November 17, 2004
The Exchange, Part 2
In 1992, I was very fortunate to travel to Italy to study abroad for 3 months with a program through Syracuse University.
It was a bit bitter sweet, since the majority of students were with Syracuse and already knew each other, I was kind of an outsider. Each student was set up to live with an Italian family, and this would allow the student to practice the language, get to know the culture and immerse themselves in Italian life.
I was expecting the a-typical Italian family with Mama Mia and Padre Papa, with a few kids and a lot of food. Of course, this was my life, so everything had to go horribly wrong.
I got set up with Rosa and her 24 year old son, Pietro (not their real names, its been a very long time). Rosa was not married, I think her husband passed away and Pietro was studing to be a doctor, but living at home. Rosa was an ENGLISH TEACHER, so she spoke English very well, but not perfectly (i'll get to that later). Pietro also spoke very good English. They lived in a 3 bedroom, 2 bath condo about a 15 minute walk outside the city center of Florence. I would guess it was about 3,000 square feet, and built in the 60's or 70's. It had most of the modern convienences that you would expect in America - so I had that going for me.
In the house I was a roommate with Chip, who was another American on the same program. Chip was a cordial person, but we never clicked - and really didn't hang out or do anything together besides sleep in the same 8x10 room for 3 months or eat together with the English speaking Italian family.
Like any good American, I was determined for the first six hours, or so, to use my Italian language skills with the family. Chip and I realized that just saying "Can you pass the butter" was much faster and easier when you are hungry and trying to think how to conjugate your words. So much for 'immersing ourselves in the language', we regretted that we got set up with an English-speaking family.
Our second problem is that we were housed with the cheapest Italian family on the planet. The Italian families were paid quite well to house students, this was not a inexpensive program. Other students told Chip and myself stories of large Italian feasts with huge bowls of pasta, wine, homecooked breads, seasoned meats and delicious desserts. Chip and I did get homecooked meals, but they were very meager from what was described from our fellow students. It almost seemed like they weren't just frugal Italians, considering their apartment wasn't some impoverished hovel, but they were just not as generous as the other Italians we were hearing these stories about. This became much more clear one morning around October.
Every morning Rosa would fix coffee and biscotti for everyone, it would be ready on the countertop in the kitchen and was a good way to start your day - get a nice jolt of caffiene and some tasty cookies and you were ready to hit the books!
One morning, Chip and I noticed that Rosa put out some peach jam, along with the biscotti. It was a pleasant change for our routine, and Chip and I had the peach sweetness over the next few days. Sadly, Rosa didn't refrigerate the jam and a mold grew on top of the jar and on the the half-full jelly. I showed this to her and she looked concerned and said something to the effect that she would take care of it.
That night, our simple dinners were served, as usual, it was like a small bowl of soup, a tiny scoop of pasta with sauce, a leg of some poultry-based animal (I hope), and look what we have tonight - dessert!
Great, joyus God, we are getting a treat! I felt like the scene from Oliver; asking for more mush and his evil taskmaster saying "MORE? MORE? Oh, ok - have some mutton on me, blondie." This was unexpected and I think I began to weep softly into my soup if I remember it right.
Anyhow, Chip and I jump into our eating frenzy and are enjoying these very delicious finger sandwiches that have a sweet, tangy citrus fruit filling in the middle...it certainly tastes familiar, but I can't place it, I thought as I started on my second finger sandwich...citrus sweetness, so tasty, so familiar...oh my God in heaven...what's that on the counter?
It was the mouldy peach jam. It was sitting only a bit away from me, and I know that damned glass bottle from seeing it every morning - plus it was nearly empty! The bitch served us the freaking moudly jam rather than throwing it away, she serves the American fools the jelly! Are you kidding me? Christ.
So I have to warn poor Chip who is eating the damn finger foods with a grin which says, "I'm a moron, and I love these tasty sandwiches."
Chip and I discovered early during our days in "The Land Of No Food", a easy and effective way to talk in front of our captors, err I mean hosts, without Rosa or Pietro understanding us. No, it wasn't Pig Latin or something like that, it was "Speed American".
Its like any language barrier - the faster you talk, the harder it is for a non native to understand you. Try it yourself, turn on Univision and try watching a game show with your high school Spanish. It was very amusing, Rosa and Pietro usually can pick up on a few words, but not fully understand what you are saying. Rosa was old, so that was strike one, plus her English, like I said, was good, but not great - so strike two.
I turned to Chip and switched to 'Speed American', and just in case I covered my mouth with my napkin in case Rosa was a lip reader and acted like I was coughing:
[cough]"Chipdonteatthefingersandwiches", [cough], "itsthemouldyjam!" [cough]
His eyes widened slightly in horror as he slowly put the moudly peach jammed deception food down on his plate. Crumbs fell freely from his lips and he had a deer-caught-in-headlights look.
Now Rosa was sitting there and did notice that I spoke and she also did notice Chip's reaction. Pietro, oddly enough didn't partake in the finger sandwiches, that accomplice stoolie. She looks and says to us both in her English:
"You-ah, dohn't liike?"
Chip and I may not have been best buddies, but he was a sharp fellow and quickly covered his horror to a mock fullness. "Oh, no Rosa, thank you. I am full." He turns to me:
We excuse ourselves, claiming full stomachs, even if one of us is about to puke and i'm about to show Rosa my verison of "Godzilla vs The Cheap Italians" except their kitchen was going to become Tokyo and Pietro would become Mothra. "You-ah, dee-stroyah my keeetchan!?", she would cry and I roar the "Neeeeeeeyaaaaah" of Godzilla and flip over her table. To be honest, I wasn't that angry, but I was pissed that this family served us crappy moudly food and that we got the short end of the stick when it came to getting placed with a traditional Italian family.
Chip and I went to bed very sullen that night and a few days later we, of course, are laughing about it and I tell the story to my parents on my weekly telephone call back to the States.
Now, I mentioned before that my parents and I never had that chummy kind of "Leave It To Beaver" relationship, but here is a perfect example, of what did make them great. Mom sends over a care package of foods, homemade cookies and tastykakes like 4 days after hearing my story via FedEx. I couldn't be happier.
While on the phone, Dad is hitting the roof hearing this and basically gives me Carte Blanche with his credit card and MAC (no, not ATM, I said MAC) card - his words, if I remember correctly are: "My son isn't going to be hungry in Italy."
Again, great guy even with our communication issues, to this day I remember that phone call fairly well and my father's concern on the other end of the telephone. Looking back, I was a fairly good son, in my humble opinion, when it came to using that credit card. Instead of jump starting the Italian GDP into the stratosphere, I did make some modest dinner purchases over the next couple of weeks. Oddly enough, the majority of those purchases were in liquid form, and did happen to come from the major bars and taverns in the city of Florence.
Visa, its everywhere you want to be.
I kind of wondered what happened to Rosa and Pietro. The last I ever saw of Chip was when I was leaving for a snowboarding trip in the mountains of Italy at the end of my semester he was in bed and I he heard me leaving the room and stopped me.
He said: "Don't accept any wooden nickels."
Never really knew what that meant (pre-Google). But I thanked him and left. Just one of my many adventures in Europe, and I do have a few other stories to tell from those years...I finally did get to see Leonardo and Dino who were Florentine natives, but that's another story for another day...
Posted by Furey at November 17, 2004 11:03 AM
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