When my wife asked if I wanted to move to Italy, I didn’t think twice about it—my answer was a resounding and enthusiastic, “yes!”
I immediately started reading everything I could find about Italy. I found a survival Italian handbook at the local secondhand bookstore, purchased Rosetta Stone Italian language learning software, and downloaded the Lonely Planet offline Italian translator app. I looked up the Italian name of every piece of furniture in the house, then set about affixing each with a Post-It note depicting its Italian name. I even binge watched Rome, Gladiator, and Under the Tuscan Sun—even though it felt a little weird to watch Diane Lane alone. By the time of our house hunting trip, I felt prepared.
We boarded the plane, excited for this incredible opportunity to experience all that Italy could offer. As we settled in, I broke out my study cards: Hello—Buongiorno; Good by—Ciao; Thank you—Grazie; Can I have another glass of wine?—Posso avere un altro bicchiere di vino?—I was determined to not insult our Italian hosts.
Admittedly, I was a little confused upon deplaning some 21 hours after take off—I thought Italy to be much closer to Chicago. Having grown up with a Los Angeles Public School system education, I’ve become accustomed to geographical knowledge gaps—in California it was often presumed that there was’t any other place on earth worth visiting, so why bother learning about them. I wrote off the long flight, thinking perhaps the pilot decided to fly west instead of east.
I was also surprised by the heat. Despite it only being half past five in the morning, the gangway felt like it was at least 90 degrees Fahrenheit. I recalled Diane Lane being quite comfortable without air conditioning in her Tuscan home. Could Hollywood have gotten it so wrong? Perhaps it was a September heat wave? “Non è un problema,” I thought in my best Italian, “I love the heat.”
As we entered the terminal I was pleasantly surprised to see much of the signage in English. There appeared to be some decorative squiggles accompanying most of the English translations, but there was no actual Italian anywhere. Although I found it a bit curious, I decided it was not worth consideration at present. All those months studying Italian were for nothing, gli Italiani parlano Inglese—the Italians speak english. We were fast approaching immigration and my thoughts were drifting to amazing food, vino, and Italian hospitality.
We made our way through the makeshift queue and up to the immigration desk. “Bonjourno!” I exclaimed to our first in-country representative, an extremely tan gentleman with a particularly sour disposition.
“Passport,” he said, not bothering to look up from his screen.
“My, these Italian immigration folks don’t fool around,” I thought, “This guy is all business.”
He took our photos, stamped our passports, and without a passing glance, waved us on our way. I thought Italians would be more jovial given all the amazing food, wine, and culture that surrounds them. How can anyone be unhappy in the midst of lasagna, Chianti, and the Roman Forum? Perhaps we caught him on a bad day? There was just no telling and my Italian wasn’t anywhere close to being conversational enough to ask—so we collected our passports and made our way to the passport check desk.
The Italian’s take their internal security very seriously. After passing through immigration, another extremely tan and dour Italian government employee sat at a control point waiting to see the stamp placed only moments ago in our passports. It took a minute to find the exact page, but eventually we had something we could show him. He looked, nodded, and motioned us to the next stop.
One must applaud Italian immigration security. After two check points, we stood before an x-ray belt and walk-through metal detector. It was difficult to imagine what one might be bringing into Italy that would not have been detected during previous security checks. We wanted to be good guests, but this was becoming ridiculous. Barring other options, we made for the scanner with our carry-on luggage.
It was a challenge putting our bags atop the x-ray machine belt. It seemed like every time we moved to add our items another three extremely tan Italians walked up and cut in front of us, adding their baggage to the belt. It was annoying, but we remained focused on being good guests. We waited patiently for an opening, then expeditiously threw our stuff onto the rollers.
Next came the body scanner. As I walked toward the opening, I realized my mobile phone was still in my back pocket. I glanced at the baggage scanner, by now surrounded by busy Italians all in a hurry to get home.
I watched as several Italians cut in front of us and passed through the body scanner. The alarm sounded every time someone walked through, but not a single person was being stopped. I surmised that I might be able to pass, mobile in pocket, with little chance of a secondary inspection. I waited for an opportune moment—a break in the line of hurried Italians—and strolled through the opening. As expected, the alarm sounded, but the short, dark complected security man sitting in the chair opposite the scanner did not move.
We collected our luggage from the x-ray machine and boarded the escalator heading to baggage claim. My wife, a veteran visitor after several visits to the country for work, knew exactly where to go—opposite the side of the carousel with all the people. We waited patiently for our voluminous baggage.
Although I didn’t understand it at the time, my wife insisted on packing a years worth of tampons, two cases of beer, several bottles of wine, bed linens, pillows, and a gross of toilet paper to bring with us on our house hunting trip. “We can leave it with friends for when we move next month.” She said, utterly predisposed with packing at the time.
“Odd?” I wondered aloud, “Do they not have tampons in Italy?”
“No,” was her answer—which I accepted without question like a good husband.
Our luggage appeared on the carousel. As I lugged each piece into place on one of the two carts we’d commandeered for the occasion, my wife wiped the bags bearing white X’s with a sanitizing napkin. “What are you doing?” I asked.
“I’m wiping off X’s.” She stated, a bit short tempered after our long flight.
Sure enough, that is what she was doing, so I questioned it no further. She was the expert on Italy—me a simple tourist at this point.
We rolled our six bags from the terminal and into a sea of Italians. I couldn’t help but notice how tan they all were, crowded about the only exit, all staring like they’d never seen a pale-skinned American. I made eye contact, smiled, and waved as we passed, but there were few responses—only scowling gawkers. It was a bit disconcerting. I’d heard so much about Italian hospitality, but in reality they all appeared angry—not a smiling face in the bunch.
There was also an odd smell. I’d considered Italy might be fragrant: oregano, basil, rosemary, sage, bay leaf, thyme, black pepper—but these were not the odors currently permeating my nostrils. What suffused my olfactory senses were cardamom, clove, cumin, coriander, nutmeg, and saffron, as well as a dash of dust, a smidgeon of body odor, a modicum of car exhaust, and something that can only be described as dried cow dung. I was seriously starting to doubt everything I’d learned about Italy.
Eventually and not without some effort, we spotted our hotel transport driver. He stood among the other Italians with a sign that read, ‘Richey.’ “Thank goodness,” I thought, “I was wondering if we might be in the wrong place.” He guided us to a small, Toyota minivan wherein we loaded our luggage, took our seats, and began the commute to the hotel.
The scenery along the way was quite unlike anything I’d seen in Gladiator or the Rosetta Stone example photos. It was mostly a large expanse of tan with few distinguishing marks. Italy was supposed to be a somewhat western nation with hill towns, store fronts, and western-style conveniences. But none of those appeared in the space between the airport and the hotel.
Instead, what passed before us was a cross between Planet of the Apes—the original Charlton Heston version—and Sim City. A barren, dusty, rural landscape dotted with partially constructed modern high rise complexes sitting amid ramshackle tenements and giant boulders. There were cows rambling down the same lanes as cars, and no less than twenty motorcycles to every other vehicle on the road. There were signs, lots of them—after whiskey driving risky, if married divorce speed, fast drive will be your last drive—and beside them a half dozen workers were either sleeping or cutting grass with scissors. There was a nonstop symphony of honking horns and as we entered what I hesitate to describe as the city, I noted that every conceivable bit of visual space was filled with a billboard. This was nothing like I’d expected.
After what seemed an eternity we arrived at the hotel, an upscale facility with uniformed greeters and more security check points. They searched beneath the carriage and opened the boot, our hand baggage rolled through another scanner and we walked within another metal detector. As I stood with my arms out to the side, a very tan, short Italian gentleman dressed like a Vatican Guard passed a wand over my body in search of weapons. “What the heck is with all this security?” I thought.
At the front desk more uniformed staff greeted us, “Namaste,” they chimed in unison.
“Namaste must be in section two of Rosetta Stone Italian” I speculated audibly to know one in particular. “Bonjourno!” I boomed, anxious to demonstrate my love of the language. Bewildered looks set across their faces—my confusion grew.
We gathered our room keys and as it was still morning and we had not eaten, we decided to partake of the local breakfast buffet. The restaurant smelled, well, fragrant. There was more cardamom, clove, and coriander, but none of the traditional Italian scents I’d expected. The aromatic essence seemed to be coming from the abundance of food splayed across a lengthy sideboard, each dish labeled with its local name: samosa, aloo gobi, dal makhani, biryani, masala dosa, chana masala—none looked anything like the Rosetta Stone photos for prima colazione, pranzo, or cena.
I helped myself to some toast and ordered an espresso, only to find the espresso machine inoperative. “I’m very sorry, sir” said the young man with the thick accent, “our espresso machine is not working. Perhaps I can get you a coffee.”
It was about the time the waiter returned with un caffe’ that a profound suspicion set upon me. The smells, heat, strange squiggles, heightened security, and otherworldly landscape just didn’t add up. Nothing we’d seen so far came close to Diane Lane’s Tuscany or Maximus’ Colosseum—and what self-respecting Italian restaurant doesn’t have a back up espresso machine? Even the coffee tasted bad—like someone had run warm water across no more than eight semi-crushed beans. No, something was definitely wrong and I was determined to figure it out.
I glanced at my beautiful wife who was enjoying a small breakfast of eggs, toast and tea while clicking away on her mobile. “Sweetheart? Can I ask you a question?”
“Sure,” she smiled, despite obviously being sleepy.
“To where in Italy are we moving, exactly?”
“Dear, I told you, we’re moving to India, not Italy.” She beamed, “Now relax and enjoy your chapati.”
Well, that explains the espresso machine.
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Unless otherwise noted, I drew or took the photographs in the article—as lame as they may look. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is probably planned. Copyright can be found here for my original work.