Sunday, May 18, 2014

Sette (#7) – Magic Words

All languages have magic words, polite expressions that open doors and enable communication even for the stranger in a foreign land. Before visiting Italy, I had planned to learn a bit of the mother tongue, and naturally I started only when the anticipated trip was suddenly just weeks away. We purchased a book or two, listened to the melodic language on line and optimistically posted a collection of word stickers around the house: numbers and greetings on il frigorifero, labels on la porta and in il bagno. We ambushed each other with common greetings at the end of a long work day, stealing a glance at il frigorifero before replying with the appropriate response: “Buona sera, comesta? Va bené…grazie. Mi chiamo Doris. Ciao! Now let me cook dinner already!”.

So, did this work, you may ask? Yes and no. 

Understanding a few rules of pronunciation helped prevent total mangling and misunderstanding.  Some of these we use in English without thinking twice: for example “z” is pronounced “tz”, as in (duh) Pizza! Some were familiar to us because they sound the same in Hawaiian: “i” is always pronounced “ee” (Pizza/Hawaii); and “e” is often pronounced like the “a” in “may” (as in café and Likelike).   Others were new and confounding:  “C” is often pronounced “ch” (as in the greeting ciao) and “ch” may sound like a hard “c” (as in the wine Chianti).  Still others required re-training from previously learned romance languages.  I speak a smattering of long-ago-learned French; another woman on our group taught Spanish.  This might help one learn Italian better if one truly studied the language, but given our ignorance of Italy’s mother tongue, we found confusion was more often the rule. 

For example, one of our destinations was Cinque Terra, 5 charming cliffside-hugging towns on the Ligurian Sea.  Because the word for number 5 looks similar in French (cinq) and Italian (cinque), for close to a year I was telling folks that we would visit “Sank-Tara”.  The Italian pronunciation of cinque turned out to be far different, more like “cheenk-way”, except way cooler.  At any rate, once I adjusted, this became one of those words I love to say.

I attempted to memorize a couple conversation starters, only to realize, once on the ground, the limits of opening a discussion one cannot continue. In the US, I will often strike up a short interaction in public with a mother by asking the age of her child, so I learned the informal phrase: Quanti anni?  Trouble was the first mom I encountered – on a train traveling in Cinque Terra - was carrying an infant, which I knew the moment these words came out of my mouth.  After a beat, she tolerantly replied that her daughter was 9 months old.  I replied “Ah, bellissima!” (very beautiful) and all was well. This is not a culture where parents fear malevolent spirits will come to take children if you complement them. 

So, no, we did not learn enough for an actual conversation with a native speaker. Much of communication, however, is non-verbal; so the use of indigenous greetings, gratitude, humility and humor proved truly invaluable, as it has anywhere we have lived or traveled. Now bear in mind that we were on a tour and did not need to ask directions or the location of essential services under duress as the solo traveler often finds necessary.  Still, no one will give you the time of day if you do not at least make an attempt to follow the most basic of cultural etiquette.  

Thus, below are Doris’ “top 10” magic words and phrases, followed by stories and adventures that arose around these cultural door openers. The translation and pronunciation guide is totally invented and unofficial, simply how words sounded to my untrained ear. I apologize in advance for any and all errors in language, spelling or syntax. For the real stuff, consult guide books, watch Italian movies, google and listen on line to native speakers of this melodious language.  No shame! Be sure to give them a try, starting in the safety of your kitchen…and then, on the streets of Rome. As our tour guide advised us – do not hesitate to pronounce Italian words with enthusiasm, hitting the ac’cented syllables, rolling the rrrr’s, and of course gesturing effusively.  
Magic Words
Buongiorno: (bone-jor’-no) Good morning, good day, hello.  Buona sera: good evening
Ciao (chow) Hello, goodbye. Informal but widely acceptable. 
Grazie: (grah’-tzee-eh) Thank you. It took me a while to hear it, but there is a slight third syllable at the end of this ubiquitous word.
Per favore:  (pair-fah-vor’-ray) Please. Due caffé, per favoré - 2 espressos, please. 
Permesso:  (pair-mes’-so) May I…? May I sit here? May I pass? 
Prego: (prrray’-go) You’re welcome; Of course, sit down; After you, go ahead, pass on by. 
Mi scusi: (mee skoo’-zee) Excuse me - to get attention.  Mi scusi, dove il bagno? - Excuse me, where is the bathroom?
Mi dispiace: (mee dis-piah’-chay) Forgive me, I’m sorry. Mi dispiace, non parlo I’Italiano - I’m so sorry, I don’t speak your beautiful language, I meant to learn before I came, but I was so busy earning the money for this trip...
É tutto:  (ay-two’-toe) That’s all.
Il conto; (eel-cone’-toe) The check, the bill.  ll conto, per favoré: The check, please.
Café: place to sit, eat, drink and watch the world go by
Caffé: Espresso. Caffé Americano: Coffee
Io sono da Hawaii (ee-yoh sono dah…) I am from Hawaii. Ci sono da Hawaii (Chee’-sono dah…) We are from Hawaii.
Piazza:  (pee-ah’-tza) Town Square
Googlelalo: (google-lah-low) Internet googling; slang, possibly regional, hearsay from Siennese airplane seatmate.

Magic Word Adventures

Greetings: Buongiorno, Ciao:  Greetings are fun, useful, essential social lubricants.  Don’t be afraid to use them with new friends and strangers.  For example, when entering a store or other commercial establishment, be sure to greet the owner or employee (Buongiorno! Ciao! Buona sera!).  If you do not, and wait for them to say something, they will probably politely completely ignore you, respecting your privacy….unless they spot you as an American ignorant of etiquette.   Once you greet them they will immediately reply in kind and be prepared to help you.

Permesso and Prego: I loved trying out these useful words while traveling in Italy.  It was indeed magic, like throwing off my Harry Potter invisibility cloak.  If we needed to pass by people on a crowded street or platform, the sea parted after I said “Permesso”, and someone usually replied “Prego!”, standing aside and motioning for us to pass.  I was surprised to find that if we got on a crowded train or bus, pointed to an empty seat and asked a nearby person “Permesso?”, they would suddenly look me in the eye and say “Prego! Prego!”, gesturing emphatically, as though I would insult them should I not sit down.   

Mi dispiace: Forgive me, I’m sorry.  Useful if you break something or keep an entire bus load of people waiting: See blog post Sei (#6)- Life Imitates Art

É tutto:  What to say when the waiter keeps asking what else you want to order, and you have already ordered enough food for a family of 8.  The traditional Italian meal has many courses, and is eaten late at night over many hours.  I doubt, however, Italians eat this way every night, and we surely could not - from a gastronomic or economic standpoint.  “E tutto” seemed to be both polite and effective. Rick Steves recommends this phrase in his guidebook. 

Il conto, per favoré: This is another restaurant term and cultural etiquette gem from Rick Steves.  Given the leisurely pace of dining in Italy, it would be considered rude for the waiter to bring your bill before it was specifically requested.  An uninitiated American might be sitting impatiently waiting for the bill and thinking the waiter inattentive or rude, when in fact it may be quite the opposite. At any rate, the bill comes quickly once one utters this little phrase.

Cafés and Caffé:  I was in heaven in Italy’s café culture.  Sit at a table on a quiet back street or a bustling piazza, order coffee, watch the world pass by and practice il dolce far niente – the sweetness of doing nothing.  In addition to cafés and restaurants, every little Tabacchi, or  mom-&-pop corner store, has a small but good espresso bar - along with stamps, bus tickets, personal care items, and yes, tobacco.  It took us the better part of our Italian vacation to learn the basic rituals for ordering coffee. If you sit at a table in a café or restaurant, you will pay twice the price of coffee at the stand-up bar, but the table is yours all day if you wish.  Tabacchi coffee is excellent and only one or two euro but if you sit down at a small table, no one will come take your order.   When you do order, do not ask for a venti skinny latte with soy.  It’s ok to order cappuccino in the morning, but totally uncool after the noon hour, as Italians firmly believe milk consumption interferes with digestion of food. Most of the time, Peter and I ordered 2 espressos:  tiny white cups holding potent shots of dark molten caffeine. Even when we used the correct words most Italians assumed we had no idea what we had just ordered. At each stand up coffee bar, we would sidle up to la cassa (the cash register) euros in hand and say “Due caffé, per favore”. The cassa man or lady, spocking us out immediately despite our impeccable pronunciation, would query “Espressi? Americani?” (translation: isn’t what you really want two American coffees?) to which we would reply definitively “Si, espressi”.  After paying, we then walked a few feet over to the stand-up coffee bar, handing the receipt to a barista, who might query us again to be sure we would not be a waste of good espresso.  They ignored our often inappropriate hand gestures (Italians signal the number 2 not with the index and middle finger as Americans do, but by holding up the thumb and index finger, as though pointing an imaginary gun skyward. Yes, we had heard this, but the body learns slowly, especially when low on caffeine).  After completing this stressful caffé ritual one might be tempted to relax and sip the brew, but no - the one and only thing consumed quickly in Italy, coffee bar caffé is downed in one or two swigs, the drinker moving on within minutes to leave space for the next patron.

Piazza: Sounding similar to pizza, a piazza is a feast for the eyes and ears. Much is lost in translation. “Town square” hardly captures the essence of these centers of city and small town life, deeply historic as well as lively contemporary gathering places for commercial and social life.  Almost always composed of stone, piazzi are rarely planted with trees, grass or landscaping of any sort,  yet are venues colorful with people, merchandise, and often great art and ancient architecture. My absolute favorite: Piazza dela Signorini in Firenze, aka Florence.

Ci sono da Hawaii (We are from Hawaii) This phrase usually required multiple repetitions because the Italian and Hawaiian pronunciation of Hawaii are way different. Once comprende, this was sure to elicit oooos and ahhs and exclamations in whatever English the speaker possessed, such as  “Hawaii is like a dream to us“ (See blog post Quatro).

Dare alla luce (Dah-ray ah-lah luu-chay) To give birth; literally, to give to the light.  This was the first Italian phrase I learned and admittedly, the least practical - unless one plans to live Italy or be a traveling doctor/nurse. I did eye a few pregnant women and consider trying it out, deciding discretion is the better part of valor when it comes to women’s bellies.  

Il dolce far niente (Eel dole-chay fahr nee-yen-tay) The sweetness of doing nothing. A distinctly un-American and quintessentially Italian phrase (See Café and Caffé above). 

Googlelalo On the short flight from Zurich to Florence, Peter and I were not seated together and as a result had separate but equally enchanting conversations with Italians returning home. It was my seatmate, a young woman from Sienna, who told me Italians like to adopt and adapt English words. In contrast to the French who will use 10 words to describe something rather than admit a foreign nom into the club, she reported that Italians find it fun to Italianize terms, to  make them their own. “You know what we say when we want to look for something on the Internet? Googlelalo, she giggled.    

Travel guru Rick Steves describes Italy as one of the friendliest European countries towards Americans, adding that locals are more appreciative of visitor attempts to speak their language than elsewhere in Europe. So, what have you got to lose from trying? Bigots and sour pusses can be found anywhere.  At best you end up with a serendipitous cultural adventure; at worst, you get a blank stare or rudeness in return. Should such be the case, you can simply console yourself with a glass of vino rosso, a plate of warm pasta cingale or some cool gelato limoni as you sit at a café, stroll through a bustling piazza, and feast your senses upon the sights and sounds of bella Italia.    

KPT Kids

Big messy water main break near my workplace. Traffic and parking crazier than usual, so I parked somewhere different, next to the KPT housing project low rise apartments. Returning to the spot at dusk, a group of  5 large guys, hoodies and big hair, were gathered nearby, some leaning against my dusty black car.  As I approached, one of the youths was complaining loudly about some "f...g bitch". I greeted them, whereupon the speaker met my eyes and responded, "Oh, sorry...language". His friends moved quickly away from the car, looking sheepishly at the ground as though they had suddenly found themselves in church. I wished them a good evening and drove off down the muddy road. KPT kids may be tough, but they still know how to respect their elders.  Happy Friday, y'all and count your blessings!

Mothers Day Madness

Look past the hype
Ignore the faux greetings
emailed by politicians and insurance agents
the pop-up ads for last minute flowers

Look past the madness
Sing your way through traps and traffic jams
as children of all ages race, then crawl
to meet inflated and bittersweet

Look past the rituals
Float above the brunch-crowded parking lot
where cars troll for space
ferrying eggshell elderly
driven by dads dreaming
of after-lunch naps
dropping off moms
carrying babes on hips
and kids by hands
surrounded and sandwiched
in their multi-generational pods

Look past the past
Catch the eye of one small boy
rubbing his hands together
in anticipation perhaps of pancakes
who grins
and sing-songs
Happy days!
Dad looks down, smiles
and, as if just now remembering,
echoes his son Happy Days!


Sunday, November 17, 2013

Folks you meet at Starbucks…with apologies to Lee Cataluna

“Miss…excuse me, Miss…”  Oh, he’s talking to me, I realize after the third “Miss…” breaks through my little coffee shop solo thought bubble.  ”How do you spell Patricia? P-a-t-r-i-s-h-a?  “Yeah, you could”, I reply, though most people would spell it …P-a-t-r-i-c-i-a”. A pudgy young man sitting nearby at one of those little round rocky wooden tables squints in concentration as he stores the name in his not-so-smart flip phone.  “How’s the arm?” I ask him, glancing at a bandage on his totally tattooed arm. “Oh, yeah!” he exclaims, “You were there! You the one… “ 

On a previous day at Starbucks, I honestly can’t recall how long ago…was it 6 days or 6 weeks ago?… I was, of necessity,  sharing one of the large square tables with a couple other patrons,  trying to get some work done during my lunch break, when this young baby-faced fellow sitting at our communal  table looks at my name tag and asks where I work.  When I tell him, he shows me this wicked abscess on his arm “from a burn” and asks if he can come to our clinic. He actually has Kaiser but he asks - over and over - what the doctor will ask him about how he got this ugly red inflamed looking wound.  I tell him – over and over - I’m not a doctor, but he really should see one soon, and to not worry about the questions – unless it’s a gunshot or knife wound from an assault, they won’t report it.  A Queens ER tech at a nearby table joins the “Go to the ER today, man” chorus.  But the guy is ambivalent, mired in some inner turmoil about what to do next.   When I gather my things to return to work, he goes back to making calls from his cell in search of antibiotics. 

“I had really bad staph, I got dialysis, they said I almost lost the arm…” he effuses, filling me in—or possibly spinning a tall tale, one he surely now believes.  He reports visiting an ER that same day and if had he waited “they said I coulda died, I almost lost the arm…I wouldn’t have gone if you hadn’t told me to”. “Hey, it was you, not me, man.  I didn’t drag you there – you’re the one who decided to go”.  He kept shifting his locus of control, insisting if not for me (and the Queens ER guy) he would have been armless or dead by now, and so we eventually settled on the “God works in mysterious ways” theory.  Then he went back to working his phone, working the system: “What! I gotta come in?...”  I packed the un-read papers, picked up my coffee cup,  and returned to work.  

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Lost and Found

My mother
is losing her mind
the keen and creative intelligence
the fluid conversationalist
the sly distractor
the determined actor
are becoming history
my history
For her
there is a new reality
the here and now
this present moment
Oh, Fate
you cruel robber
why steal such precious past?
Must so much yesteryear 
in the same fog
as hides what we talked about  
15 minutes ago?

And yet…and yet
after years of struggle
of running away
of holding one another
at arm’s length
are sprouting in the rain
beneath an ancient canopy
beyond words
a healing of the whole
What we both needed most
as children
we somehow
now have found
in each other’s arms 
unconditional love.


Mom brought me a glass of water
this morning
slow as a snail
sure as a swan
a remnant from the fabric
of her former self
the hostess…the mother

She asked
and I remembered
to say yes
to accept something
from her still strong hands
some small cup
of nourishment
and it tasted good.   

Sunday, August 11, 2013

United We Stand

We were returning home to Hawaii after attending the graduation of our daughter at Humboldt State, the northern most outpost of the California university system.  It had been a glorious week of ceremonies and socializing with her friends and colleagues in the lovely eccentric small town of Arcata;  a time of meeting (and liking) her boyfriend and his family;  active days of hiking high above dramatic rocky sea coasts, visiting towering redwood forests, and exploring beaches, bays, marshes and wildlife sanctuaries.   Before boarding the 20-seater prop plane in tiny Eureka/Arcata airport, we passed through the world’s shortest and mellowest security line – and quite possibly the most thorough: the TSA guy chatted up each one of us – out of friendliness or to a purpose, we could not be sure.  As the small plane flew south, I gazed out the window watching the long California coastline pass far below under a bright mid-day sun and ruminated about the fascinating people we had met in this progressive college town.  As our plane began its descent into sprawling San Francisco airport, I recalled an after-grad party conversation with a retired airline pilot who mentioned this particular airport was not his favorite.   What was it he had said? The runways were built too close together, planes could only land one at a time and this tended to back up operations … or something like that. Ah, well, we had landed with a thump but safely, so I dismissed this line of thought and focused on strategy for finding our connecting flight to Honolulu.  As we deplaned near Terminal 1, helpful airline staff and clear signage directed us efficiently to shuttles going to Terminal 3… whereupon all efficiency terminated. 

When my college graduate was a child of 4 or 5 years old, our household experienced periodic blackouts. Despite living no more than two miles distance from the biggest power plant on our island, we occasionally had inexplicable lapses in electricity. Ultimately minor inconveniences, when it happens, such experiences can leave one feeling…well, powerless.  When the lights and household robots shut off with that dramatic low whir followed by sudden silence, my husband and I would begin speaking in low reassuring tones so the kids could find us in the dark as we got out lanterns, stopped cooking, and looked outside to see how many neighbors were affected.  It was not unusual to look down and see our tiny girl standing next to us holding up an enormous flashlight, trembling with adrenalin, determined to be useful in the crisis.

It helps to have a job during a disaster.  So it was when our United airlines flight delay went from bad to worse to nightmare.  Your heart always sinks when they announce flight #123 is delayed - our scheduled 4:30 pm lift off was moved until 6 pm - but you allow yourself to be heartened by the fact that a new departure time is announced.  Surely this means they have identified the problem and are taking appropriate steps to remedy it.  You actually become hopeful as they begin boarding those needing extra time or paying extra money.  

Once on the plane, you settle into your seat, even begin watching a movie –one that your husband never wants to watch - on the cool little individualized screen at your seat, until you begin to wonder at the continuous lack of moving scenery outside the window.  After a long time on the tarmac comes the dreaded announcement. It is phrased in the vaguest of terms:  a mechanical issue is being checked out. Uh-oh, not a good sign.  Some time later, passengers are given the option to deplane for 30 minutes, and about half choose to do so.  Peter and I stay on board, escaping into our respective films to keep troublesome thoughts at bay.  The movies soon halt for a brief announcement that they will close the front door, power down the aircraft and start it up again.  We later hear that no such explanation is provided to those who deplaned, setting off archetypal fears of abandonment.  I guess hitting the reset button proved unsuccessful because before we could finish our movies we are told the flight is definitively delayed due to mechanical difficulties and are instructed to leave the aircraft and go to a designated location for complimentary meal coupons. With a collective groan, we head for “Customer Service” where the first of many long lines await us.  From here on out, conflicting information and mixed messages abound.  In the vacuum created by an absence of accurate info, rumors run wild.  We hear and spread to our fellow travelers news both accurate and totally false as it turns out.  Gate agents, Customer Service reps, and the United flight board seem to be on totally different wavelengths and as a result we march back and forth between gates 82 and 86 like toy soldiers.  One agent came out to a queue by Gate 86 to tell us we can sit down and they will bring hotel and meal vouchers to us.  As she seemed to tell only one portion of the crowd, we helpfully pass the word down the line, whereupon some gullibly find a seat, while others stubbornly stand their ground.  As it turns out, either this was an agent gone rogue, a local San Fran anarchist masquerading as an airline rep, or her common sense approach was subsequently over-ruled, because we are soon all back in the queue. 

As I waited by a window in a patch of sun charging my cell, a crew member sat next to me with his mobile, charger and plastic-encased Starbucks salad, so I casually grilled him for intelligence. He said there was no identifiable mechanical problem, but an indicator light had come on, and they can’t fly over the ocean with that light on, so they either had to find someone higher up who would ok a flight over the water, or find a new aircraft. Even if they got the plane cleared for flight, the crew was going on “illegal” (aka overtime) and they’d probably need a new crew.  He thought there was still a chance we’d get out tonight.  He was right on all counts, except the last. We did not get out that night and the small cadre of beleaguered United airline agents had to book all 300 of us, one at a time, into various hotels in the wider San Francisco area.   
While standing in the line speculating wildly with our fellow former passengers, I noticed an attractive blond woman wearing fashionable dark brown glasses who said nothing, unlike most others in the vicinity. Peter later said he watched her eyes begin to well-up with tears just before she asked if anyone spoke Italian or French.  Like Kelly with her flashlight, I volunteered that I spoke a little French.  I was not being modest.   Je parle francais mais un petit peu was perhaps the very first phase I learned to speak in high school French class some 40 years ago, and have not studied or spoken much since then, aside from dusting off the cobwebs for the occasional Tahitian visitor to Hawaii and two marvelous but brief visits to Paris over the past decade.  I credit my francophilia and less-than-abysmal French accent to students who lived in our home and taught me songs and words as a child.  Alors, the tongue is willing but the memory wanting. 

The blond woman indicates she is Italian; her husband speaks some French and is nearby with their young sleeping sons. She dials her cell a couple times before a portly man grumpily answers the call and we begin our exchanges in pidgin French, Italian, English, plus poor-man’s sign language.  Her name is Nadia, the family organizer and communicator, focused and upbeat despite their 30+ hour journey thus far from Milan to Frankfurt to stuck in ‘Frisco.  It is Nadia who dragged husband Amadeo  and the boys half way around the globe to attend a wedding in Waikiki, and he expressed in multiple languages his fervent wish to be back at his house,  his bed,  his country,  eating his food,  hunting truffles with his dog (Je voudrais revenir a ma maison! a mon pays…avec mon chien).   Throughout the ordeal, his mood ranged from dour cynicism to exhausted exasperation.  “Anywhere I go it rains on my head”, he exhaled at one point.  When it finally looked like we might actually get to Hawaii, Amadeo curbed his enthusiasm, predicting, “If I am in Hawaii, it will rain.”

In the midst of the debacle, many fellow travelers remain remarkably good humored, having decided that la resistance is futile. Others are outraged and take it out on the front liners who have the thankless job of fronting for a totally dysfunctional system.  One man can be heard yelling into his cell phone at some faceless United agent he’s managed to reach, probably in Mumbai, apoplectic with impotent rage.  Others try end runs around the endless lines and their own sense of helplessness.  Like buzzing flies, they dive bomb the agent desks from the sides, pressing for attention to their special needs, wanting someone to hear their righteous indignation.  Occasionally these anti-social tactics do yield short term results as the staff, like harried mothers coping with a horde of children, make the calculus that it’s faster to first deal with the hyper-activists, before returning to those quietly smoldering next in line.   But these selfishly got gains are mostly illusory, in much the same way that switching lanes on the freeway makes me feel as though I’m getting to my destination faster…until I notice the cars I  just left in the dust are now passing me by. 

I am no Mother Teresa.  I have had my share of affecting assertive behavior in the face of the unreasonable and unresponsive, of refusing to take absurdities lying down, of tilting at windmills because I hate indignities and injustice.  But really, once you get that your entire foreseeable future is squarely in the hands of an under-staffed, sleep-deprived, stressed out crew; that you are a prisoner in their weird little world, the reality begins to dawn that it no longer matters who is right. The question simply becomes what survival strategy is most effective, wastes the least energy, gets us safely home and out of the alien hell-hole into which we have innocently tumbled.

Talk calmly and politely to the guards, take deep breaths when your fellow inmates try anti-social tricks, laugh at the absurdities that abound.  When bored, chat casually with fellow travelers- they may later prove useful.  Form alliances with the more like-minded (or least obnoxious) ones. Trade information, theories, pool survival gear.  Take all announcements from airline staff and crowd-sourced information with a grain of salt.  Ask several different people in a line what they think they are lining up for – seek triangulation.  Watch folks’ faces as they leave the front of the line: smiles of success? frowns or tears of frustration?  Let a few people who really need it go ahead of you.  All these things remind you of where true control lies, and can feel oddly empowering.
Still, everyone has their own coping strategies. "Basta! Basta!!" exclaimed Amadeo cursing the indignities as he stood by the United counter waiting for a distracted agent to acknowledge his existence, knowing no one understood precisely what he was saying. “Positivo” comments Nadia to me, as the shuttle wends its way through the darkness to some nameless hotel on the outskirts of the city.  She has been gamely pointing out freeway signs that read “San Francisco” to her sleepy boys, trying to peak their interest and optimism.  It sounds to me as though she is saying “Look, see we’re really here, in the US, in San Francisco, the adventure has begun….”

"Positivity, dear mama," advises my son via text, as we sit eating an 11 pm dinner in the hotel sports bar.  And Peter and I were in fact actively enjoying a comfortable in-between moment, suspended between worlds, to sip our wine and beer and reflect on the bizarre day.

“As your hands give hope, you have hope to hold”, reads the barely poetic message on a lotion bottle in the airplane bathroom, however hope was short-lived as only a wee bit could be coaxed from the pump.  Since when did travel toiletries start carrying self-help messages?   If we needed more evidence that terrible travel has become the norm, it can be found in hotel and airline bathrooms where toiletries are full of unsolicited advice for the weary traveler.  The soap wrapper in the hotel bathroom reads “Relax” and I almost had a fit trying to tear it open with wet hands.  It took a towel and scissors to complete the operation, and by then my calm quotient was diminished.  The shampoo and conditioner also carried words like “calm, cooling, relaxing...”  They obviously know their clientele: stressed out travelers, booted off airplanes and herded like sheep to graze at the hotel sinks for a few hours.  In fact, upon arrival at our nameless hotel ready for a late dinner and bed,  we again found ourselves in a check-in line witnessing  yet another drama unfold, this one unrelated to ours, as an angry Asian American man and his girlfriend argued with the immigrant Chinese hotel staff about lost luggage and who had it last.  As the yelling escalated, I turned once more to our perplexed Italian visitors.  Mi dispiacie, I apologize in Italian, shaking my head, and turn to French to assure them America is not always like this: Ce n’est pas toujours comme ca ici…or is it?   

At the crack of dawn, we arranged to meet our Italian family in time for a shuttle, and once they had us all herded into our pens at the airport gate, our flight was promptly delayed.  After the short night’s sleep, the boys, Filippo and Tomasso, were transformed into balls of curious energy ready for a nutritious American airport breakfast.  Amadeo wants to treat us to breakfast with his courtesy meal vouchers, but there is another line to stand in (new boarding passes are required for the rescheduled flight to replace the ones they gave us last night), so Peter and Nadia take this shift while Amadeo, the boys and I go off in search of eats. We end up at the food court eating Japanese food because it is the first thing they see that they can point to.  This proves to be yet another cross-cultural adventure in which 5 Asian staff are trying to help by all talking at once in heavily accented English,  asking repeatedly and at escalating volume  questions such as whether they want white rice or fried rice. Aside from asking “how much?”, Amadeo has given up and is just talking to them in Italian.  I’m trying my best to interpret but do not recall most useful food words, such as sushi, rice bowl and teriyaki sauce.  They end up eating plain chicken, white rice and steamed vegetables covered in catsup.  Nadia expertly shows up with green tea, yogurt and granola for her breakfast and the boys eat most of it.  Over our meal, we women exchange business cards with email contacts and I learn that Nadia is an avvocato – a lawyer.  Amadeo sulks until Nadia informs us in the tri-lingual pidgin we have fallen into that her husband’s “passione” is truffle hunting with his dogs, and his face almost lights up as he speaks of it.  The boys are now intently trying to speak to us in English, motivated by the belief they will actually get to Hawaii and do some of the stuff they point to in their guide books. The elder of the boys is a reserved, cerebral, dignified boy of 12 who understands more English than he lets on.  The 9 year old is a pistol; active, impulsive, emotional, and a constant irritant to his father.  He is determined to communicate with us about the size of tiger sharks and demonstrate how he can “number to 100” in English –getting as far as 25 before his cool-head brother stops him (in perfect English) with “ok, we get the idea”. Both boys enjoy fishing near their family farm in northwest Italy and hope to do so in the Waikiki jungle.  We are not encouraging.
We did eventually arrive in Honolulu, an outcome never truly in doubt, simply forgotten in the furor over unmet expectations.  My last advice to la famiglia Italiano was to walk with us to Baggage Claim rather than wait for the famous “Wiki-Wiki Shuttle” – a name I declined to translate given our recent run of bachi luck.  As we walk outdoors onto the breezeway,  I feel the first touch of Hawaii’s nahenahe trade winds on my face and my heart fills with what can only be described as aloha. A gentle, moist, plumeria-scented breeze envelops us, hydrating breath, plumping up dry skin and bringing curl to limp hair.  Feel this air, I motion, there is nothing like this in the whole wide world. 

The last time I saw them, at Honolulu baggage claim, Nadia was gathering up the luggage and Amadeo had his hand cocked hoping  to give his fleet-footed youngest a swat in punishment for some expression of exuberance at being released from the confines of a 60 hour journey. For us, this transitory international relationship made the travel travesty more adventure than adversity.  True, we lost a day we might have spent comfortably sleeping in our bed, eating our food, doing our laundry. Instead we arrived home richer than when we left, my notebooks stuffed with fabulous writing fodder and with a standing invitation to visit the family farm near Savona, an Italian Riviera port town, known as the birthplace of Cristofo Columbo (Christoper Columbus) and reportedly for, yum, fresh truffles. 

More than once on this unexpected  journey the sardonic travel humor of David Sedaris came to mind, including one essay in which he claims flight attendants confided to him about  a practice known as  “crop dusting”,  purposely passing gas as they walk down the aisle and attend to the more demanding irascible passengers.  Further proof, as if one needed it, that what goes around comes around; that in the surprising twists and turns of life, fellowship and fortune are often found in the most unexpected of circumstances.