprises. I’d fooled him and he thought it was a total gas. We were lost together, partners in a mystery. Ah, what good fun!
We phoned Trish and she guided us through the serpentine streets to a cobbled courtyard and her familiar face. Hearty laughter ensued, accompanied by hands illustrating the adventure in the air. I’d been in the country for less than an hour and already I had a story to tell.