CHIAVARI, Italy – The first city in Italy that I lived in was Rome, and like a first love it holds a special place in my heart. I had enrolled in a language course at the Dante Aligheri Society, determined to conquer Italian once and for all. Through the school I found a room to rent on the Via della Vite, near the Spanish Steps. An old woman named Niola owned the apartment, and her only other ‘tenant’ was a girl from Argentina who was studying at the Universita’ La Sapienza in Rome.
Every weekday morning I would take the bus from Piazza San Silvestro out to the school on the Via Nomentana and spend four grueling hours trying to get a grip on Italian grammar. It was torture trying to wrap my tongue around all the complicated verb forms, but from two o'clock on the day was my own, and oh how I treasured it.
I loved living in the center of the Rome. Every afternoon as the stores re-opened from their mid-day break, the narrow streets of my neighborhood, which included the famous Via Condotti, would slowly fill with Romans and tourists alike. I used to spend hours window shopping and dreaming of the day I would live in Italy forever.
On days I didn’t have school, I would walk to the small outdoor market near the Trevi Fountain and stock up on groceries. I would cross the Via del Tritone, go up Via del Stamperia, then turn and head toward the vendors. It was just at that point, near the corner bar, that I would be greeted by a Rudolph Valentino look alike who would bow ever so slightly and say, "Buon girorno, Contessa." I'd stutter and stammer and finally come out with what I hoped was "and a good morning to you too."
I didn’t know it then but in Italy everyone calls everyone else carrissima, bellisima, amore or any of the other hundreds of endearing names they have invented. Even my slightly senile landlady, Signora Niola, used to have imaginary conversations that always started with ‘ciao cara’ and continued as she walked around the apartment talking to herself. It confused me at first as she always started her conversations with me that way, but then I realized she didn’t even see me during those interludes, so I just stayed out of her way.
I liked shopping at the Trevi market, which was more of a meeting place than market where farmers sold their produce and goods like honey and jams and wine. The honey and jam came in a variety of jars that had once held pickled cauliflower or artichoke hearts or some other Italian deliciousness. If you wanted wine you had to bring your own bottles and they would fill them from the barrels they had on the back of their trucks. You also had to bring your own egg cartons if you wanted eggs.
Since I didn’t have egg cartons to bring, the old woman who sold chickens and eggs would wrap my eggs, one by one in torn off squares of newspaper and hand them to me to put in my shopping bag. Then she would hold out her wrinkled hand for the money. She never spoke to me. Never said a word. I figured out afterwards that it was probably because I was actually asking her for two or three grapes, confusing the Italian words for grapes and eggs and she realized any attempt at conversation would most likely be a complete waste of time.
A more serious problem than knowing the difference between grapes and eggs was trying to convert my US dollars to Italian lira. Since I had to be on the bus for school at 8:30 AM, when the banks were opening, and didn’t get back to the center of Rome until 2 PM, which was after the banks had closed for the day, getting my hands on cash was a challenge. The only solution was to take a day off from school, which I did not like to do.
But in those pre-ATM days my options were limited. Getting lira was a long, and grueling process. There were forms that had to be filled out, and not the kind of forms you could take with you and fill out while you had a cappuccino at the nearest bar. No. The bank clerk had to ask you the questions, and he would fill out the form. And he was never in a hurry.
I still remember the day he was filling out a form for a pretty Asian girl who was in line ahead of me.
“What is your name,” he asked.
She told him.
“Where are you from?” he asked.
She told him.
“Are you staying in a hotel?”
“No,” she said.
“Okay, where are you staying,” he wanted to know.
“With my uncle,” she said.
“That’s nice,” he said. “Where does your uncle live?”
“Over there,” she said pointing in the general direction of outside the bank.
“No, I mean what’s his address?” said the bank clerk shifting around in his chair.
She just looked at him.
“Okay, well what’s your phone number,” the bank clerk continued.
She just looked at him, still not replying.
“Look, Signorina,” said the bank clerk who was now showing signs of exasperation, “I’m not asking you these questions for my personal benefit. Personally I don’t care where you live or who you live with or anything else, but the bank wants to know and it’s my job to write that information down, so what is your phone number?”
At that point the bell rang signaling the bank was closing. Please use the center door to exit. Another day shot to hell.
That wasn’t the first time I had been ushered out of the bank without changing money. I looked in my wallet. I had 10,000 lire, about $7.00 and I needed to buy a bus ticket to get to school in the morning, another to get home after school, and then there was the question of food. Faced with a choice of scrambled eggs again or deep fried rice balls called arancini, I opted for the arancini.
That wasn’t the first time I had eaten arancini for dinner, nor would it be the last. As it turned out Rome was just a preview, the coming attractions like at the movies. How could I know what surprises destiny had in store for me, or that the best and the worst was still to come.
It took a few more years for all the planets to align and clear a path for me to actually make the move. This past week I celebrated 25 years of living in Italy. What an amazing adventure it has been. But looking back on those years today I understand that they too were only a preview, the coming attractions of what is in store for me next. If nothing else I've learned the difference between the words for eggs and grapes in Italian, which makes me think I'm on a roll. Yes indeed.