Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

An Italian Hero

May 28, 2009

Heroes are interesting.  You don’t get to call yourself one; it has to be bestowed by others based on an act you do that they deemed is worthy.  Many times the “hero” doesn’t think he did anything special.  But it doesn’t matter if someone else thinks it is an heroic act.  This is a story of how I became an Italian hero.

My wife and I were in Florence and were looking for a late lunch.  The only place open was a tourist spot but we didn’t care. We were hungry.   We sat down and a waiter came by.  I think his name was Aldo.  He was in his early 40’s I’d guess and had a blank stare on his face.  After all, he was serving another middle aged American tourist couple so there was nothing to get excited about.  In fact, if I had committed a crime and the police were looking for me and interviewed this guy, it would go something like this.

Police:  Can you described the guy?

Waiter:  He looked middle age to me.

P:  How tall was he?

W:  He was about middle aged height.

P:  How much did he weigh?

W:  I’d say he was about middle aged weight.

P:  Thanks for your help.  This will go along way in tracking him down.

At any rate, we ordered our food and started chatting as the waiter disappeared into the kitchen.  Just then, a young attractive American women sat down at the next table.  As if summoned by radar, our waiter immediately appeared and started greeting/flirting with her.  We knew that from now on, we would not be getting the same level of service.  It was OK.   Who needs the constant “Is your meal prepared properly”, Do you want more wine”, “Can I get you anything else” or “I see your jacket is on fire as you reached over the candle, can I extinguish that for you?”.  Very much overrated.

We ate our meal and was amused by his carrying on with the young lass.  We finally finished our meal and were ready to go back to the hotel.  I don’t know about you, but it doesn’t really matter who pays for things when your a couple; it all comes out of the same pot.  So I asked my wife he she didn’t mind using her credit card since I wanted to give mine a rest.  I frantically waived to get the waiter attention and finally shouted “Il conto per favore”.  (The bill please).  Apparently I interrupted him at an inopportune time but he reluctant went inside and retrieve the bill and handed it to me.  I nodded to my wife, who reached into her purse, pulled out her credit card and gave it to me.  I in turn handed the card and the bill back to the waiter.

A moment of transition was about to occur.

The first thing I noticed was his eyes.  Since I met him, they were devoid of any emotion.  Suddenly, as if a light switch was turned on, they lit up and appeared to be dancing excitedly.  A slight grin came over his face.  He looked me straight in the eye and said “Che fortunato”  (How fortunate, how lucky you are etc.).

Apparently, all it takes to be a hero in Italy is to get a women to pay for your meal.  Hero may be a strong word, but I think I was one to that waiter that day.  The look of admiration on his face said it all.  As I passed the credit card slip to my wife and she signed it, I thought I saw him wink at me as acknowledgement I had just “closed the deal”.

It felt good to be a hero to someone even if you know you weren’t.  But it doesn’t matter what I think; all that was important was that Aldo thought I was.


Una Visita a Salle, Abruzzo Italia

February 21, 2009

Dateline: Salle, Italia- November 2000

A few years ago, my wife and I went to Italy along with my mother.  For my mother, it was her second time there.  It was a bit special since it was 80 years between visits.

We arrived in Milano in a terrible rainstorm.  On the way tothe hotel, my mother got up her nerve and conversed with the taxi driver who was surprised to hear her speak the language although they had some difficulty.  We would later find out why.  On our train ride to Roma, my mother was disappointed that she wasn’t able to eavesdrop to hear what others were saying.  We later found out that in the Italian language, there are over 1,000 dialects including the one my mother spoke.  It is only fairly recently, probably due to television, that a one, official unified language was spoken and taught in school.  The older you are, the more this might become a problem.  Imagine being in a situation where you are not able to understand what is being said on your own TV?  That is what older Italians in more isolated villages sometimes face.  Incredible.

After our glorious visit to Roma, we surprised Mom with the news that we would visit the town where she was born.  Ever since I arrived in Italy and especially seeing the traffic in Roma, I was becoming increasingly nervous about the car trip.  I was feeling intimidated by the out of control drivers.  The next morning, we had a setback as the rent car company and I got our wires crossed and we spent a few hours determining where our car was to be delivered.  The result was that we lost a few precious hours.  But we were on our way making the 120 mile journey to Salle.

(A few words on Salle.  It was a village I heard about all my life.  It had a mythical quality to us.  We were not really sure it existed but of course it did.  Although it had only a few hundred inhabitants, its descendants in the USA numbered in the thousands.  Although small, it had 2 interesting claims to fame. 

Italy has mastered the philosophy to find something you are good at and perfect it like now where else.  Become a specialist, not a generalist.  Work hard at it and keep on focusing on what you do better than anyone else in the world.  That explains things like Venetian glass, or balsamic vinegar from Moderna or San Marzano tomatoes or leather goods from Firenze. parmigiano reggiano from Parma etc..  Add your own favorites to this list.  For Salle they originally became one of the finest saddle makers in all of Italy.  As the legend goes, one day while they werewaiting for the sheep innards (used for stitching in the saddle) to dry on fence posts, theyheard an incredible sound.  This evolved into producing strings for classical instruments.  Eventually, Stradivari heard of their gift and used them in his violins.  They are still produced today under the D’orazio ( and D’addario ( names.  Try a Google search for details.

Salle also has Santo Roberto (Saint Robert).  Not really a saint in the eyes of the Church but a step below.  They have been petitioning the Church for years to have him elevated to sainthood.  His works have been document in a book that gets passed on from generation to generation.  Many family members are named Robert in his honor.  But here is what I think is incredible.  Santo Roberto was born in 1341.  1341!  And, although that is over 600 years ago, those in Salle still continue to remember and honor him including an annual celebration each July.  Pretty remarkable I’d say.)

We finally exited the freeway and saw for the first time a sign pointed us to Salle, 20 kilometers.  Can’t tell you what a thrill that was to be so close.  As we headed down the road, we came to a crossroad with no sign to guide us.  We saw a 20-something guy walking and I rolled down the window as I asked “Scusi, dove Salle?”  (“Where is Salle, pronouncing  Salle-“Saall”).  He look at me with the most contorted face as if he had just taken a huge bite out of a spoiled lemon.  He said “Saall? Sall-ey” as he spoke the name in proper Italian. 

(We had been mispronouncing the name of this town for years!  I later learned that vowels were always pronounced the same way (a, e, i, o, u are pronounced “ah, ay, ee, oh, ooow”) and are always pronounced).

We took his direction and soon became lost again.  Eventually we wound up in the middle of a town square where we saw uniformed men, probably police, standing around.  I thought I’d try again and ask for direction.  Same question, same reaction.  I didn’t learn the proper pronunciation.  I was butchering his language again!  (che bella lingua). He said a few words and pointed over.  The only word I heard was “scuolabus” or school bus.  Turns out he wasn’t a cop but the driver.  Theywere getting ready to go up the mountain to take the kids back home.  As we waited, word had gotten out of they had visitors and the kids placed a hand written sign “Salle” in the back window so we won’t get lost.  We proceeded up the mountain where we made frequent stops as older Italians would depart.  I guessed the school bus also serves as public transportation.  After 20 minutes or so we arrived.

We watched as 2 students got out and quickly disappeared into their houses.  We could hear the bus pull out, go through its gears and the sound of the motor quickly fade.  Then there was complete silence.  We were in the heart of the town.  A playground was before us.  On one end was a building which I guessed was a community center of some sort.  On the other end was the church.  No one was in sight although the town had a few hundred citizens.  Having their own church in town even with such few inhabitants was apparently not that unusual.  The church had a modest interior that probably could accommodate less than 100 people.  The relic of Santo Roberto was there.  On the walls we noticed a plaque thanking the descendant now in America for help in funding the repair of the church.  I saw my godfather’s name and the familiar surname of many others.  We then left and decided to visit Salle vecchia or Old Salle where my mother was born.  That part of the village was destroyed by an earthquake in the late 1920’s.  We look around to see if we could find her actual house.  A difficult task so we designated the remains of one house as the “one” and took many pictures.  I picked up some limestone rocks for souvenirs and remembrance.  We also visited a castle, which is now a museum that is open only in the summer.  We decided to go back to the town.

We had accomplished one goal of visiting her birthplace but she had also wanted to visit her cousin whom she last saw over 80 years prior.  It was hard thing to do since it was a ghost town.  Finally we saw a lone figure stride up the street.  It was a women whom I looked to be in her early 60’s.  My mother spoke first.  She made a connection.  Since my grandmother had died some 40 year before, she rarely spoke the language except on occasion with her sisters.  But now she going a mile a minute.  Mom described who she was.  The women said she knew who Mom was when she mentioned she was one of 5 sisters all of whose name began with an “A”.  She even knew the unflattering nickname of my grandfather.  As I watched them converse, it finally hit me as I went into a trance.

I am an American.  I only speak English.  I am in a foreign country.  I do not speak the language.  I am in an unfamiliar place that I never had seen before.  But I felt at home with a strange sense of calm.  It felt very familiar and right.  It felt like a very special place.  Unbelievable!

I soon was snapped back to reality when my wife asked where was Mom.  She had disappeared.  I looked down the block and there she was, arm in arm with the “stranger” we had just met.  Luckily we were able to see the house she entered or else we would have been in trouble.  We entered and went to the back where we saw 3 generations of women.  The grandmother, the cousin my mother had wanted to seewas there.  The granddaughter, named Roberta (surprise!) started to speak to me.  I only understood one word she said,”Alzheimer’s”.  The mother was all in black.  She lost her husband the prior January and it now being November, she would continue the tradition of wearing black for a full year.  We sat around the table where they spoke non-stop with Mom translating every one in a while.  They invited us to stay for dinner but I felt like we need to get back as it was getting late and I dreaded facing the Roma traffic.  I regretted the late start we got more than ever.We said our goodbyes to them.  Caio Salle!

It took a bit to negotiate the traffic.  In the States, we merge using the “you-then-me-then-you-then-me etc.  In Roma, it is “you-then-you-then-you” if you let them.  So merging became a game of chicken.  I soon realized that the way to go was to play chicken with a more expensive car than the one you were driving.  So as I identified my target, I was able to succeed including the daunting task of going over 4 lanes to reach the hotel parking lot.

As I reflect back on that day, it was one of the most unique ones of my life.  It is not everyday that you get a glimpse of your heritage and where you came from.  It was good to have my Mom that to share that experience.  I hope to return some day to spent more time and recapture that feeling.