If you are just jumping in here, please start with Part 1.
It is January 1985 now, and the weather has been in the mid 70’s in L.A. Now I know many people reading this think OMG! Mid 70’s in January, but I am an L.A. native, and you just have to understand things in context. To me, when the daytime temperature drops to 60, that is called “extreme winter temps.” If it rained, we didn’t go to school! The news channels would show reporters in the street crying out “Curbside Flooding and Storm Watch!” That would be from a major storm that might drop as much as 2″ of rain in a couple days. Unthinkable! And snow? I have never seen snow falling in my life. Yes, we have the lake house, and it does snow up there in the winter here and there, but I have never actually seen snow falling!
So I am now boarding my flight for my 3rd trip to Italy, and Paola warned me. Her warnings came as a result of her own utter surprise in L.A. You know, like when I would explain that it was not at all uncommon to have Christmas poolside, or in early January, when she saw cherry blossoms on the trees. To her, winter meant not only no blossoms, but no leaves. You most certainly don’t walk around with a T-Shirt! So she had prepped me to some extent for what was to come, and even had helped me shop for appropriate clothing. But you know how it is… you don’t quite know until you experience it.
My third time going to Italy, but this time I am not going as a tourist, and by now I think the TWA crew is starting to expect me. But this time I am going to live there. This means I am not going to be in a hotel or staying with a friend. I need to find my own place. I won’t be renting a car. I need to buy one. Oh, and I am going to go to school in Rome and take Italian. Exciting times ahead!
Welcome to Italy
After an uneventful flight, I arrive in Rome. Now, you have to understand how I packed for this trip. I am going to be living here for at least 9 months this stretch, so there are some essentials. Along with my “winter” clothes, I had packed a VCR, my Commodore 64 computer, a monitor, several power adapters, and before coming, I had set my VCR to record hundreds of movies and TV shows. So I had a huge suitcase full of VHS tapes.
Small piece of advice: James Bond movies are great for falling asleep.
Why bring all this stuff, you might ask? It was 1985! For one thing, they had a television standard different than that in the US, so my VHS tapes would not work on an Italian VCR or TV. Not to mention at the time, the VCR was quite a luxury in Italy. Remember, no Internet, no multi-language dvds. Nada. If I wanted ANYTHING in my native language, I had to bring it with me.
But as I approached customs, there was my friend Mimmo. Remember the guy that owned the house in Soriano where Paola and I first kissed? Yeah, him. He was the Italian equivalent of an IRS agent. In Italy, they also handle border control. It turns out he was also somewhat high ranking, as he walked me through customs and waved off the other officers, telling them that “he is with me.” OK, cool! I have the mob making sure I had no problems in the south, here got similar treatment from government officials… for now.
The catch here is that at the time, you didn’t just casually walk through customs. They checked you thoroughly, and I risked a massive tax for what I was bringing in. They would tax you arbitrarily on what they decided the value was. After all, there was a wave of people bringing in Aunt Jemima Maple Syrup, Marlborough cigarettes and pancakes, right? So this was going to be a critical moment for me.
Once out of customs, there was Paola. Yeah, we had to find a place to kiss, because of the whole no public display of affection thing, and we exited the airport.
Holy #@#^%! This is COLD!!!!!!
As we exited the airport, a wave of subarctic freeze just hits me like a ton of bricks. WTF??? It is like “Am I gonna see penguins soon cold!!!!” How do humans even survive in this cold? And there is a look on both Paola and Mimmo’s faces that I came to realize read “Oh boy, wait till he gets to Soriano.”
Yeah. I thought it was cold at the airport. Turns out it was about 45 degrees Fahrenheit there. We drive to Soriano, and as I looked around, certain questions popped in my head, like “Why don’t the trees have any leaves? I swear they were there a few months ago!” By the time we got to Soriano, I got out of the car, and… well, ok… seriously. What is this??? I mean, why would any human live in this kind of weather? Now we are talking 30 degrees Fahrenheit. In the middle of the day, seriously? Even the puddles were made of ice. What is that all about? Why is this even legal?
No, I’m not dramatic at all, am I?
But this was genuine shock for me, and I was going to have to figure out how to live with it. Looking back, I can’t help but think of the sacrifices we make for love!
For Whom The Bell Tolls? Me!
OK, so here is the plan. I am going to stay at Mimmo’s house for a few days until I can find a place of my own to rent. We’re also gonna need to find me some wheels, right?
So my first night, I am as jet lagged as ever, and I am one of those people that suffers insomnia with jet lag. It is really an awful affliction. But eventually I will sleep, of course. That night I lay in bed, eyes wide open.
Dong! Dong! Dong! Dong! Dong! Dong! Dong! Dong! Dong! Dong!
As loud as can be, this bell somewhere outside Bangs the clapper against the lip, with the echoing sound reverberating through the walls of the house… and my ears. 10 times. 2 seconds apart. Oh, dude! This is the clock tower in the town square. I cannot believe I can hear it so loudly here! It is 10:00 PM. OK, so in an hour I am gonna get 11 Dongs? Who needs to know what time it is by way of a clock tower at 10:00 PM?
Then, all of the sudden, a loud DING! WTF? We just had 10 Dongs! Ugh! Shortly after that… DING! DING! I’m seeing a pattern here, anxiety rises. Then DING! DING! DING! Oh crap! I know what is happening here!
Dong! Dong! Dong! Dong! Dong! Dong! Dong! Dong! Dong! Dong! Dong!
11PM, and 15 minutes later I will get a loud ding telling me it is 11:15, and 15 minutes later I will get 2 dings telling me it is 11:30… Soon I am sure to get 12 Dongs! And of course, I did.
All flipping night long!!!!!!
By 2:00 AM, I realize this will never end. If I even start to doze off, I’m gonna get shaken awake by a Ding… or a Dong… Or Dings and Dongs! I don’t even like Ding Dongs! My mind starts racing more and more. You know, with logic, right? Serious questions like “Who out there is patiently waiting for the proper combination of Dongs and Dings to let them know it is 2:30 AM?” and “What will 2:30 AM mean to them in this tiny, freezing cold town?” and “You know, we have clocks and watches, right? We have the technology!”
The following day, I had one priority. Find an apartment ASAP! There were 3 criteria that needed to be met by whatever apartment I look at:
- It must be in a place where I do not hear the clock tower at night.
- It must be in a place where I do not hear the clock tower at night.
- It must be in a place where I do not hear the clock tower at night.
International House Hunters, 80’s Style
With my list of requirements in mind, we left Mimmo’s house in the morning and went to grab some coffee. And some coffee. And some coffee.
We met Paola in the Piazza, and have I told you how much colder sub-arctic temperatures feel when you have not slept? And wow, every time I breathe, it looks like I am smoking. OK, let’s get a place that fits at least 2 out of 3 of my requirements. I mean, I don’t want to be difficult, right?
Mimmo already has two places in mind. Remember, small town. Everyone knows everyone, and you don’t need a realtor to know what is for rent. You just ask the town gossip, which happened to Paola’s aunt, or Mimmo… after all, the IRS knows all!
House #1 – Hansel & Gretel’s Place
We drive up into the mountains. Soriano is already in the mountains, so we are going up higher. We pull onto this road, which is just icy enough for Mimmo’s wheels to spin as he tries to make his way up a steep incline, and suddenly we are on a tiny, narrow and windy dirt road. It winds and winds and winds, until we get into literally the middle of nowhere in a forest. But there is a house on the side of the road.
We walk in, and I would say it was a total of about 600 square feet. A bedroom, a little kitchen, a bathroom, and a little sitting area. It is furnished, but you need to picture that bright colored plastic 1960’s “futuristic” furniture. Think George Jetson. All bright red and white. It was… well… interesting. But seriously, it met all three of my requirements! I can move in right now!
But Mimmo and Paola warned me that when it gets colder and starts snowing, that road would completely ice up, and there would be no way for me to get a car up there.
Wait! Colder? As in, it isn’t really cold YET? And all of that ice we just drove over wasn’t considered “icy”? OK.
House #2: “The Attic”
They brought me to another place. In all fairness, it was THE other place, as #2 on the list was also the last on the list. This place was more “in town”. It was the third story of a building that a family lived in, but had a private entrance. It had once been the attic of the building, but they had converted it into an apartment.
Also fully furnished, but this time with more “classic” furniture, house #2 sports 2 bedrooms, a bathroom with a washing machine, a full kitchen, an entryway, a big den, and a balcony that had a beautiful view of the 11th century castle and the Tiber valley. I would say it was roughly 1,500 square feet. But I could see the castle, and that clock tower was right below the castle. So we waited and listened. We were just far enough away that we could not hear it. Check! All three requirements met.
What’s the rent? Paola and Mimmo spoke with the couple that lived downstairs, and told me it was going to be 300,000 Lira per month. With the exchange rate of the time, that translated to about $150.
DONE! Money in hand. I’ll take it!
The Cheapest Car I Have Ever Owned Is Also My Favorite
The next major “to do” on my list is get a car. Naturally, Mimmo “has a guy”. So we go to a used car lot, and look at what is there. Among the various cars I saw, there was this little card called an “Autobianchi A112 Elite”. Never herd of it, but later learned that Autobianchi was owned by Lancia. This baby was was the first modern three-door supermini hatchback! This baby sported a 4 cylinder 965cc engine under the hood, and had a max speed of 90mph ! It was practically new, and spotless.
What was the price of this bad boy? 2 Million Lira! That’s right, MILLIONS! Sticker shock aside, that converted to just under $1,000 at the time. But I just pulled out the millions in cash. No financing for this guy!
Driving off, I have to say, this puppy was actually an awesome car! It had great pickup, and handled about as well as my Porsche. I was really digging this little car! Within days I had this puppy tricked out with a Kenwood stereo and awesome speakers. Oh, did I mention the A/C? No, cars in Italy did not have A/C yet. But hey, it was in the low 30’s Fahrenheit, so I was not really concerned with A/C at the moment. It had a heater, and could warm that car up in 10 minutes flat!
You’re Not Dealing With AT&T
Next up on the living in Italy thing was to get a phone. That was simple. Of course there were no cell phones, and there was only one phone company called SIP. All I needed to do was go to their office and sign up for a phone line. Simple, right?
Paola and I ventured to the provincial capitol of Viterbo (20 minutes away) to the regional SIP office, and got an appointment to get me set up.
The amount of paperwork was utterly unbelievable. You would think I was buying a nuclear submarine. And I noticed that the lady there had an object on her desk that held rubber stamps. But if must have had 30 different rubber stamps in this “rubber stamp caddy,” which begs the question. Why does any company make a caddy that can hold dozens of rubber stamps? They must really like rubber stamps in Italy!
It turns out that they do, because she must have used half of them on various forms that I had to fill out, and she used them with such style. I mean, this lady was a rubber stamp ninja! She didn’t need to look for which stamp she needed. Her hands just knew where go to, and swish! bam! swash! Ninja Stamp Lady!
Forms filled, signatures signed, stamps stamped, we were done.
Someone will contact you within a year to get your phone line installed.huh?
“Well, it may be longer.”
“Longer than a year? For a phone line?:
So I explained my confusion to Paola by telling her that back home, if I asked for a phone line on Monday, I might have to wait until Wednesday. I truly think she was getting paramount enjoyment as she watched me learn about Italian Gold Star Inefficiency. She pretty much told me to get used to this.
Alright, so I might get lucky and have my phone installed after I am back home. Sweet!
All DMVs Are Created Equal
OK, so I have my apartment, I have a car, and I am on the “year or more” phone waiting list. I also need to get my car registered.
By the way, have I mentioned how cold it is? I mean, this is Santa Claus cold! I swear I’ll find his workshop nearby!
OK, so Italy’s “DMV” is called “ACI,” and they are not going to take me by surprise! After all, even back home, there is nothing that says slow, inefficient and rude bureaucracy like the DMV, right? I mean, who doesn’t choose a root canal over a trip to the DMV?
They did not disappoint! We had another lady that clearly had attended the same Rubber Stamp Ninja Training School as the Telephone lady. And yes, every desk in there had a rubber stamp caddy. They really, really like their rubber stamps here!
But alas, growing up in L.A. had fully prepared me for the DMV experience. The only real oddity was that we could not register the car in my name because I was not a citizen. Whatever, the car gets registered to Paola. Trust me, this comes back to haunt me later in encounters with the Police.
But then it came time to pay the fees. I don’t remember the amount, but when I went to pay, the lady had a look of horror on her face. Remember, I still don’t speak Italian, so I need to turn to Paola.
Michael: “What’s wrong?”
Paola: “You need to pay by getting stamps”
Michael: I can’t just give them the money here?
Paola: “No, you need stamps”
Michael: “Well, she has lots of stamps right there on her desk”
Paola: “No, like a postage stamp”
Michael: “And she can’t charge me for this stamp?”
Paola: “No, we have to go buy them”
Michael: “So we have to go to the post office?”
Paola: “No, we need to buy them at a Tobacco Shop”
Michael: “But you said it was a postage stamp”
Paola: “No, it is like a postage stamp”
Michael: “A Tobacco Shop Stamp, for my car?”
Paola: “No, we just get it there.”
Of course! What was I thinking? I should have known to pick up a pack of cigarettes and some DMV stamps at the tobacco shop before coming! It makes perfect sense. The people registering my car cannot handle the money necessary in order to register a car. We need a seller of tobacco for such delicate functions of government. But we cannot let the seller of tobacco actually handle the paperwork for registering a car. I mean, that would be insane!
Later I would learn that there is a method to the madness. For some reason, they don’t want the DMV (or any government office) handling money. I never understood why, but we will leave it at that. Tobacco products were run by government monopoly.
So every tobacco shop in Italy was actually a Government store licensed to an individual to run the store. As such, the Italian government held a monopoly on certain products, and you could only get those, and stamps, at the Tobacco Shop.
This included 3 items:
- Tobacco Products
- Those special stamps.
Yes, I wrote salt. Back then, when you went grocery shopping, you could get just about all groceries at the local grocer or supermarket. But not salt. You had to go to a Tobacco shop to get salt.
I could just imagine the government bureaucrats making this law in the past.
“Hey guys, let’s come up with something that will really mess with their heads!”
“Yeah, like what”
“I don’t know… let’s force them to buy some random product they need regularly at some entirely unrelated store”
“I don’t know… how about… SALT! Let’s make them buy salt at the gas station!”
“Oh no, let’s make them buy it t the Tobacco Shop!”
“What about sugar?”
“No, no, no… that would be too obvious.”
The Adventure Begins
This post has been long enough for now, so I will save what is to come next for Part 12 and beyond. We are only a few days into the highlights of me actually living in Italy. There was no doubt that this was going to be quite an adventure, and it was. But on the bright side, I’n not gonna get lost when I need to buy salt, am I? I have a language to learn, a daily pattern of life to develop, and so much to discover. None of it is free from comedy, I promise. But most of all, what I don’t know is that this will be one of the most transformational parts of my life.
My takeaway from the first few days is a realization that this is not going to be like any of my prior experiences in Italy. Gone is the sunshine, warm weather, and all of the busyness that comes with it. I am now entering “the system,” no longer a tourist, but preparing to deal with day to day life in a new country… a new culture. It was made clear by the Rubber Stamp Brigade and the 1 year phone line lady that I had barely scratched the surface of the oddities I would discover actually living in this country.
Bet here’s the thing. Yes, I am freezing my rear off. Yes, this is clearly a very backward society based on my experience. But I am at the very beginning of the adventure of my life. What I don’t know yet is that this part of my life is going to change how I see the entire world so much, that I will never feel entirely at home again in The United States. But I will also never feel entirely at home in Italy.
I will no longer be able to be friends with most of my old friends. In fact, in that photo at the beginning of this post, there were three people in the picture. Me, Paola, and my next door neighbor, best friend growing up all of my life. I had no idea that the day I left for Italy this time would also mark the end of our friendship, our ability to relate.
I am about to become truly multicultural, which is something you cannot comprehend unless you have lived and participated fully in society in multiple cultures.
As life goes on, this will be both a blessing and a curse. I also realize as I write this, that true multicultural people reading this already know exactly what I mean by both a blessing and a curse, but others do not… cannot.
It has become entirely clear that this is going to be a very long series,, given that I just completed only a few days in this single post. For now, this will have to do, but the next part we will dive into how I developed my daily routine of actually living in Italy. A picture of an American living day to day life in Central Italy while learning the language…. in 1985!
Ready for the next part? head over to:
“Part 12: Bury The My Life in Italy, Part 12: “Bury The Mice In The Ground… Slowly.”
But first, please leave me a comment below. I truly love reading the comments on the blog!