People, Places, Stories


Geezo and I stood in the living room in the same spot a lizard had run across the terra cotta tiles minutes before. Geezo was a head shorter than me and I was self-conscious about looking down at his salt and pepper hair as he spoke. I lowered myself down by half and sat on the padded arm of the couch.

There were so many questions I wanted to ask him. Was this his family home? How many grandchildren did he have? How did he feel about the Italian economy? But the translate app on my phone needed wifi to work. So instead I smiled and nodded, not understanding a word he said.

We took turns gesturing to a small box plugged into the wall. Then we turned to the young boy with soft, dark curly hair standing next to us. The boy tried to translate what we were saying to each other.

“He says the, the…” The boy closed his eyes in fierce concentration and scratched his head.

“Wifi?” I volunteered.

“Yes, the whyy-fie is okay.”

“But it’s not working. See?”

I held up my phone to show the error message. The boy turned to Geezo and spoke in Italian. I looked at them both and tried to catch one of the Italian words I knew. Geezo smiled and his eyes crinkled. He spoke more slowly, which, was still lightning fast. I noticed his hands making the same movement over and over again. My hands started moving too. We were pantomiming in unison; twintomiming. Finally, he turned to the boy and again said something I couldn’t understand.

“He says he come back…” The boy’s finger ran in a forward barrel roll.
“Tomorrow?” I guessed.
“Yes, tomorrow.”

I looked at the boy who was roughly the age of my daughter. He knew more English than I did Italian. There’s still so much I don’t know about the world and the people in it. I have the sudden urge to want to know something small, simple. I want to ask the boy if he’s Geezo’s grandson but with the wifi down, I can’t find the words.

I want to ask the boy if he’s Geezo’s grandson but with the wifi down, I can’t find the words.

I’d learned four words so far on our Tuscan holiday: ciao, grazie, siliencio and due.

Ciao and grazie are byproducts of the Italian cultural influence on America. The mass immigration at the turn of the century gave us more than new foods and flavors; it gave us movie stars, singers, and tiny fragments of a language from a boot-shaped country you don’t need a drop of Italian in you to know.

It’s one of the things I love about America. Sure we’re a buffet culture, but that buffet is one of the most diverse and beautiful buffets you’ve ever seen.

The next word I learned was siliencio. A docent at the Uffizi Gallery taught me that one. She opened her mouth and the word sprang from the depth of her chest to cut across the room through a symphony of languages. Everyone went quiet at once. We didn’t need to understand the word to interpret its meaning.

But the word I’m most proud of is the one I picked up in a small cafe in Milan: due.

After a 17-hour road trip, we arrived in the fashion capital of the world. It didn’t look like I thought it would. We found ourselves in a sleepy little neighborhood full of apartment buildings and senior citizens. It was 9 pm and there was only one restaurant open for dinner. It was a Peruvian chicken joint painted beige. We traveled all the way to Italy—through Belgium, Luxembourg, France, and Switzerland—to order barbecued chicken thighs and hot dogs with french fries in Spanish. I ordered a Martini. They brought me red vermouth. I drank it anyway.

The next morning the metal doors lining the street raised to reveal a paradise of scooter rentals, smoke shops, and cafes. The sleepy neighborhood was transformed. I pictured young Milanese strolling about in fabulous clothes. But while the neighborhood looked different, the people did not. They still sat on their terraced balconies, white hair blowing gently in the breeze, watching us from above.

We walked the neighborhood in search of breakfast. A cafe caught our eye. It had a beautiful display of pastries—kept cool under glass—and a shiny chrome espresso machine. Our breakfast choices shimmered liked beautiful jewels in a case, but it was really the sign for free wifi that got us through the door.

Our breakfast choices shimmered liked beautiful jewels in a case, but it was really the sign for free wifi that got us through the door.

A dark-haired woman wearing glasses stood behind the coffee bar. Her Italian was swift and rapid. I’d have to rely on the menu.

I looked at the menu and couldn’t read a thing. I’d have to rely on the translator app. But without knowing how to log on, it was useless.

So, I did the only thing I could: I looked the barista in the eye with such intense sincerity that I was certain I could communicate telepathically. She blinked. We stood silence.

“Um, cappuccino?”
“Si, cup’a’cine.”
“Um, si? Cu-ip-i-cineee.”

She held up a single finger. I swiveled my head left then right looking around the cafe hoping a translator would appear out. Nope. I guessed she was asking if I wanted a single? Maybe that was it.

I held up two fingers and she said, “Due, si.”
“Si, due.”

Had I tried to find some common ground, my coffee would have been in front of me already. Instead, I had put my faith in an app that didn’t work.

I’ve read that traveling has a way of changing you. There’s actual physical change: each time you have a new experience your brain forms new neural connections. And then there’s something deeper, richer, more poetic: you see things in a new way. You see the commonness between you and the people around you. People working, drinking coffee, living. You see how you are connected to one another; regardless of wifi.

Geezo did come back the next day to fix our internet connection. It worked but by that point, I had ditched the app. I knew enough to get by.