Despite my frequent trips to Italy, I consciously decided never to learn the language. With blissful ignorance, I always preferred listening to the musicality of Italian, while allowing the meaning of the words to subtly escape me.
The first time I visited Italy, a schoolmate and I toured the major cities of Northern Italy. Rather than backpacking on a budget, like the majority of our peers, we opted to take a bus tour so we wouldn’t have to contend with the issue of logistics. Our choice of travel meant that we were the only twenty-year olds travelling with a group of senior citizens.
Our Roman tour guide was a curmudgeonly fellow, whom I will herein refer to as Antonio.
“In Italy, ice is like diamonds,” Antonio informed us. His heavily accented English was intensified by the tight grip of his lips on the cigarette that seemingly never left his mouth. “Don’t ask for ice when you order soft drinks in Italy, you won’t a get any.” Antonio proffered many such banal statements. His negative soundtrack tainted the trip that I had been dreaming of taking since I was a child.
My idealistic image of Italy was conceived through a marriage of influences. Paintings of Venetian scenes decorated my parents’ apartment when I was a child, and they served as the backdrop for tales recounted by my father who had briefly lived in Italy in his twenties. In my teens, I gleaned more sensorial impressions of Italy by watching classic Italian films and reading the short stories of Alberto Moravia.
Contradicting all of my romanticized imaginings, Antonio painted an ugly picture of his homeland. His every anecdote brimmed with distaste toward his country and fellow citizens. “Be careful when you walk down the street in Firenze, everybody is a thief! People on bikes will slash open your purses… Me, I don’t like Venice. Venice is like Disneyland.” The bus tour lasted nine days, but it took only one day for all of us passengers to tire of Antonio’s nasty running commentary.
One afternoon, after being allotted time to explore Firenze independently, we returned to our bus to find Bob, an American from Texas, regaling our group with an anecdote. Having forgotten his bag at a gelateria, he returned to the location one hour later only to have it handed back to him with all of its contents intact, by the gelateria’s owner.
“You see, Antonio!” Bob said, standing at the front of the bus. “My bag wasn’t slashed or stolen. There are good people in this country and great ice cream too!”
We all applauded.
The one positive thing that could be said about Antonio was that in every city we visited he consistently steered us in the direction of the best gelaterias.
Several years after that introductory tour of Italy, Daria, a childhood friend of mine who had moved to Italy, invited me to visit her new hometown of Torino. Daria and her husband, Mario, picked me up at the airport and we drove to their apartment. From the second we stepped into their apartment building, it was clear that this would be a more authentic Italian experience than my first trip had been. The minuscule elevator barely fit the three of us. It was so tight, I felt like we were smooshed inside of a vertical, moving coffin.
After our safe arrival upstairs, dinner plans were discussed when the couple’s other friends arrived. When I overheard someone say “bella ragazza,” I assumed that we were going to a regatta. (Ignorant of what a regatta was exactly, I figured it had something to do with boats.)
While the animated dinner-related discussions were carried out solely in Italian, I discreetly extracted a cereal bar from my purse, one of the many snacks that I brought from Canada, much to Daria’s amusement.
Catching me in the act of nibbling on my snack, Daria switched to English. “Did you not think we had any food in this country?”
“That’s nothing, check this out,” I said, proudly showing her the jar of peanut butter I had in my purse.
She muttered what I believe was an Italian curse word. “Seriously? Peanut butter? Well, in a way, you are right to have brought that because you won’t be able to find peanut butter in these parts. You couldn’t pay anyone in Italy to eat that garbage!” she said, revolted by my contraband food stash.
“You’re going to spoil your appetite! We’re going out to eat soon!” Mario yelled at me.
“Yes, but I don’t want to feel seasick,” I explained. “So, I thought I should have a little snack now.”
“Seasick? Why would you feel seasick in a pizzeria?” Mario asked.
“Aren’t we going on a boat, on the water?”
“Not even close.” Mario was perplexed.
“Oh, but I thought I overheard your friend say that we were going to a bella regatta?” I asked.
The sound of their collective laughter rippled throughout the apartment.
“No, scema!” Daria laughed, “Elliott said you were a pretty girl, a ‘bella ragazza.’ No one said anything about a regatta. Sorry, we won’t be dining on a yacht this evening, silly Canadian girl!”
The only upside to my embarrassing mistake was that I had added a new word to my Italian vocabulary, “scema” (the equivalent of dummy).
As if voicing my incorrect translation hadn’t been embarrassing enough, I uttered a worse faux-pas at the pizzeria by mispronouncing the name of the cheese that I wanted on my pizza.
“Nooo! It’s pronounced pecorino!” Daria corrected me, as the couple’s fifteen friends laughed uncontrollably.
“What did I do now?” I whispered.
“The way you mispronounced pecorino, it sounded like you just asked the waiter for a pizza, doggy style! Imagine!” (If I ever considered pursuing a career in Italy as a comedian, I would call myself “Scema, The Dirty Translation Artist.”)
After the mortifying dinner, Daria and Mario consoled me by taking me to a gelateria/caffé called Fiorio’s. There we sat at a small table inside the cosy café. After our coffees, both Daria and Mario recommended that I try the gianduia-flavoured gelato. Torino is renowned for gianduia chocolates – a hazelnut flavoured milk chocolate that tastes like Nutella, the hazelnut chocolate spread.
From my very first spoonful of Fiorio’s gianduia gelato, I was hooked. The texture was silky and unctuous. It had a hint of tackiness – but in a good way, like you’d experience after eating a spoonful of nut butter. With a chocolaty richness, it was the gelato version of Nutella.
For the remainder of my stay in Torino, after our daily meanderings around the city, we ended up at Fiorio’s take-out window, at the side of the café, sometimes as often as three times a day. Despite my frequent indulgences, I never tired of the flavour of gianduia, and I began to worry about how I would survive back home without Fiorio’s convenient take-out window to heaven.
As expected, my time spent living in an apartment in Torino with locals provided a learning experience that staying in luxury hotels never did. Daria had to teach me how to use a gas stove (without burning down the apartment) if ever I wanted to make myself a cup of tea when no one else was home. If I wanted to take a shower, the hot water heater in the apartment had to be turned on four hours prior. During the interim, dishes were to be washed by hand using cold water.
Lifestyle differences were apparent outside the apartment as well. Whenever we took the bus instead of the car, we had to wave at the bus driver and hail the bus as we might a cab, otherwise the driver wouldn’t pull over at the designated stop. Puzzled by the system, I asked Daria, “Why can’t the driver just stop, since it’s part of his route?”
“You are so North American!” was her response.
On my second-to-last day in Torino, Mario drove us to nearby Superga for the day. En route, I mentioned that I would be missing my thrice daily gelato run.
“Can I buy you a basket?” Mario offered as compensation, when we drove by locals selling handmade baskets roadside.
“A basket? What am I going to do with a basket? I laughed. “No thank you, but grazie anyway!”
As we drove by lush scenery, I fantasized about Fiorio’s gianduia gelato. Only once did I try a flavour other than gianduia at Fiorio’s. At Daria’s insistence, I tried a mixed berry flavour that I didn’t at all enjoy. I regretted the lost opportunity to have gianduia.
My time in Torino was running out and, as I looked out the window at the passing scenery, I counted how many more scoops of gianduia gelato I could squeeze in before leaving the country.
As planned, on my final day in Torino, we visited the Mole Antonelliana, which housed a cinema museum, before going to have our hair done (a parting gift from Daria). There, we took a spacious glass elevator suspended in the centre of the high-ceilinged atrium, and upon arrival at the top, stepped outside for an aerial view of Torino.
Back down at street level, on our way to the hair salon, we walked by a yellow and white brick building adorned with a silver hoop ring to make the corner of the building appear as if it had been pierced.
Our stylist at the hair salon had just returned from working at fashion week in Milan. He was highly caffeinated and extremely talkative. I heard what I thought were the words “bella ragazza.” According to Daria’s translation, the hair stylist had complimented our faces but had added that it was, “too bad” that we were “so short.”
Daria made air quotes with her fingers when she translated and let out an aggravated snort. “That was an insult disguised as a compliment and my appreciation of it shall be reflected in his tip,” she whispered to me in English.
“Scema! Maybe you have shampoo in your ears and you misunderstood. You sure he didn’t just invite us to a regatta?” I joked.
His words hadn’t upset me at all. Instead, they proved that for once, not understanding Italian had worked in my favour. After we left the salon it was time to head back to Fiorio’s for my very last gianduia gelato – and nothing anybody said or did could impede my enjoyment of it. Gianduia gelato from Fiorio’s was more precious to me than diamonds.
Renée Cohen is a freelance writer and world traveler. Her work has appeared in Prairie Fire, The Globe and Mail, The Montreal Gazette, Reader’s Digest, Brilliant Flash Fiction, Zvona i Nari Croatia, and in anthologies by the Canadian Authors Association. Her artwork has been exhibited in solo shows and featured in Montreal Writes, Headlight 22 and Flash Frontier, New Zealand.