Every time I go to Italy, I fall in love with the way Italian women walk.
It’s a floating strut, usually done in high heels, regardless of the irregular cobblestones and sidewalks. Their heads and shoulders never slip from a seamless level trajectory, they float stationary, and yet somehow they can still make that thick ponytail bob or that impossibly curly hair flow behind like a comet tail.
Ladies, warn your gentlemen friends: If they look too longingly—or just too long—they’re likely to get a talking-to. Italian women don’t like to be stared at. Once in the Rome airport, I didn’t even realize I was looking in the direction of a busty blonde, until I noticed she was angrily sticking her tongue out at me.
Oh, don’t get me wrong. I’m not a peeper. I like watching everyone when I travel, but this is something else, and I’ve often thought I could make a fortune by opening a chain of schools that teaches women to walk like Italians.
Le italiane will pretend not to see you if they don't know you. You need an entree to converse. For example, on the train to Rome, I sat across from a young woman who looked every way but in my direction, her gaze seeming to slip over me without pausing. Then, after an hour on the train together, she yawned.
"Now you'll have me doing that too," I said in Italian with mock drama. She laughed and then happily told me her life story over the rest of the trip.
Such a wonderfully quirky people; Italians are closed and suspicious until you get an introduction, after which they greet you warmly when they see you out on the piazza, and they cry like they’re sending you off to war when it’s time for you to go home.
They can be churlish: One day I was walking from the school to my apartment and I heard a splat and a rattle when a woman dropped her plastic grocery bag as she was mounting her bicycle. An older man grunted a loud “eh” as he passed, without offering to help. She let out an angry stream of displeasure, and all I could make out was that she was telling him how impolite the men of Naples are.
Or frustratingly obtuse: One Friday morning, Roberta picked me up at my apartment to drive me to the Laundromat in the walled section of Città di Castello. She sped off in her car after I got out, and when I reached the door of the Laundromat, I realized it was closed. I waited a few minutes with my filthy clothes bulging out of a satchel. Eventually two old ladies came out of an adjacent door.
The sign on the door said “Open every day, 7 a.m. to 11 p.m.”
“E chiusa, It’s closed,” one of the older women said, as if I should know that already. “La signora e morta, The owner is dead.”
I supposed that was what happened to you if you worked every day, but I didn’t walk away soon enough.
“Cosa voleva?” the old woman asked without seeming to notice the load of dirty clothing I was balancing. “What was it that you wanted?”
“To wash my clothes!”
She shrugged because it was not her problem and lumbered off.
We are responsible only for ourselves, I suppose, an attitude that applies out on the Italian highways. It’s every man for himself, Mondo Cane, and for that reason, driving in Italy without swearing would be like driving in New York City without the use of a middle finger.
I also learned never to get into a philosophical conversation with an Italian woman while she is driving. We were going 80 kilometers per hour on the highway, tailgating the car in front of us. I don’t even remember what we were talking about, but suddenly, Roberta was looking straight at me instead of the road, with both hands off the wheel, because she needed to wave them at me to make her point.
Shortly afterward, we were pulled over by two carabinieri, federal police wearing blue and red hats. They had parked their squad car along the highway, and one waved a wand at Rob’s car, which meant she had to pull over. The officer then asked for license and registration and ran a check on the numbers.
Rob was smirking when we drove off again, and I asked why. When her daughter Eliza is pulled over, and the cops ask her why she is not wearing her seat belt, Rob said, Eliza grabs her breasts and kneads them, emitting “eh’s” and “ah’s” in staccato chirps to express the obvious and unpleasant fact that her bosom is chafed by the seat belt, and before long, the officers are so uncomfortable that they let her go without a ticket.
What do I like about Italians, aside from that mischievous sense of humor? They are generous to a fault and went out of their way to show me their country.
I love that when there are adults and children together, there is always animated conversation between them. The youngsters on their way to school on the train are pleasantly ebullient, hands flying around as they talk. At the soccer field down by the Tiber River in Città di Castello, the gray haired-men and the young studs play together, shouting “Dai! Dai!” “Come on!” as the forward makes his run. A pass and a shot; a goalie charges out of the box to snag the ball one-handed before drop kicking it.
“Ecco! There you have it!” his teammates croak.
There are moments of gratuitous delight: I was watching the street life from a table outside a cafe on the piazza. A mother walked by carrying a very small boy, and an older man at a table said “Ciao” and waved to him. The tot raised a hand, fingers together, and, unable to master the sibilants of “Ciao,” instead shouted, “Ow, Ow, Ow!”
Minutes later, an inexplicable parade passed by, seemingly important people sporting over-the-shoulder sashes, followed by older men wearing uniform warm-up sweats as from a sports team. The music sprang up suddenly from around the corner and the marching band miraculously appeared, snaked around the Bar Centrale and disappeared down the main street.
There is love lost expressed in unexpected places: Graffiti on the wall by the Duomo desperately said “Simi, Ti amo troppo bene, I love you too well,” and I can only hope that Simi, the intended recipient, saw it there.
On a concrete walkway over a thin, chalky stream running into the Tiber, I found two laments painted in blue paint and 10-inch letters on the bridge:
When I loved someone
I only realized she
was important after
I lost her.
It all began here
But you were
From the first.
I love the sounds of Italian, which can be lilting and musical or clashing and cacophonous. I’m fascinated by the generational differences in its voices. One day, there were two baristas at the café, a beautiful young girl, with short straight blonde hair in a long bob and a stud under her lip who spoke in a high baby-doll voice and a 40ish woman with curly short hair with a deep and resonant voice. Older men and women speak very low in their throats, which makes the voice box honk or rasp or trill like a cartoon character. The children sound like Topo Gigio, a famous Italian mouse puppet from “The Ed Sullivan Show” in the 1960s.
While speaking French or Spanish I find that women are naturally easier to understand than men because they speak more slowly and clearly and pronounce words more distinctly. In Italian, it’s the contrary, especially among college-educated men who speak in a slow, halting cadence that allows me enough space to catch up to what they are saying.
The language is as complex as the people and to an extent, Umbrian men and women have different accents. The women, for example, pronounce “Arrezzo,” the name of a town just over the Tuscan border, the way it’s supposed to be pronounced in Italian: Ar-RETS-zo. The men, however, lisp it Ar-RETH-tho, like Castilian Spanish. But if they are speaking in local dialect, I understand nothing.
Italians are natural hostage takers, whether you are in the lecture hall or in a private car. One day Rob asked if I wanted to come to her house for lunch between classes, and I told her I was not hungry.
"Well, I have to cook for my daughter," she said, "so will you come along?"
“Ok,” I said.
When we got to her apartment, she pulled out the broccoli she bought at the farm store the day before and started cleaning it while boiling water for pasta. I assumed she was preparing dinner for later that evening. Then the parboiled broccoli was cut up and dumped into a skillet with garlic and olive oil and then garnished with cheese.
"Ok, what do you want for a second plate?" she asked.
"Rob, I said I’m not hungry."
"Yes, but I made this food. You need a second," she said, as she shredded lettuce and radicchio for salad.
Sometimes you just have to shut up and eat.