May 29, 2008
Before we left for our trip to Country That's Kicking, people kept asking, "Do any of you speak Italian?" The answer was no. My father's grandfather spoke Italian, of course, but — as was the case with many immigrant families — the language did not get passed down to the grandchildren or great grandchildren. I've worked in an Italian restaurant so I do know the names of foods, which turned out to be helpful, and I know a few swear words, which was a bit less helpful. But I brought along a phrase book and figured that as long as I learned the polite words — please, thank you, hello, and goodbye — I'd get along just fine. My Italian ancestors may not have passed down the language, but the ability to talk with my hands came through the blood.
For simple things like ordering food or asking where the bathroom was, gestures worked just fine. Well, we were sometimes a little surprised by what food showed up at the table, but we just considered that part of the adventure.
Then there was the incident with the white sheet. See, I had spilled water on a bedsheet and decided to hang it out on the third-floor balcony outside our room to dry in the sun. Then I forgot about the sheet altogether, and when a wind came up, the sheet blew away, landing on a balcony below us, too far away to reach. (My father said, helpfully, "How many years have you been sailing? And you didn't tie it down?") Red-haired Sister was worried that we'd be charged for the sheet if I didn't explain to someone what had happened. So I went off to search for the dark-haired woman who seemed to be in charge of housekeeping. I found her vacuuming the hallway, and I tried to explain the sage of the blown-away sheet.
She did not, it turns out, speak much English. Our communication consisted of me saying "Sheet! Sheet!" and her repeating "Sheet! Sheet!" and both of us gesturing wildly with our hands.
So I led her up to the room, where I pantomimed the whole story. I showed her the little table where we'd been eating fresh bread and cheese and fruit and demonstrated how a bedsheet made a fine tablecloth. Then I made motions to show the way in which my water had spilled with a clumsy gesture, not my fault, of course. I led her out to the balcony, and showed her how I had hung the sheet out to dry. Then I pointed to the balcony below, where a white sheet lay crumpled on the ground, out of reach. I wasn't sure how much of the story she was following until she saw the sheet and started laughing. She was still laughing as she reassured me, with a few gestures, that she would take care of the sheet.
When we returned later that afternoon, she had left a new sheet folded on the couch. Satisfied that I had communicated well, I went down to the lobby with my laptop to check email (the wireless only worked from the tiny lobby on the first floor). As I was downloading photos and listening to two other hotel customers talking in Italian about some soccer game on the television, I saw in the other corner of the lobby, Housekeeping Woman talking to the suave Italian guy who was the manager. She was gesturing and laughing, and at one point I heard the words, "Sheet! Sheet!" She looked in my direction once, smiling. I didn't have to understand a word of Italian to know that she was re-telling the story.
Posted by jo(e)