This post – ‘2. Text Book Italian’ is the second part of a three part memoir from my first solo trip to Italy as a 23 year-old back in 2003. If you missed part 1 (Titled: Beyond The Bubble) click here to read from the beginning.
IM HERE. Iʼm finally here, this is it! Iʼve crossed all the days off my calendar, stepped onto a jumbo and flown twenty-four hours to the other side of the planet. It’s been an ordeal. I’ve had several different thermometers pointed at me and almost been quarantined at the airport but, now I’m here! So, now what do I do?
I’m overcome by the quiet. I’m standing outside the terminal and there’s no one in sight. This is Rome ; I should be accosted by accordion playing pizza chefs with big, black moustaches chanting ʻhowayougoingheh?ʼ punctuated with ʻThatʼs Amoreʼ. However, it is seven oʼclock in the morning on a Sunday before a public holiday which Iʼm not aware of yet. The city and its people are still asleep, likely dreaming of hot summer nights in the piazza.
I read that it’s easier to get the bus to Perugia so I follow signs to the bus terminal. However, there are buses parked everywhere and all of them unattended, except for one. A lone driver stands, leaning with one hand against the bus and the other holding a self-rolled cigarette. He smokes and scratches his stubbly beard, staring forward as if he’s contemplating the meaning of life. I decide to approach him. I think how ridiculous I must look at this time of the morning wandering around these deserted buses with my giant backpack on. ʻScusa, quale lʼautobus si prende ad andare a Perugia? He tells me that the next bus to Perugia isnʼt until alle otto e mezzo, eight thirty. An hour and a half from now. So, I decide to follow the airport signs to the train ʻterminiʼ. This is where all the other backpack bearing, pale-skinned tourists have walked off to, so it’s a safe option.
I arrive at the station and join the queue of loud Americans, quiet Germans, and flamboyant Spaniards and wait my turn at the window. Everyone in front of me is ordering their tickets in English. I feel proud that I can speak Italian and begin to rehearse my sentence in my head. Here we go this is real textbook Italian, something we learnt in early high school. Dario, a fat little cartoon textbook character would get himself into all sorts of fictional situations in public places. Situations that always allowed him to demostrate his perfect Italian. One of them was of course, buying a train ticket from the station.
I reach the front of the line. To make matters more difficult, the lady I have to speak to is sitting behind a thick pane of glass. It’s soundproof and we have our conversation through a crackly speaker.
She glances at me over her thick-rimmed black glasses; ʻ‘Pregoʼ .
I clear my throat ʻ’Buongiorno…ʼ I explain to the lady that I need to get a train to Roma Termini to then change to get a train to Perugia. She is helpful and Iʼm releived that the exchange is over. This however, will be the first of many confused thick-glassed conversations I will have in my coming months here.
I donʼt remember much of the train journey from the airport. Iʼm too preoccupied trying to piece together the vacant gaps in memory over the last twenty-four hours. This is the single longest journey I have undertaken and my mind and body are in a bit of shock.
I arrive at Roma Termini and find the train silent and stationary against the long, tiled platform. I wander down the length of carriages looking for an attendant or someone who will take my ticket and usher me to my seat. There is no such person around. I wander back down to a small lady sitting in a large chair behind a bench that says ʻinformazioneʼ. I present my ticket to the lady and ask how I know which carriage Iʼm in. She points to the section that says ʻcarottaʼ and I learn that this word means ʻcarriageʼ. I make my way back down the platform as the straps on my backpack begin to cut into my skin. I wince as it bounces up and down with every confused step I take. I finally find my seat and settle in.
There is a young Italian man in the seat opposite me. He appears of the same age and I stare at him. He has incredible sense of style from his trendy brown suede shoes to his designer jeans and expensive looking shirt. After what feels like an eternity the train convulses into motion and weʼre off. We clatter a hiss along a series of bendy track work as we slowly make our way out of Rome.
The scenery heading out of Rome is non-eventful. Frankly, I could be on any suburban train network at home if it wasnʼt for the speed in which the train is beginning to travel. It feels like weʼre flying and the pressure of the air changing as we go in and out of tunnels begins to hurt my ears. I have never been on a train travelling at such a speed and I enjoy the rush. The smartly dressed Italian man opposite me sits still and I expect he has done this journey many times before.
The scenery begins to open up as I grasp snippets of luscious green countryside before blackness as we fly into the dark mouth of another tunnel. I feel as if the landscape is teasing me with these brief postcard-like images of Italy before they are whipped away into darkness.
The train begins to slow as we pull up to the platform of a small station where two young girls board the train. Theyʼre American. Immediately I feel strangely connected to them. Normally, two young, heavily-accented Americans would seem foreign, almost exotic, but the common link of English bonds me with them. This will be the first of many such bonds I will form with random tourists. They say ʻhelloʼ and introduce themselves.
ʻWhere are you from?ʼ they ask. Itʼs always quite strange giving your country as an answer to such a question at first. Normally my answer would be my suburb, ʻIvanhoeʼ or even ʻMelbourneʼ. Australia is so broad, so large, so quantifying that I tingle as I say ‘I’m from Australia’. We begin to talk about Australia and how far it is from here and I soon find out that, they too are heading to Perugia. I feel relived.
I shuffle myself and my oversized backpack over to where they’re sitting and we chat as the blur of scenery gets faster and greener. I ask a lot of questions about Perugia. What itʼs like, how much things cost and many other things that I know Iʼll be able to answer myself in the coming days, but my curiosity and impatience are at their peak.
The train begins to slow as we hiss up to another isolated station that appears to be in the middle of nowhere. The girls explain that this is the start of Perugia. They get off but tell me Iʼm to get off at ʻPerugia Centroʼ, which is the main part of town. Iʼve looked at several maps before I came here. I spent cold, Melbourne winter mornings buried in my Atlas in awe of the geographic terrain I was about to explore. My body would tingle as I read aloud the names of the strange and exotic countries that surrounded Italy. Most of them I recognised from watching ‘Eurovision’ song contests. Looking at the map, my head would fill with images of cheesy blond Europeans dancing exuberantly to easily digestible, synthesised melodies. The train convulses into motion again before slowing and pulling into a much larger station with several platforms. The pale blue faded sign reads ʻPerugia Centroʼ.
I fumble around, clumsily and frantically checking that I have all my possessions. I take in a deep breath and give an exaggerated shrug to launch my backpack back onto my shoulders before awkwardly alighting onto the platform.
Now this is really it, Iʼm really here! I must look confused because a young man approaches me and asks me where Iʼm off to. I explain that I need to get to ʻvia eugeebeenaʼ. I miss pronounce the name horribly but Iʼm not yet aware of this. However, I say it with such confidence that the young man nods and seems to know what Iʼm talking about. He tells me I need to get the bus to ʻcentroʼ which leaves from outside the station. I thank him and move to join the queue of tourists waiting to buy their tickets. Daggily dressed, pale chickened legged people battle with oversized maps and money belts as the queue lurches forward. There is something different about these tourists, something that stands them apart from the other bunch I queued with at the airport.
I realise that they’re all Italian as they order their tickets in beautifully spoken native Italian. I begin to panic a little as the sight of foreigners comforts me. I ignore this, buy my ticket and board the bus. There are no seats. I almost knock out three people as I begin the awkward process of putting down my backpack to rest it at my feet. The bus takes off and begins to tear through local streets. I am fascinated by the scenery and my eyes dart all over the place as I begin to feel giddy. It is a sensory overload everything so new, so foreign, so incredible I canʼt take it all in. The road narrows but the bus speeds up as we bounce and get thrown around. All the other passengers seem unsurprised by this and I gather this style of driving is common here. The bus gets faster, speeding over the old cobblestone road as we start a steep climb. I read that Perugia is a medieval city perched on the top of a mountain. They werenʼt kidding! we seem to climb forever before the scenery changes and the bus makes a sudden stop. A large group of Italian tourists spill out the double doors and roll like billiards into the small piazza and I follow.
I have no idea where I am. Behind me stands a huge wall made of old stone with an archway in it. Through its mouth leads a narrow pathway that winds up and into a larger expanse. Everyone else seems to be entering through this archway and following this path so I decide to do the same.
I trudge heavy-footed and exhausted up to the giant stonewall that stands before me. I donʼt yet understand the layout of the town. Over the next months, I will spend many hours riding my Vespa around towns like this looking for ʻcentroʼ as I struggle with Italian geography and this is the beginning of it. I reach the wall and gaze up at it. I will soon learn that this wall was built in 4BC but for now, I know it must be thousands of years old. I rest my hand against the cool stone as if to get some sense of its history. I have never come face to face with something so old; something built thousands of years before Australia was even dreamt of by unborn discoverers.
I hold my hand against it and close my eyes. I imagine weary Roman soldiers coming down from the piazza in a clang and squeak of leather-bound armour. They rest for a moment as they remove their gladiator-style helmets to reveal dark locks of sweaty, ragged hair, wipe their brows and drink from the fountain. I snap out of this as the bus hisses and lurches off again at great speed around the corner and out of site.
I walk through the entrance of the wall and discover a cobble stoned path that winds up between tall and narrow stone buildings. Colourful wooden window shutters peer down at me as washing hangs, strung up between the buildings, dripping dry in the hot Italian summer. The dripping water is refreshing. I’m exhausted and feel as though my backpack is resisting as I lug it up the hill and along the path. I pass cafes and restaurants and stare inside their cool dark interiors in awe of their clichéd Italian appearance. I feel as if I have just stepped in ʻCinema Paradisoʼ… I feel like a young boy in an Italian summer, curious and wistful. I continue up the path as an old man passes me on an excessively loud yet small motor scooter. He has shopping bags hanging from the handlebars and holds onto his weather beaten hat. He skillfully steers with his free hand as the bike clatters over the rough path.
I finally make my way to the top and literally gasp as the piazza opens up in front of me. There is a giant church with large stone stairs that lead down into the piazza. Tanned backpackers sit and drink out of ridiculously oversized water bottles staring out at the bustling streets. Elderly couples are wandering doing the passagiata, something that will become so familiar to me on coming summer nights. Tourists sit in hard cane chairs, unbalanced on the stone piazza as they sip espressos and eat gelatos under shade umbrellas.
I’ve seen this is my textbook. I have seen this exact picture in my brochure on Perugia but to see it in real life is something different altogether. I sit for a moment on the giant steps outside the church and rest my backpack by my side. I feel so light and wispy with the relief on my back as I too reach for my plastic water bottle. I sip without even noticing itʼs empty and gaze out at the ʻbella vistaʼ in front of me.
I decide that I should find my accommodation and get settled. So again I heave the pack on and wander down the steps into the Piazza. It all seems so incredibly foreign. I pass an old cinema with posters of Italian films out the front and now I really feel as if Iʼve stepped into a movie. It’s all a beautiful cliche. The buzz of vespas swoon around the soft chatter of beautifully spoken Italian as the sun beats down on the main ʻcorsoʼ. I walk towards a phone booth and unravel my papers, looking for the phone number of my landlord where I have booked the accommodation. I have not yet spoken with my ʻpadroneʼ but left a message for her three nights ago on the answering machine. I sat in the study at home and wrote down beautifully structured Italian sentences in preparation. The call was simple; to confirm my reservation and the dates I would be staying. I was so nervous as I dialled the many digits with a strange feeling. I have never phoned the other side of the world so I embraced this moment knowing itʼs something I shouldnʼt take for granted. I thought about how my voice is carried by a series of cables and satellites and bounced to the other side of this huge planet… I pull out the change I got from the airport and place one of the silver ones in the phone. I have not yet worked out what these are worth but guess that they are of value for a phone call. I press the now lesser amount of digits as I make the local call. I hear a beeping sound I interpret as what must be an engaged signal so I hang up.
I try one more time but get the same tone so I decide to make my way to ʻvia eugeebenaʼ and try my luck. I sit on another set of stairs and pull out my map. I can see where Iʼm meant to go but the layout is so foreign so strange that I cannot get any concept of distance.
I decide I should take the bus, as it appears too far to walk. This judgement call I will look back on and laugh. It’s only a 5 minute walk form the piazza to my accomodation. A walk that I will make many times to meet friends and sit and drink cold beer from plastic cups on the stairs in the evening. But of course, I don’t know this yet. I begin to make my way back to the ʻinformazioneʼ stall I saw on the way to the phone both.
I enter and start with ʻbuongiorno…ʼ but continue in English as if my Italian has suddenly run out. I canʼt think of a word and I panic. I feel like a loud obnoxious tourist as I exclaim in my exaggerated English that I want to get a bus to via ʻeugeebeenaʼ. Yet, she answers me in perfect English and correctly pronounces the street name… ʻEyougabinaʼ. I feel ashamed that I had not even learnt the name of the street I would be staying in and I donʼt really listen as she explains to me where to go. I’m so tired that I just watch as she circles my faded crevasse beaten map. It’s been folded in so many incorrect combinations that the white fuzz has begun to immerse from the folds. She continues to draw circles with her fresh bright blue biro and speaks and points at the different circles. I nod my head and start to walk in the direction she has drawn.
I reach the spot the lady with the bright blue biro indicated as a ʻbus stopʼ which is simply a cobblestonned corner that has an old newsstand on in. Behind the rows of ʻgiornaleʼ and magazines sits an old grey-haired man with thick black-rimmed glasses. I see the bottles of water stored in his little fridge and make my way over. This will be my second Italian purchase and again I begin to rehearse in my head… ʻVorrei un bottiglia di aqua per favoureʼ. The man nods and sticks his big hands inside the small fridge. He then pauses to ask; ʻFrizzante or non frizzanteʼ. I have no idea what he said and luckily decide to repeat ʻnon frizzanteʼ as he grabs a small bottle and passes it to me. I hand him two of the silver coins and he gives me back a brown one.
‘Grazie’… I twist open the lid and suck the cold water out and sit and wait for the bus. It is some time before it arrives as I have time to observe several different tourist groups move through the small piazza. They too are all speaking Italian and I begin to panic at the lack of English. I feel ridiculous that this worries me and assure myself that everything will be fine. I wait for what feels like an eternity. I grab for the strap on my pack every time I hear what I think is a bus approaching only to see it is just car. I could have walked the distance to and from my hotel 5 times by now but of course I donʼt realise this yet.
Finally the bus arrives and I prepare to order my ticket. I explain to the driver that I need to go to – the now correctly pronounced – via euganbeena. He takes my silver money and hands me a small paper ticket, smiles and says ʻdoppo montolucue diventa via eugabinaʼ. I have no idea what he has said but say grazie as I move awkwardly down the bus and take a seat. I now begin to piece together what he said and translate it in my head… ʻAfter monteluce it becomes Eugabina streetʼ. Great! I understood, but hang on… What on earth is monteluce? I don’t yet know that it’s the hospital that will become so familiar on the corner of my street. I start to panic as I gaze out the window desperately trying to see street signs. This is not like home with its bright street signs written in times new roman accurately labelling every street. This is Italy where ancient signs lie on faded villa walls obscured by ivy as they delicately understate Street names. The bus speeds up and I try to lock my eyes on a fixed point long enough to read a street name. But, the bus is flying and whipps around a corner at great speed… I make out a number, 60 then 82, then 104… crap… I push the button and eventually the bus comes to a grinding halt. I step out onto the hot ground as the bus hisses off into the distance. Itʼs hot, itʼs really hot, I have no idea where I am and thereʼs no one in sight.
To Be Continued