Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Surviving Italy without Italian

Well, I've survived my first major run-in with Italians where I really wished I knew more Italian.

My intercom buzzed this afternoon (for the first time!), and when I answered the phone, I realized that (1) the volume was incredibly low, (2) someone was talking to me in rapid Italian that I didn't have a chance of hearing, let alone understanding, and (3) I actually have no idea how to "buzz someone in" even if I wanted to. I said "no capisco" several times, but she seemed so insistent that I finally said "I'll come down." I actually heard her say "no capisco" as I hung up, grabbed shoes and keys, and ran down the four flights of stairs.

I found two young Italian women. It was actually a little funny how easy it was for me to understand the basics of what they were saying, and how impossible it was for me to communicate anything to them. They knew I had just moved in and were here to put the gas and light bills in my name. The problem is that I'm not certain those bills are supposed to go in my name. But how does someone like me (with so little Italian) explain that I think someone else is supposed to be handling this stuff with my utilities and I am not going to mess with it without checking in with them. Especially when half of my attempts to speak Italian still come out in Spanish.

I eventually made it clear that I wanted to call my friend. Once they understood that this was someone who could speak both English and Italian, they were all over it. They came upstairs and I called the office and got a quick call back from someone who was able to talk to them, tell them we weren't interested, and tell me that they were sales people and I should get rid of them as soon as possible. Which I did.

I'm glad I trusted my instincts. I was pretty sure that someone would have told me that I needed to sign up for utilities with some women who came knocking on my door if that was in fact the case.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Arriving in Rome

I'm safe and sound in the Eternal City.

I was so busy leading up to my departure, what with packing and goodbyes, that I hardly had time to process this major change in my life. It's funny. It didn't really hit me until Friday afternoon how hard it is to walk out of the whole life that you know for a year. It's funny. In this virtual world of Facebook, blogs, digital cameras and what-not, it is easy to be in relationship with people that you don't see every day. For me (like many academics), I also maintain plenty of pretty close relationships with people that I only really see at 2-4 conferences a year. I think because of those two things, I imagined that it wasn't a very big deal to walk out of my life for a year. The leaving was a lot harder than I thought.

The packing was an adventure of its own. All I'm going to do here is claim this supreme victory of packing efficiency: my two checked bags (maximum of 50 pounds to avoid overweight charges) weighed in at 50.4 and 49.5 pounds. And no, she didn't even think about charging me for that .4 pound difference.

The voyage was harder than it should have been. My flight out of PVD was delayed by about 90 minutes because of thunderstorms in Philadelphia (my connecting city). They let us know that after we boarded, so I sat on that plane for about 2.5 hours. Arriving in PHL about 6:40, I found that my connection to Rome, originally listed for a 6:15 departure, was listed for 6:45. I booked it as fast as I could to the international terminal. I arrived at the designated gate to see that my flight was now listed as a 7pm departure. Of course, it was 7:02 and there was not a single soul at the gate. I went across to the opposite gate to ask about my flight. The agent tap-tap-tapped at her computer and looked at me with absolute confidence and said: "That flight is now delayed until midnight. You should go sit at the gate and wait for an update." I took one look back at the still utterly empty gate, turned back to her and said, "Are you sure? I mean, wouldn't there be a lot of people sitting there? Can you double check?" Tappity-tap-tap. (By the way, as she taps, a couple comes up also looking for this flight. I update them.) The agent begins again, with absolute confidence, and as if nothing that preceded had happened. "I'm sorry, but that flight already departed. You'll need to go to customer service across from gate blah-blah-blah and see about a rebooking."

Sometimes, in a moment like this, I sort of wish I were another person, the sort of person who could just yell at a person and tell them what a complete and total idiot they're being. But with more expletives. But I am who I am, so I took a deep breath and said, "I'm really sorry, but you've just told me two completely contradictory things, and I'm not going down to customer service or anywhere out of sight of this gate until you can confirm that flight has left." So, someone did show up at the other gate. Now a family of 5 has arrived, and there are 8 of us. A few more trickle in. The agent informs us in no uncertain terms that the flight has left and we will not be able to get on it. The problem is, it has become clear to us that the flight is, in fact, sitting at the gate. No, he is certain it left the gate. Isn't that it? Well, yes. There were a few minutes of a LOT of confusion. All of a sudden, another agent appears on the scene. She lets us know that the flight did in fact leave the gate, but returned due to a maintenance issue. Well, we suggested, isn't that good news for all of us? You can let us on that flight and we can get to Rome basically on time and you won't have to book (what has become about) 15 seats on tomorrow's flight. There were a few more minutes of "we just don't do that ... this flight is already boarded and departed ..." And then, somehow, she was taking our tickets and letting us through.

The flight attendants were pretty shocked to see us. And I'm not completely unsympathetic. By the time we boarded the plane, the rest of the people on board had been sitting there for at least 90 minutes. And, honestly, there was some sort of poison in the air. I watched an elderly gentleman absolutely refuse to trade his seat (for another aisle seat within a couple of rows) that would have allowed the father (of the aforementioned family of five) to sit together in a single row of four with his wife and 3 kids (one a lap baby). I heard the loud (Italian) insistence: "I paid for this seat and you cannot make me move!" I thought he was a horrible excuse for a human being, but this morning at baggage claim, I talked to the mom, who confirmed that he did in fact trade with her husband right after take-off and apologize to her. Basically, he felt very deeply disrespected by the flight attendant (for the previous 90 minutes), and her tone in this ("you have to move right now to help us accommodate these people who shouldn't have been allowed in anyway") was unacceptable, too. Although I didn't hear that story until after the flight, it made sense of much to me. Everyone just seemed more on edge than they needed to be. I think the flight attendants sort of set a tone.

Then there was the boy--about 12, I'd say--who had a brother, 2 parents, and a grandfather (Poppy) on the plane. All of them were somewhere within the 2 rows in front of me, in a couple of groups. But seriously, for 10 hours, every thought, observation, question etc this kid had was communicated in a voice far too loud for these close quarters.

Anyway, it was a long flight. We actually didn't leave until well over an hour after I got on board. The good news? My bags actually made the flight, too! I gathered everything up (another small miracle of efficient packing), got some euros, grabbed a cab, showed up to my apartment, and had the guy from the study abroad company waiting for me to help me get settled.

I'll post some pictures soon, but the apartment is very nice. It's a little quirky. It's small but still more space than I really need. It has sort of a hotel feel to it (there are towels and sheets and a hair dryer). The kitchen is stocked with a few pots and pans, dishes, etc. Pretty basic, but it will work.

I walked around the neighborhood a little today. There is a grocery store very close (about a half a block down from me), and several restaurants, bars, pizzerias. I was at first too hungry and then too hot and tired to explore too much. Tomorrow!