Like many Americans, I have a weakness for things Italian, men included. Unlike many Americans, I’ve allowed my weakness to become a pathology, something tangled up with an ongoing pilgrimage to la dolce vita, which I expect to find in the souls of Italians. Perhaps it’s the imprecision of communication that allows me to invest Italian men with qualities they can’t easily undeceive me about.
This past March, I was making my sixth pilgrimage to Florence – this time to spend eight weeks honing my appreciation of simple joys and learning the Italian language at the Istituto Galileo Galilei, convinced that mastery of it would put the dolce in my vita once and for all.
“Don’t talk to strangers,” my mother said as we were getting off the phone so I could head to the airport. Now, apart from the fact that I was 40 years old, that was going to be quite a challenge and quite counter-productive, given that I was traveling alone and given the purpose of my trip. Of course, I’d come back from Italy about a decade earlier with an imported husband -- a move that hadn’t proved dolce for him or me. If Mom had her ‘druthers, my pilgrimages among the exotic would be limited to the Pennsylvania Amish country.
90 minutes outside of Rome, breakfast was served on Alitalia flight 641. As I watched in consternation, the Roman man seated next to me poured his milk into his coffee, then picked up the coffee cup and dumped the whole affair onto his corn flakes. The exercise smacked less of la dolce vita than of a kind of expediency I found alarming. I shook it off. Perhaps he was of mixed blood.
Eleven years ago, I married a handsome Calabrese I’d met two months earlier in Milan. When Ercole first came here to join me, his English was rudimentary – much of it the product of exported American culture. He hadn’t yet learned to conjugate verbs, so when he wanted to indicate past tense, he’d introduce his sentence with “once upon a time.” For two months, I was charmed to find it was always story time in our household. When I got home from work and he’d tell me that once upon a time he go to buy eggs, I’d know that we were having omelettes for dinner.
“Can you pass me the pilgrim?,” my husband once said as we lay on the couch watching TV. I put on my context cap and tried a pillow. I’d interpreted him correctly. Call it a marriage of the minds run amok.
I was struck suddenly by the improbability of his having come across the word “pilgrim” in the course of common conversation. “Where would you even have heard that word?,” I turned to him and asked.
“It was in my book.”
Ah, the book. That would be the grammar book published in London from which the unwitting Italian could learn to ask a New York cabbie where he could go to buy a swimming costume.
We went to the INS office in 1989 to begin the green card process, and the representative there asked if Ercole was applying for status as a resident alien.
“Yes, and I hope to phone home soon,” he said triumphantly. “I was frolicking,” he turned and confided to me. The image that conjured was a beauty.
Ercole sometimes laughed too long and too hard at small jokes. It embarrassed me a bit because it made him seem a little simple, when the real reason, I’m fairly sure, was that he wanted to make it clear he got the joke.
In time, Ercole grew concerned that he was always keeping company with American women, and would “learn to talk like the woman and not the man.” Now, that was rich. I myself have a mouth like a truck driver, and my distaff cohort were hardly training him to say things like “Oh, let’s do!” and trip out to the sunroom with tea and finger sandwiches. I retorted that we spoke much the same as men did.
Our communicationally-challenged marriage was ill-fated, of course, and we separated after three years of mute frustration.
As it turns out, I now know the word for “pilgrim” in Italian. It’s pellegrino, as in the popular bottled water. I looked it up while dining alone one night in Florence with my student’s dictionary next to my water glass.
Several months ago, I was sitting in an Irish pub on New York’s Upper East Side. Beside me was Antonio, the Abruzzese architect I’d met during my last Italian sojourn. The Yankees were playing the Marlins on the screen overhead. Perched there with Antonio, my thoughts drifted back to the time Ercole and I had gone to play a game of catch in Central Park. Accustomed to playing soccer pretty much exclusively and hampered by the bulky leather attachment to his hand, he looked like a little kid just learning to stand upright and throw at the same time.
My musings were interrupted by the dulcet accent of an Italian voice in my ear.
“So the pitchman launches the ball,” Antonio observed. “And then what happens?”
What, indeed? My flight to Rome departs next Tuesday.