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Living Slow in Italy - Ignorants Abroad

Valerie Schneider

We have been in Italy for almost two months, and while we are very happy to be here, we find that we frequently feel like stupid children. Not only do we have difficulty in communicating at a juvenile level, but basic tasks bring challenges, too. How to work the washing machine, for example. Why are there 13 numbers on the dial? Why does the machine stop for a long rest after number 3? Into which of the four compartments do we place the soap powder? All this information is neatly tucked away within the pages of Slow Travel, but without a reliable internet connection, I can't access it.

Then there is the task of hanging the clothes out to dry. Simple enough, one would think, but for us electric dryer-dependent Americans it is an art that defies us. I don't know how to maximize space on the lines to get the all clothes to fit. Then, one evening I forgot to bring the clothes in, so when we awoke we found that the morning dew had wetted them anew. Dew? We didn't have such a thing in arid New Mexico. Another day of drying was required, and I felt like a complete idiota.

The shower has a small, electric water heater and I have yet to discover how to manipulate the water flow with the proper equation of hot and cold to maintain a constant temperature. It either scalds me or douses me in icy water. If I manage to find a moderate temperature, a few seconds later the hot water heater empties itself, again drenching me with cold water to finish the rinse cycle.

I found a broom and swept all the tile floors, then discovered a bottle of lavipavimento (the label so simple even I knew it was for cleaning the floors), and I went in search of a mop. I found an electric vacuum, a couple of long-handled, short-bristled brushes, and another broom. Bryan was dispatched to the hardware store down the street to buy a mop. What he was presented with was a long-handled, short-bristled brush like we saw at home. Hmmm. Is this like the Fuller Brush days? What am I supposed to do with that contraption? I just don't know these things and my hosts are immensely amused when I inquire of them. As it turns out, you fill the bucket with water, add the lavipavimento - which smells vile - and then toss in a special mopping rag which you wring out, throw on the floor and place the bristled brush on top of, then commence the mopping action. Wouldn't an actual mop be easier, my mind inquires.

One day at the little grocery store in the neighborhood I felt like a wanton hussy when I dared to touch the head of lettuce, as a woman rushed over and snatched it out of my hand to bag it for me, and looked very put-out while asking what else I would like to have. No fondling the veggies, apparently.

Swimsuit shopping proved an exercise in humiliation as I didn't know the proper size in European numbers, to the consternation of one store clerk. She looked me over and handed me what she said would fit. Into the dressing room I ventured, to be met by a less-than-beautiful reflection of my derriere hanging out below the equator. I told her they were troppo piccolo (too little). Nonsense, she said; impossibile! She commenced a conversation with the other clerk, both shrugging and eye-rolling their assent that I must be drunk or stupid but no way could those bottoms not fit properly. I left them to their superiority. In another store the whole affair was more self-service so the embarrassment was my own in the privacy of the dressing room. I came out empty-handed but with the knowledge that swimsuit sizes are universally set to deflate a woman's ego.

Bryan makes outings to the ferramenta (hardware store). He writes little phrases or words on a scrap of paper to request the items he needs. Despite not speaking Italian he seems to come home with a bag of things each time; apparently hardware is a male lingua franca.

Then there is the matter of the bus. We do not have a car and must rely on Cotral, a regional bus system servicing this area, for transportation into Anzio and Nettuno. The trouble is there seems to be no set schedule. Every time we have gone to the fermata we have had to wait anywhere from 30 to 50 minutes for a bus to come along. Locals waiting with us roll their eyes every five minutes and make hand gestures, indicating their frustration and their nonverbal communication of "where the hell is the stupid bus". One woman told me it would "un miracolo" if it showed up. The drivers must go through rigorous training in poor customer service. They delight in roaring off while patrons are trying to punch their tickets, laughing maliciously as limbs are splayed and bodies lurch around, repeating the scenario when they slam on the brakes if someone dares to call for a stop. They will not wait for people frantically running for the fermata with their arms waving and voices scream, "please, I beg you, wait!" No, no - they pull away from the curb to leave the hapless, out-of-breath desperado stranded for another half-hour or more.

We plug along trying to figure out some kind of destination schedule. We hop on buses with undetermined destinations to see where they take us. This results in a lot of time and energy exerted in erroneous thinking. Buses do not complete a circular loop as one might think. On one such excursion we reached the end of the line at a military installation outside Nettuno and the driver kicked our confused little butts off the vehicle, saying he was now "fuori servizio". We watched several buses pass by without stopping, despite our arm-waving and signals to halt. We didn't know where we were except that it was several kilometers from town. A strange little bag man edged closer to us as we stood under the fermata sign, waiting. A bus came along and stopped to let out a lone passenger but didn't open his doors for us to board. I knocked and he cracked it open ever so slightly, so I quickly asked about getting back to Anzio. Another bus will come soon, he told me; he was now fuori servizio. "When?" I asked. "Soon," he responded as he slammed the door shut. Eventually we made it back to Anzio where we had to connect to another bus to return home.

It is this multitude of little things that we didn't know about and which, in addition to learning a new language, we must discover through sometimes painful (to the ego, at least) trial and error.

So we will continue to feel very much like deviant, unschooled children for a while. Luckily, most Italians are extremely patient with us and allow us to make stupid missteps and slaughter their language, all the while telling us that we are molto bravo and parli bene. Yeah, right; but it is encouraging nonetheless. Our experiences give the term 'adult education' a whole new meaning.


Valerie Schneider is a freelance writer, who lived in New Mexico for twenty years before trading the high desert for the medieval hill towns of Italy in May, 2006. She is a regular contributor to Slow Travel, pens travel agency newsletters, and has written for Arthur Frommer’s Budget Travel. She and her husband, Bryan, currently reside in Ascoli Piceno where they conduct small-group tours called Panorama Italy. Read more on her blog, 2 Baci in a Pinon Tree. See Valerie's Slow Travel Member page.

© Valerie Schneider, 2006

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