Most hyphenated Americans, especially those born in the good old USA, carry around some degree of nostalgia for what is commonly referred to as “the old country.” Many will never get there and the old country dissolves into a nostalgic mist composed of your favorite ethnic dishes, quiet villages set in scenic hills, and a quiet, less stressful time. But some of us more fortunate descendents of immigrants get a chance to experience the stories we heard over the dinner table.
Sometimes the facts align fairly well with fables; sometimes they do not. I have never forgotten the story of an Italian-American acquaintance of mine who related that his grandfather, who immigrated from a small town near Naples, never stopped talking about his desire to return and show off the success he enjoyed in L’America. It wasn’t until he was in his 60s when, wearing brand-new shoes, an expensive three-piece suit with a pocket full of dollars, he got back to the old country, only to be robbed of his shoes, jacket, and money on the train into town.
Fortunately, that type of thing didn’t happen to my parents when they first visited the country my mother pronounced “IT-ly” back inn the early 1960s. Nevertheless, to my surprise, they were not all that favorably impressed.
“Italian cities are so dirty,” was my mother’s summary assessment.
So they don’t clean like you do, Ma, I thought. But what she said next shocked me: “And the Italians themselves are rude and undisciplined. They’re the worst!”
“But Ma, you and Dad are Italians!” I protested.
This was before I got to have my own experiences in “the old country.” Several years later I was in Florence as a tour guide for a group of grad students. I was waiting in a line at the at the train station when I had a reverie of that exchange with my parents that was literally jolted to mind by the pasta-packed hips of a 4’11” dynamo. She was dressed in the widow’s black uniform, donned in perpetuity by so many of her cohort after they have over-fed their husbands to death. By her reckoning her gender, age, and costume entitled her to my place in line without so much as a “permesso.” Never mind that I had been standing in that damned line for more than and hour and my thighs and knees felt like I’d had a bad date with Tanya Harding. I could hear my mother recounting an almost identical experience that no doubt partly accounted for her critical appraisal of the Italian-Italians.
I learned the hard way that standing in any queue with Italians is a contact sport. When the line moves it’s really a vicious game of musical chairs—every place in line is up for grabs. Go to a train station with a dozen or so lines, which permits line cutting from the sides and the rear, and you are in for a brutal afternoon, and maybe evening. Such an experience will incline you to the belief that the Romans of old conquered most of the known world by waiting until their victims were standing in line for something. Then WHAM! You are now part of the Roman Empire and you walk with a limp!
I was in the train station at the request of several of my students. We were scheduled to meet the overnight train from Naples that would get us into Paris next morning. We would meet the international train at Pisa, after taking a local there from Florence. The students argued that it would be a shame to miss seeing the tower, baptistry and Cathedral at Pisa. But we had a tight connection between the two trains, and not enough time to get to and from the architectural treasures of Pisa, which were well across town. The only solution was to re-book our Florence-Pisa trip to an earlier train and store our luggage for a couple of hours at the Pisa station, time enough to see the venerable sites.
So I grabbed our group ticket and reservation and headed for the Stazione Ferrovia to get them changed. There were several queues in front of the ticket windows and I chose one at random. It was crowded, hot, and of course, fiercely competitive. In forty-five minutes I had not only not gained any ground, I was actually further back than where I started. People cut in the lines from all directions. One time a women cut right in front of me. I began to protest and she turned to give me a withering look that could only be interpreted as “how would you like to be a soprano in the Vatican Choir?” Defeated, I retreated out the door and skulked off to console myself with a cappuccino.
At the café I ran into one of my women students, Deborah. She was doing postcards, to which she applied stamps while I told her my tale of woe. I was sounding like my mother when Deborah put in that she noticed that the Italians seemed to love children, especially small ones. I remembered how my grandmothers were always grabbing me and pinching my little bambino cheeks, how my grandfather would help me with any crazy little project I hatched. Italians do love children.
So together Deborah and I hatched a little plot. I didn’t know her very well, but I had earlier caught a couple of her mischievous remarks and hazarded that she might go for the idea. As luck would have it she was wearing one of those loose tops that could be mistaken for a maternity blouse. And so we “conceived”—appropriately, since some padding from my camera bag gave her a seven-months-along profile—a deception that my trip diary later recorded as “The Madonna Subterfuge.”
Deborah must have at one time seen Marriage Italian Style, in which Sophia Loren portrays a pregnant woman with such conviction that one would think she was carrying the fetus of “you know Who.” Deborah was in her middle 30s and put her hand on her hip to support her “strained lower back,” and swing into that graceful, but labored gait a la Loren. We marched into the station like it was Bethlehem and took a place in one of the ticket queues.
It was already a warm day and the number and press of bodies in the station made the air close, stagnant, and of course, fragrant. Deborah dabbed the beads of sweat on her brow, to which wisps of her hair stuck as if done by some make-up artist. She acted like she was about to swoon, taking my arm to steady herself. We were definitely attracting some attention, and I fussed and looked worried, making sure to say, non sotto voce, a few concerned statements using the word “baby.” I could hear murmurs here and there around us from the Italians in line about the bambino.
Not only did no one cut in front of us, but soon we were escorted to the head of the line by one of those very black-frocked widow-linebackers who even blitzed some poor old guy with a cane just to make way for The Holy Family. I was feeling pretty darn good about how things were working out and Deborah was on her way to an Academy Award nomination. But I was to pay for my blasphemy.
The ticket agent pushed the group ticket back at me with the same look that Joseph must have received with the word that there was no room at the inn. He gave me one of those distinctly Italian shrugs and said in as much Italian that I could comprehend that I was in the wrong place to change a group ticket. I asked if I need to go to another window, but he said no and gestured that I had to go outside the station, and then he mentioned a street name. He had to repeat this twice, and I noticed that people behind me were getting restless. I could hear complaints: “presto!” and “fretta!” in unsympathetic tones. Deborah whispered a suggestion that she feign a fainting spell. But I vetoed the idea; with my luck there would be an obstetrician back in the line somewhere and we’d be exposed.
Finally I got the agent to write the address and office number down, and we made our way out, me looking serious, and Deborah clutching my arm as though she was about to go into labor. After paying Deborah for her performance with a gelato I headed off alone to find the group ticket office.
The office wasn’t far, but it was in an un-marked building in an unremarkable street. When the building of the address had no Ferrovia dello Stato markings on it, and there wasn’t even a directory, I climbed up to the third floor with a gnawing sense that I was about to be punished for the Madonna Subterfuge by the Red Brigade or Mafia kidnappers. By the time I got to imagining my body parts being mailed to my relatives for ransom I was standing in front of the door with the number the agent had given me. There was just the number; no name, no indication of what was behind that door. I took a deep breath and knocked.
“Entrare,” came from behind the door. I did, and there behind a modest desk in an otherwise spare room was a sweaty, overweight guy about fifty-years-old. His feet were up on the desk, his chair cocked back on its hind legs, and he was holding at arms length the unfolded centerfold of an Italian edition of Playboy. He didn’t flinch, or even move, and took a sidelong glance at me. The cigarette dangling from his mouth was moistened halfway down with drool. If he looked at that centerfold any longer he would extinguish it.
I stood in the doorway. He motioned for me to come in and sit in the chair opposite his desk. “Americano?” he asked, setting down Miss July.
“Yes, but now I come from California.” What was this guy up to with the interrogation? Did he want to know if I was a capo from one of the New York Cosa Nostra families?
“E bella, CaleeFORnia. Comé Italia,” he commented as though he knew from experience.
“Si, e vero.”
“Biglietto?” He extended his hand and pulled himself a little more upright in his swivel chair.
I relaxed a bit and handed over the group ticket and reservation. He too a quick glance at it, and I sneaked a quick glance at Miss July. He looked at the ticket again, and then looked straight into my face. “Dottore Clapp, eh. Capo di gruppo?”
“Si,” I answered, again wondering about his curiosity. He opened one of the desk drawers and lifted out a box containing various rubber stamps. He then proceeded, with a bureaucratic flourish worthy of the signing if the SALT II treaty, to stamp something on the ticket, staple a form to it, then stamped the form with a different stamp, finally paperclipping a pre-stamped piece of paper which he signed and on which he wrote with the new train number, departure time, and platform.
“Dottore, eh? Italo-Americano?” But why did he want to know if I was Italian-American?
He gave me a funny look. I took a chance and assumed he was curious about my name.
“L’cognome di mama mia e Bianchi.” I offered clumsily.
“Bene,” he said with a half-smile. “Quindici mille lire. . . “
“Or dieci dollar. . . for change biglieto.”
“Oh . . . yeah. . . spiacente.” I reached into my pocket. “Sorry, I have only lire,” I said pulling out two L10,000 notes and setting them on the desk. I started to get up, but he held his had up for me to wait, then pulled 5000 lire out of the drawer.
“Grazie, “ I said, picking up the change.
I got up and headed for the door.
“Dottore,” he called. I turned, and he already had Miss July up in front of him, and his feet back on the desk.
Grazie tante,” I replied, smiling.
“Prego. . . . Dottore BianCHI,” he said with a sly wink. I thought: take away the cigarette and Miss July, and my mother would probably like this Italian.
I never did figure out if I was supposed to pay that guy anything to change the ticket. Maybe it was his little scam, his piece of the train ticket action. On the other hand, maybe I was supposed to come up with a good deal more—after all, L15,000 is peanuts. Did he cut it way down because I was a Bianchi? The ticket worked just fine except for the fact that I later learned that the reservation signs on the compartments read “Santiago State University” instead of San Diego State University.
But I was unaware that I had not fully paid the wages of the blasphemous Madonna Subterfuge. An Italian train reservation, under whatever name and whatever it is written on, is just that, a reservation. Actually sitting in your “reserved” seat is another matter altogether. [TO BE CONTINUED]
© 2012, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 7.30.2012)
This story is adapted from “The Madonna Subterfuge” in The Stranger is Me: Travels and Self-Discoveries, © 2007, James A. Clapp