Biff America: I resemble that remark (column)
That angry old Italian dude was under the assumption that I did not speak his language. He was mostly correct, but after a few weeks of driving and bicycling around his country I had picked up some key phrases — hello, goodbye, please, thank you, and no I’m not Keith Richards, etc.
Added to my vocabulary were words that, for some unknown reason, many of his countrymen had said to me. I heard “coglione” so often I used my handy dandy iPhone translator to learn its meaning. Roughly translated, it means “testicle.” I was sure I had misspelled it until a helpful bilingual waiter told me the literal translation was in fact testicle, but the meaning in American terms might be “doofus” which the waiter pronounced “drool fast,” but I got the meaning.
Truth is I did exhibit a fair amount of doofus-like behavior in Italy; it is nearly impossible not to.
I currently hold the record at my old high school for failing Spanish One three times. Had my school offered Italian I might have replicated that feat. Despite that lack of language aptitude I’ve never shied away from traveling to foreign lands. Truth is, with my heavy Boston accent I’m often not understood in my own nation so I’m comfortable having people look at me as if I were brain damaged.
Even after I learned the true meaning of coglione, I did not take offense; the label was warranted. I would enter the exit doors, show up way too early to restaurants for dinner and then order a medium rare hand towel (instead of sirloin) along with various offenses that a clueless American might commit in a strange land.
To be clear the Italian people we encountered were overwhelmingly wonderful. But at the end of a long tourist season to have an American drool-fast trying to communicate with a combination of his high school Spanish, smartphone Italian with a Boston accent is enough to try anyone’s patience.
When we weren’t bicycle touring on our own, we were traveling with my mate’s parents in a van large enough to grow crops. In my own country I might be called a slow and cautious driver, in Italy I was getting passed by geriatrics on Vespa scooters while I clogged traffic like a cheese-eater’s diet.
It was our last day and my mate and in-laws wanted to visit a church that was twice as old as our country and to me as exciting as flower arranging.
At the end of the long day, that tested my hummingbird-like attention span, we headed back to the parking lot to pick up the van to head home.
Many of the metro lots are paid parking — you enter for free and pay as you leave. You usually pull up to a gate, insert your in-laws’ credit card and are charged as you exit. But this particular lot was designed to trap Coligone Americans.
I pulled up to the gate and found no place to put a credit card. I put the van in reverse and got ready to back out and regroup when a gate lowered behind me, trapping me in. In the meantime several cars had pulled up behind me waiting for me to leave so that they could as well. I sprinted out of my car, through a chorus of honking horns and yelling drivers, searching frantically for a kiosk where I could pay.
Other than a few “cogliones,” I couldn’t understand what the waiting drivers were yelling. I finally figured out that you had to enter your license plate number in a nearby kiosk which would give you a ticket to insert into a slot at the gate where I had left my nervous mate and in-laws hiding in the van. The gate opened and I could still hear a serenade of horns honking for a city block as I drove away.
Whenever the resort town I live in gets a little too crowded for comfort I remind myself we are all tourists somewhere. By definition a “resort” is a place that is desirable to a point where many choose to visit. Those of us lucky enough to live in a resort town do face a grin-to-grunt scenario.
The grin is living in a desirable place, the grunt is sharing it with thousands of guests. Luckily for us all, we mostly speak the same language. I try to be patient and a gracious host to our visitors, as countless locals have done for me when I’m in a strange place. Often, just seeing the wonder and pleasure on the faces of our guests goes a long way toward recompense of their impact on our infrastructure.
I do look forward to an encounter someday with folks from the land of Michelangelo. I have some phrases that might make them feel right at home.
Jeffrey Bergeron, under the alias of Biff America, can be read in several newspapers and magazines. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Biff’s new book “Mind, Body, Soul.” is available at local shops and bookstores or http://shop.holpublications.com/products/biff-america-mind-body-soul
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