Friday, August 24, 2012

the one where the pizza owner's prediction comes true

 I was picking up a pizza one evening while still in America. One of the owners of the local pizza shop, who knew about our move, stopped me and asked, "Do you speak Italian?" When I told him I did not, he shook his head sadly and then looked hard into my face. "You must learn Italian,"he said, "or the Italians will try to rip you off. I know this; I am from Italy." Having traipsed around Italy on vacations with our Italian pal, I just knew that this was not true because everyone I had ever encountered was just so gosh darn nice.

Just today, in fact, Jack and I decided to head into the heart of Rome to view the must-see tourist sights that Jack had not yet seen. He was mainly hot and tired and I mainly tried to take pictures of things such as a women wearing a lace shirt and a bra standing in front of the Vatican and nuns wearing flip-flops.  All in all, it was a successful day.
she isn't picking her nose; she's just smoking & enjoying her Lee press-on nails.

 We decided to head home, bought metro tickets, got on the right train going in the right direction, and  got off at the right stop. We high-fived and smiled at the lounging metro workers.

One of the metro workers was clearly the actor who had played Vince, Will's cop boyfriend on Will& Grace. Sad.

Another metro worker was chewing her nails and spitting them on the floor. The third metro worker, however, was nondescript, which always means trouble.

As Jack and I had just been speaking in English, he addressed us in English: "I need your tickets." 

I was instantly confused (I know, big surprise). "Oh, we aren't trying to get on the metro, " I explained, "we're just using the exit." I pointed to the sign behind his head that led to the stairs. "Uscita," I added helpfully in case he couldn't read.

"No. I need to see your tickets before you leave, do you see?" I did not see, but I dismissed it as just another part of Italian culture with which I was not yet familiar. Like putting change on the counter instead of into your outstretched hand.  I dug through my things to find our tickets.

Finding our tickets was a feat unto itself as I had crammed all the contents of my purse into my camera bag for the day. I had to crouch on the floor  and take everything out of my bag to locate our tickets. The metro workers snickered. I'm sure they weren't laughing at me. Right before we arrived, one of them had probably told a joke and  they were just now all getting the punchline.

 I produced the tickets.
The nondescript worker barely looked at them before announcing they weren't correctly stamped and I would have to pay a 50 euro fine.

"Why would they be stamped?" I asked. "We just put them in the little machine, they popped back out, we took them and the gate opened. Who was supposed to stamp them?" You see, I like to use technical jargon like "little machine" and "popped out" in situations such as this so that the person to whom I'm speaking is aware that I know what's what.

He sighed as if speaking to a particularly obstinate and woefully slow child. "The machine did not stamp them so you must pay a 50 euro fine."  

He pointed out that I could give them 50 euro now or have a 140 euro fine later. I was beginning to suspect he was related to a prince in Nigeria that needed me to wire him $5000 and then he would be able to come to America and give me millions of dollars in return. MILLIONS.

Each time the worker explained my predicament, he would end with, "Understand?" To which I would reply, "No," and we would begin the round robin anew. 

Meanwhile, many waves of people had been exiting all around us and surprisingly, neither of the other two metro workers needed to see any of their tickets.

Vince from Will & Grace became annoyed that it was taking so long to extract my 50 euro and started speaking angrily to the nondescript metro worker.  He was clearly saying something about how he used to be on Will & Grace and that he didn't want to waste his time arguing with some American as the show got cancelled because Americans stopped watching it and now he works in a tunnel in Italy.

Finally I did the only thing I could do: I called Mike. I explained what was going on and Mike asked to speak with him. I tried to hand my phone to the guy, telling him to explain this to someone who understood Italian.  "No! No!" the man yelled, putting his hands up to prevent me from coming closer with my scary pink phone. "I am not permitted to speak on your phone."

Mike and I resumed our conversation ( How was the sightseeing? Pretty good. How was work? Not bad.What do you want to do for dinner? I don't care. Maybe Italian?)

 A new metro worker appeared, stopped a man trying to exit, and extracted some amount of euro from the man.

Seeing as how I was just talking on the phone and my son was twirling his hat on his finger, the metro man said, "Look, I will try to help you. If I put your ticket though the machine and the stamp doesn't print we will know there was just a problem with your ticket and that you paid for it and it is all okay."

"We couldn't have gotten through the metro gate if we hadn't used our metro cards which we had to have paid for in order to have them," I said once more for the  cheap seats in the back. "Isn't it possible that the machine ran out of ink or wasn't working properly?"

"It's... possible," the man said doubtfully. My ticket was put through the little machine and it did indeed emerge with a stamp! This caused a great deal of arguing amongst the workers with hands flying and and  ever-increasing volume. I think at one point the woman who had been chewing her nails tried to put the evil eye on the guy from Will & Grace. No one seemed to think much of the fact that the machine they had just put my ticket through was a different metro machine at a different metro stop. 

Finally, after all the arguing and yelling about whether or not the Olive Garden had a cooking school in Italy and why Italy played the football match better than Spain , the metro worker who had successfully collected 50 euro from another passenger announced, "Go. Leave."Very anticlimactic. 

So we did. And when we emerged into the 100 degree sunshine and I saw all the stores closing their shutters and people flooding into cafes, including my very own gang of metro workers, I realized that it was time for lunch. And nothing, not even trying to extort 50 euro from some Americans, was going to stop the people of Rome from closing up shop and enjoying their lunch.

*disclaimer: this has not been my typical experience with Italy. Despite what every guide book would have one believe, I have had no problem with cabdrivers taking the "long" way. When I misunderstand and overpay (probably every other time I leave the apartment), the cashiers have always been quick to correct me and return the excess money. Delivery men have been cheerful and chat with me over a glass of fizzy water. People are happy to give directions and are very forgiving when one uses two Italian words, lots of made-up sign language, and 13 English words in the same sentence.

However, the city really does close for lunch. No exceptions.

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