Thursday, January 30, 2014

Why not?

People keep treating Stella like she is a regular dog and She.Is.Baffled. It is not that Stella is an unkind dog so much as that she is crabby indifferent. Beyond food and thunderstorms, there is not much in life about which she feels strongly. She tolerates more than she enjoys. And whereas Sookie believes that life is divided into things she LOVES and things she hasn't yet encountered but is sure that when she does she'll LOVE them, Stella's approach is more stay the hell away from me and I'll stay the hell away from you.

But the Romans are dog people as evidenced by all the dogs shopping in IKEA and checking out sales  in the malls and reading newspapers in cafes and sitting beside human children in double strollers. And so people think nothing of grabbing Stella's snout and kissing her. Which shocks her because she has spent 14 years making it clear that she is Not That Kind Of Dog. And so it would seem that Stella and the Italians suffer the same language barrier that the Italians and I suffer. By which I mean just me because the Italians can speak Italian perfectly well.

The building in which we live is populated mainly by older folks. They could be anywhere from 50-107 because Italians do not at some point stop fighting the good fight and slide into pants with elastic waists and sensible shoes ( unless you count motorcycle boots). Men wear hats and vests with jackets and ties to get a coffee and women who use a cane to walk still wear heels and minks(there is absolutely no such thing as political correctness here, so just go with it) and berets. I have seen ladies of a certain age sporting blue hair--not the heavily permed, teased and tinted blue hair of grandmothers of yore, but full-on-asymmetrical-bob-dyed-blue-hair blue. Because as our local barber says, "Perche no?" Incidentally, the local barber closed shop for a bit as he had an additional room built onto his shop. "Ah! expanding?" asked my husband.
"No, I am getting a foosball table," replied the barber. A year later, the foosball table has yet to materialize , but then again, all of Rome wonders if we will see Line C completed during our lifetime.

One night I was returning from an outing with the dogs and met one of our elderly neighbors on the stairs ( yet another reason why Italians live longer : even our oldest of neighbors think nothing of eschewing the elevator in favor of walking four or seven flights of stairs). I was carrying Stella as she is ill-bred and defective has a bad back and our neighbor stopped to kiss her (Stella pulled back in startled dismay) and to dangle her scarf for Sookie to bat as though she was a cat, which Sookie gleefully obliged by batting. As though she was a cat. "Mi piace le scarpe," I said in my awkward, ill-accented Italian, pointing to her shoes that were heavily embroidered in rich colors and had the faces of lions on the toes. She replied very quickly in surprise and there were a lot of words, the gist, I think being the question did I speak Italian? I am known in our building as the one who does not speak Italian. All conversation, including queries as to why I don't speak Italian, are directed to my husband and son. I told her that my Italian was bad but that I was trying. Many more words were said, the gist maybe being that it takes time or that it was raining, and she leaned forward to again kiss Stella.

And that was when I noticed her necklaces. One necklace bore an ornate cross. The other necklace was a plastic red t-shirt the size of my hand bearing the number 10 and the name Totti, as in Francesco Totti, captain of the AS Roma soccer team. And seeing that necklace on a woman who is 87 if she's a day was a reminder that in Rome, no matter how many times you step in dog poop (literal and figurative), there is always the possibility of being delighted.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

neither here nor there

This Christmas ---apologies in advance as I will now insert a song that will play in your head all day, but writing that makes me think of George Michael singing: Last Christmas, I gave you my heart, but the very next day, you gave it away…This year, to save me from tears, I'll give it to someone special--For whatever reason, the two back-to-back flights I took on Aer Lingus both played that little gem and it is now the gift that keeps on giving. You're welcome.

And so, this Christmas I found that I have mentally shifted from being an American who lives in Italy to an unidentified Other. Surrounded by a language not my own, immersed in a culture that is still as often as not foreign, I feel American in a way I never did in America. And so even though I am puzzled when people make guesses as to my nationality and American doesn't even make the long-list(Spanish? Greek? English? Canadian? Italian?), it is how I identify myself.

And yet, for the first time, I felt distinctly out-of-step while in America. If there was a Venn Diagram of Italian, American and Neither/Nor, I was hovering in the Neither/Nor category.

The very same little things that had made Italy seem strange now made America feel not quite right: the way waitstaff dropped your bill on the table before you had finished eating in their eagerness to hustle you out ; the uncomfortable need to hurry; the anger at waiting; the scowls directed at noisy children;the drivers who obeyed traffic rules; the salespeople who called for next in line and the customers who waited their turn; the cashiers who didn't bat an eye at making change, no matter how large the denomination they were handed.  These were all no longer my normal and yet the very lack of these things had made me crazy when I moved here.

At the grocery store in America, my son automatically began bagging items as they were scanned, only to stop, puzzled when the cashier smiled and began bagging them herself. "Oh! I forgot that cashiers can bag groceries here!" To be fair, I'm certain that cashiers in Italy can bag groceries, they just don't. Ever. Probably in the history of grocery stores, there has never been a cashier who bagged groceries.

In another instance, I was told I owed five dollars and I handed the bored teenager clerk five quarters. She waited impatiently, holding out her hand. I waited patiently for her to count my five euros so that I could move on with my day. But that didn't happen because although euros and quarters are the same size, they do not equal the same amount. And so I looked a little really dumb, even after my friend came to my rescue and explained that I was used to euros.

At one point I sat in a long line of cars at a stoplight, all of us waiting to go straight. The turning lane was wide open and yet not one car was utilizing it. Fools, all of them. So I used the turning lane to pull parallel to the first car in line at the stoplight. When the light turned red we would, of course, messily merge so that we could both go straight. Except I recognized at the last minute that I was not in Rome and I was going to cause an accident and so I quickly turned and took the long way to my destination.

None of this is to say that I am any more adept at social norms in Rome. I continue to get anxious and sweaty every time I do not have exact change and I have yet to remember not to greet friends with hugs and instead to air kiss both cheeks. I haven't taken to soccer any more than I ever took to football. I sometimes wish the waitstaff would just give us the check and not assume that of course we wanted to sit and digest our meal and enjoy each other's company.

And so I find myself neither here nor there and out of step in both. It is more "huh" than bad, but it is also all questions and no answers.