I speak two languages, Body and English. — Mae West
Exposed as I was to the elements, I was relieved it wasn’t raining, but I was thankful for the clouds, which muted the sun’s glare just enough so that if I squinted, I could make out the words on my laptop screen. Since my arrival in Trevi a few days earlier, I’d learned two important life lessons: not everybody speaks English, and not every town has Wi-Fi. As consequence of my ignorance, I was crouched on a curb in the one-street suburb of a medieval hilltop village, hijacking bandwidth from an unwitting Italian. The Wi-Fi was not found by accident — in each neighborhood we’d entered, David set out on foot with his iPhone, surveying the air for a signal. The awkward spot was not ideal, but desperation had made me less finicky. Apparently, Italians have yet to embrace the Internet with the fervor of Americans. After staying a week with Urs and Gudrun at their home in Sweden, the four of us hopped a flight to Rome. For three days, we frantically darted around the city and then, mentally and physically exhausted by our breakneck sightseeing, we piled into a rental car and drove two hours north to the more sedate Umbria region. Umbria, the “green heart of Italy,” is the area north of Rome and south of Florence characterized by a lush landscape of silver-leaved olive trees that blanket the region’s rolling hills. Perched on several hillsides are small villages founded nearly 3000 years ago with stone walls that have been standing since the 1200s. A short drive from the more popular towns of Perugia and Assisi, Trevi (the village in which we were staying) is so off the beaten path that many maps of the region don’t bother to mark it.
I was overwhelmed by the vast rural beauty and delighted by the charm of our apartment in Residenza Paradiso , a villa that has been inhabited by the family of owner and operator Emiliana for hundreds of years. When I walked in the door and across the room to the shuttered window that framed a Disney-esque, magical kingdom sort of view, I knew relaxation was but one deep breath away. I was just about to take that breath when a horrible realization struck. “Ohmygod! ” The note of panic in my voice caused David to jerk his head my way and instinctively tense his body for fight or flight. I pointed accusingly at my laptop — the first thing I had unpacked — and said, “There’s no Wi-Fi!” Because my eyes are accustomed to searching for such things in foreign accommodations, I had already ascertained that there was no Ethernet jack. David dropped his shoulders, sighed, and, for the umpteenth time in the four weeks we’d been in Europe, he put his arm around me and, in a soothing tone, said, “Don’t worry, it’s all going to work out just fine.”
He didn’t say, “It’s all going to work out just fine if you set up shop on a street curb a short drive away,” but there I was. At our request, Urs and Gudrun left David and me on the curb where David had detected Wi-Fi the day before. We’d asked our friends to go and do whatever they wanted for three hours; that way, we could check our e-mail and get our net-surfing fix without the pressure that comes with knowing others are waiting for you.
When he’d had his fill of the Web, David decided to amuse himself by filming my plight with his new toy, a Canon HV20 he’d acquired to document our adventures. Minutes after David pointed his camera in my direction, an old man pulled up in a white station wagon. Leaving the engine running, the octogenarian stepped from the car and walked toward me. When he was close enough to be heard over the rumble of his motor, the man began talking. David asked him if he spoke English or French. Disregarding the question, the man kept speaking Italian and sweeping the air with his arms.
While we listened uncomprehendingly, David turned off his camera and I closed my laptop, convinced that we’d been busted for filming without a license and stealing broadband. Noticing my blank smile, the old man’s face scrunched beneath his pale brown cap with the realization that I hadn’t understood a word of what he’d said. For a moment he remained frustrated, but then he raised his brows, shrugged his shoulders, and continued talking, only this time he was much more animated. He gestured to his left, where a car was parked. “No, no, that’s not our car,” I said, but the lack of understanding was mutual. It suddenly occurred to me that I had the ultimate tool for bringing strangers together, sitting right there on my lap.
I held my hand up to the man in the universal signal for, “Please, wait a moment,” and I opened my laptop and clicked on Google’s “language tools.” A moment later, I said, “Questa non è la mia auto .” Only I shouted it, because that’s what you do when talking at someone who doesn’t speak English; and, because I had no idea how Italian pronunciation works, it sounded more like, “KAY-STA NON AY LA MEEAH AW-TOH.” The man’s bushy white brows furrowed in confusion.
“Tell him our friends have the car,” David said.
I typed in, “We are making a personal film, we are waiting for our friends,” and pressed “Translate.” I saw the words, ” Stiamo facendo un film di personale, Siamo in attesa per I nostri amici ,” and said, “STEEYAMO FACKENDO UN FILM DE PERSONALAY, SEE-A-MO IN AH-TESA PURR EE NOSTRI AMICKEE.”
The man looked baffled. He continued to speak to me in Italian, and I kept smiling, shaking my head, and saying, “NON CAPISKO.” After ten minutes of this, another tech-related idea popped into my head. I would translate what he was saying! Only, it sounded to me like he was saying, “ Blah-oh, blah-ay, bambino, blah-blah-oh, tedesco blah-ay. ” I seized on the words I caught between the “blah”s and came up with “German,” “war,” “boy,” “beautiful woman,” and “five kilometers down the road.” Like playing MadLibs, all I had were a handful of nouns and verbs compiling a nonsensical story. I was beginning to feel I had it all figured out when Urs and Gudrun finally returned. “Oh, thank God, Urs!” I cried. I pointed at Urs and shouted toward my new friend, “ME AMISEE PARLA ITALIANO.” To Urs, I said, “I think this man is trying to tell us a war story and something about a restaurant down the road called Bella Donna.”
Urs and the old man chatted, gestured wildly, and laughed, while David, Gudrun, and I waited quietly on the sidelines. As abruptly as he had arrived, the elderly Italian returned to his car and drove away. David and I looked to Urs for an explanation. We expected him to confirm our Google-aided findings, but it seems our deciphering abilities were as deficient as my pronunciation skills.
As Urs explained, while I was yelling, “THIS IS NOT OUR CAR” in a language that hardly resembled the old guy’s native tongue, he was trying to tell me that I reminded him of his wife when he first fell in love with her. While I was screaming, “OUR FRIENDS DROPPED US OFF AND WILL RETURN SOON,” he was telling me a story about his German friend who lives up the street and has a pretty wife, but that his friend’s wife is not nearly as beautiful as his. Apparently, the old man had also told us a story about his youth, when he and some friends hid three deserting German soldiers in a basement for three months, supplying them with news, food, and water. And when I was pleading our case for making a personal film, the smiling gentleman was speaking of my hair, and how his wife, despite her mature years, still has long, dark locks. While chatting with Urs, the man had added, “and her tits are still up to here,” making one of the many wild gestures followed by laughter that I had watched without comprehension.
When Urs finished relating the information, David and I — two thieves driven to apprehension by our guilt — exchanged embarrassed glances. We had assumed the man wanted to complain about our actions and shoo us on our shameful way. But in reality, even after he learned we could not understand him, the archaic gent just wanted to borrow the ears of two foreign travelers who happened to catch his eye and regale us with his life’s stories.