Culture

My Life in Italy, Part 12: “Bury The Mice In The Ground… Slowly.”


Reading Time: 16 minutes

As with every post in this series, if you are jumping in here, it is like jumping into the middle of a movie. Please start with Part 1, or this will make absolutely no sense.

I live in Italy now! I have my apartment, my car, got my necessities for day to day life handled. There is more thing left.

The Bank Account

Yeah, I need money while I am here. At the time, I was taking $1,500 per month in distributions from my trust, and I needed to get setup so they would be wired to Italy for me.

$1,500 per month. It may sound like nothing, but it was actually That is 3 Million Lira — three times more than an average salary in Italy at the time. I was not going to be panhandling. But I did need an account setup.

There was one problem. I got these distributions in U.S. Dollars, so I needed to find a bank that was not only capable of accepting wire transfers in U.S. Dollars, but could also convert those dollars into Italian Lira. You would think that would be a no brainer, right? No, not in 1985 Italy!

All the local banks had absolutely no idea how to handle such immense complexities. But we finally found the main branch of a major bank in the provincial capital that was able to perform such wizardry. They would open an account for me, in Dollars, and I could go down any time to withdraw Lira at the exchange rate of the day. OK!

No, there were no ATM machines in Italy yet. The banks didn’t even have computers.

Naturally, the stack of forms required to perform this delicate procedure was mind boggling to the point that you would think I was submitting a bill to Congress.

But the banker was a nice and patient man that got us through it. He was a true rubber stamp ninja master, as well. We even anticipated our need for Tobacco Shop Stamps! Everything went well until he needed some kind of declaration from me.

Michael: “Sure, what do I need to fill out?”
Paola: “Well, you need to write the declaration on stamped paper.”
Michael: “OK, that kinda goes without saying after all I have experienced. He has paper, lots of rubber stamps, and we have no shortage of tobacco shop stamps.”
Paola: “No, this is different. This is a special kind of paper that is already stamped when you buy it.”
Michael: “Already Stamped?”
Paola: “Yes, the stamp is printed on the paper.”
Michael: “So…. another trip to the Tobacco shop?”
Paola: “Yes, but we need to find a tobacco shop that sells these special sheets of paper.”
Michael: “Of course, not just any tobacco shop will do!”

OK, so we get our paper with a pre-printed stamp. All 20 cents worth, do the rest of the paperwork, and I am now a proud holder of a bank account in Italy, to which my monthly distribution will now be wired. All set? Of course not!

The Permesso di Soggiorno

The “Temporary Residency Permit.” It may seem normal that one would need a longer term visa nowadays, but in 1985 Italy, it just wasn’t anything anyone thought about.

What made this interesting is how my need for it came to be. There is a law in Italy dating back to Mussolini times that states that if any foreigner stays anywhere in Italy, the host is to get their passport, and send it to the local police to keep tabs on all movement. You know, they needed to know you were not one of the allied forces, there to combat fascism, right?

If you have been to Italy, you may have noticed all hotels ask you for your passport when you check in. They are required to make a copy and send it to the police each day.

I had just rented an apartment, and word got around town that some “rich American” was staying in town, and had rented an apartment from the Fanti family. In a town of about 8,000 people, all 8,000 know in roughly 12.8 seconds.

This information made its way to the local police department, who in turn went to my new landlords to inform them of the seriousness of the charges they were facing for not properly reporting the presence of this dangerous potential American terrorist.

The Italian “Carabinieri” – You have to love their uniforms!

This resulted in me being required to be taken to the station, along with my landlord, Paola, and even her father. They needed to get to the bottom of this!

I did not speak the language, had no idea what was going on, they were all clearly upset, and the police confiscated my passport. I’m not feeling all that welcome, and the “Maresciallo” (basically the captain of the station) was staring me down as though I was the murder suspect he had been search for his entire life. Or perhaps I was one of those American spies there to thwart the efforts of “Il Duce?” Ummm, it is 1985, not 1941!

After what seemed like an eternity of everyone waving their hands at one another, they elected not to arrest me for my high crime of being there, but required that I go to the Police Headquarters of the province the following day to get a “Permesso di Soggiorno.” I am not kidding, I had been genuinely thinking they were going to arrest and deport me!

Prepared with Tobacco shop stamps, Tobacco shop pre-stamped sheets of paper, and every document we could possibly think of, Paola and I headed to HQ the next day.

After yet another eternity and mountain of paperwork, I was granted this sought-after document that made me legal. If you get one today, it looks like a credit card, but in 1985, it was a four page document, filled with every stamp they could fit on it, and signatures of all the most important bureaucrats of the province.

And, oh, by the way… I have to carry this document everywhere I go, all the time. So each time I step out of my apartment, I am carrying my 4 page visa, my California driver license, my passport, my International driver license, and my paperwork that shows I am allowed to be in possession of my car. I practically needed a briefcase to walk outside.

But later, I learn to game the system to use all of this as my own personal secret weapon!

The Country House

One day, Paola asks me if I want to go down to their family’s country house. She had told me about this house before, but I had never been. It was an old house outside of town that the family had for hundreds of years. There was a family of farmers (sort of indentured servants) that lived in the house until a few years prior, and now it was just there, kind of left to rot.

But Paola’s parents had setup a garden on the land, and would go down regularly to tend to it. Paola had also told me she had briefly been a beekeeper, and the bees were down at this house. OK, let’s go.

“The Country House” – 1985

Now, if you have been reading this series, in Part 8, I made something of a passing comment about an old country house. The year prior, before Paola and I had met, I had been staying at our friend Umberto’s house. We would have dinner with our friends Stefano, Daniela, and Riccardo. Each night, I would drive back to Umberto’s villa after dinner, passing this old, dilapidated house in the middle of nowhere. When we would leave Umberto’s villa in the morning, I would pass this old house. And I found myself thinking how cool it would be to restore something like that!

I had not been down to that area since, but in the year afterwards I had told Paola all the stories of my adventures before meeting her, including this old house that I thought would be cool to buy and restore.

I had also told her about how whenever I would drive by it, there was a house across the dirt road. I had a habit of driving very fast, and I would kick up a LOT of dust, and the family in that house used to shake their fists at me as I passed.

Do I even need to say it now?

Yeah. We drive through a maze of dirt roads outside of town, and pull right up to that old house. Old, as in 350 years old. My jaw drops, and I tell Paola excitedly: “This is the one!!!! This is the house I was telling you about!!!

We were both in utter shock. What are the odds? I found this house and dreamed of buying it and restoring it, only to later meet and unknowingly fall in love with the daughter of the owners of that very house. Seriously… Fate!

We get out of the car, see her parents, and… meet… the… ahem!… neighbors. Yeah, they never got a good look at me, so we’ll just skirt around the fact that they don’t realize they know me, ok? Piacere!

Years later, after they came to love me, I admitted my crimes and asked their forgiveness :-).

Anyhow, all was good. I helped them with the garden, and got to see inside the old house.

Wow, this thing would need A LOT of work!

The first floor was an old 1940’s style kitchen, puke green, and stained with the blood of many a slaughtered pig.

Next to it was a room full of spider webs, soot and a couple wine vats.

The second floor could only be reached by an outdoor staircase, and with every step on that 2nd floor, you would think you would bust through the floor. Again, it is more warehouse than house.

The third floor was only accessible by ladder, and was clearly home to all the local pigeons.

Around back there was an attached barn that looked like it was about to cave in on itself, and a chicken coop & pig stye. Off to the side of the house, there were two large cement water tanks.

This place was a DUMP!

1st Floor “room” looking into Kitchen

For those of you that know our villa, I will give you the comparative modern day tour of what is now Villa Eddarella:

  • The first floor puke green kitchen is now my office and staircase leading to the 2nd floor.
  • The spiderweb, soot & wine vat room is now our first floor bedroom.
  • The second floor now has a solid floor (and ceiling), and is our home kitchen, bathroom, living room and staircase to the 3rd floor.
  • The 3rd floor is no longer pigeon central, and is now two bedrooms and a bathroom.
  • The barn caving in on itself was completely torn down and is now our dining area and teaching kitchen.
  • The chicken coop & pig stye was torn down, and is now our wine cellar and the cabana!

Add all the landscaping, wall, gate, etc, and you now have Villa Eddarella, but we didn’t start the renovations in earnest until 15 years after this visit.

Learning Italian

It amazes me how many people in Italy speak English now, and how much access there is to the English language. In 1985, things were very different.

There were only two people in town that spoke any English. Paola, and a missionary priest in the mountains named Padre Michele, who became a dear, dear friend, and one of the key spiritual guides of my life.

Other than that, my only access to my native tongue was the video tapes I had brought with me, and there was a newsstand about 20 minutes away that would get Time Magazine in English every week.

If I wanted more, I would have to take the hour drive into Rome, then hunt down and accost an American tourist. Don’t laugh. I actually did this later on!

There was no satellite television, no Internet… nothing. If I wanted to eat, I needed to learn Italian, and I had to do it fast!

So there was a plan. There was a great school in Rome that taught Italian to foreigners. A 15 minute drive to the train station and a 35 minute train ride. If I feel like driving, it’s just an hour. No problem. I will head there a few days a week, and practice as much as I can in between.

The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.

Yeah, that was the plan. And I really started out following it. I was equipped with my Italian-English dictionary, my will to learn, and my ever open and engaging attitude toward the world.

I started off going to the school, but let me be perfectly clear. It was winter, and winter is cold. Doing the trip to Rome to go into class was just a total drag.

After just a few weeks, I felt I was getting very little from it. They were teaching me technical Italian with a group of other foreign students from all over the world, but I just wasn’t feeling it.

I quickly got the sense that I was kinda picking the language up on my own, and that made this school seem ever so useless. You see, I had found my own private tutors, of sorts.

The Fanti Family

First I need to make one thing clear. I was not with Paola 24/7. We spent a lot of time together, but she tutored kids in English in the afternoons, and it wasn’t like I could be eating diner at her parents house every night. In fact, her parents didn’t technically know we were dating. I am sure they knew, but it was not a topic that was brought up. Very, very old fashioned, ok?

So I found myself at my apartment quite a bit, and my landlords were an absolutely beautiful family that instantly treated me as though I had been their own son. There was the father, Alberto, the mother, Rita, and their two young adult kids Adrianna and Ettore.

Rita decided it was her job to do my laundry and have me over anytime I was home at lunchtime or dinnertime.. Alberto was an artist who had been a prisoner of war in Auschwitz during World War II.

Side note:

It might sound odd that an Italian would have been a POW in Auschwitz. After all, Italy and Germany were fighting against us, right? At first, yes. But many don’t realize that in 1943, the Italian government turned on Mussolini, his chief of staff assumed power, and went on to negotiate a surrender with Eisenhower and finally declare war against Germany.

As such, Alberto had been fighting against the allies with the Germans, then one morning woke up with guns pointed at him by the Germans, and was sent off to Auschwitz. Imagine having no idea what was going on and waking up to that!

I digress…

None of them spoke a word of English, but we found a way to communicate with my dictionary. In the afternoons, Alberto would tell me war stories, how life was in Auschwitz, and about the day they were liberated by the American troops. He could go on forever, and I was soaking it all up.

At the dinner table, we would communicate through that dictionary as I would tell them about American life, and how I wound up in their little town. That would continue to the den with a wonderful fire burning, and us somehow finding ways to communicate.

With every struggle of communication, I was picking up new words, new phrases, and naturally learning the language.

The Tobacconist

During the day, when I would go into town, I naturally spent a great deal of time with Paola. But our relationship started in English, and remained that way. But if she was teaching a student, or really anything else, I would be downstairs, where there was a tobacco shop owned by a man named Leo.

Leo

Leo and I became very close. He was another elderly man that had fought in World War II against the Americans, but was in love with all things American.

I spent so much time with him, that I ended up actually working for him (for free) and selling cigarettes — And yes, stamps & stamped paper — to the locals. Yet one more thing to help me learn the language.

Michael >> English/Italian Dictionary >> Leo.
Leo >> Italian/English Dictionary >> Michael.

We would speak of everything as he told me about his time as a fighter pilot in the African theater, “fighting” the Americans. How they hated the Nazis, and were starving, but the Americans would regularly drop food for them. Or how our airplanes could outperform theirs in every situation, and American fighters would engage the Italians, and instead of shooting them down, they would give a friendly wave and be on their way.

He would tell me about friends of his that had been fortunate enough to be taken as a POW by the Allied Forces, and how becoming a POW of the allies was like winning the lottery!

After the war, Leo so wanted to emigrate to America, but was unable, and ended up spending most of his adult life in Rio De Janeiro, where he ended up buying and running a hotel.

He only moved back to Italy when he learned he was on one of the Brazilian Communist Party’s black lists, and a friend gave him advance notice he was about to be killed, and helped him get out of the country.

It was all of these amazing stories and deep conversations that we were able to have with the help of this little translation dictionary.

Aside from them, I had it with me everywhere I went. Ordering coffee at the bar, get the dictionary out. Picking up laundry? Dictionary time!

I was learning so much more having conversations with people than I was at that school, that I kinda just stopped going.

Bonanza & The Bionic Woman

Aside from my conversations, I also had a TV at my place. I would often turn it on and flip through the channels to see if there was something I recognized. Bonanza and The Bionic Woman reruns were on every day, not to mention Gilligan’s Island, M.A.S.H., and so many other shows I had grown up with. Here is the thing about these old shows:

I saw them all a million times, right? I quickly learned that I could kinda read lips! I would watch these shows and just know what they were saying, but my ears were hearing the phrases in Italian. So as my brain sponged up words I learned through that dictionary during my conversations, they would get reinforced when I would hear them in a phrase while watching a TV show, knowing what they were saying in English.

That helped me pick up use of all of those words in different context, and over time it all just sank in.

But Not With Paola!

I flat out would not practice any of my Italian with Paola. I was super self-conscious with her! As such, I was with her family, as well. Naturally I would often have lunch or dinner with them, but Paola was there, and she was one hell of a crutch!

It was so much easier just to have her translate everything. So while I was learning the language, Paola and her family didn’t really realize it.

Honestly, I didn’t realize it either. But somehow, I was able to communicate with all of these other people, but not Paola and her family. It was a mystery!

Context Matters

Alright, so I am learning Italian, right? But learning words and phrases is one thing, while learning words that have multiple meaning and being able to understand them in context is pretty advanced stuff.

Let me give you an example in English. The word “get.” Seems very simple, right? Look it up in the dictionary, and you will find 49 unique definitions of that little three letter word. You will only know what someone means when they use the word “get” if you hear the entire phrase that surrounds it and are able to apply the proper context to it.

If you get what I am saying, you get to get out a dictionary to get an understanding if someone doesn’t doesn’t get you first. But if you are getting around to get ahead, or even just to get along you might see what I am getting at, unless you get away first. But I may get by you before we get to the club and get down tonight before we decide to get down to the matter at hand, unless that gets you down. Otherwise you can come over, get in while we get into it, and if things go badly, I know a guy that can get you off if they think they can get off on telling you what to do. But if you are getting on in years, we may need to get out before the story gets out so we can get this worked out and get over it… as long as I can get through to you in the hopes that I am able to get it into your mind. You get it?

So how do you teach a person what the word “get” means?

Because in Italian, you need twenty-one different verbs in different conjugations for the above paragraph. The opposite if often true as well, in which one word in Italian has many meanings that require multiple words in English.

Such is the case with so many words in all languages. So what am I getting at?

Context is everything.

As I learned Italian, first came comprehension that slowly built. But the ability, or courage, to speak, came later. That comprehension can very confusing when you are learning a second language.

This entire discussion on context explains how the following section, and so many other misunderstandings I will later write about, came to be.

Bury The Mice In The Ground… Slowly.

As I mentioned earlier about Paola’s parents and the country house, they regularly went down to tend to their garden. I surely wanted them to like me, so I would go down and help them sometimes. But I didn’t always have my handy-dandy dictionary, or maybe I was starting to feel a little too confident?

Paola’s father was particularly hard to understand, as he had a very deep, raspy voice. But I was able to grasp about 27.8% of what he would say, so once in a while he would ask me to do something, and I would proudly show that I understood and get right to it. As such, one day he asked me the following:

“Blah Blah Blah Mice, blah blah blah, Piano Terra.”

I also learned to rely on lots of body language and gestures to help grasp what someone was saying in an attempt to fill in the blanks. This reading of body language gave me two clues:

  1. He is handing me a shovel.
  2. He is point over to a mound of dirt.

And he is having a problem with mice.

Piano” – I know two meanings for this word. Piano, as in the instrument, but it also means “slow.” OK, clearly he wants me to do something with the shovel slowly.

Terra” – Oh, I know this one! Terra means “Earth” and “Dirt,” and he is pointing to a mound of dirt.

Is Paola’s dad insane? He is handing me a shovel and asking me to do something with the dirt over there that involves mice, and whatever he wants me to do, he wants it done slowly?

Maybe mice live in that mound and he wants me to spread the dirt around and make it flat? But why does he care how quickly I do it?

Whatever, I’ll get to it.

As I begin to shovel the dirt slowly, both Paola’s mom and dad watch me with a very confused and frustrated look on their faces.

I’m thinking, Dude! You are the one that has this insane request, and you are looking at me as if I am the crazy one?

After a few moments, he motions for me to follow him. Huh? I was doing it slowly, wasn’t I?

He then guides me to a house that is under construction about 100 feet past the mound of dirt I was so dutifully (and slowly) shoveling. We walk onto the cement foundation, and there is a gigantic mound of corn.

He takes the shovel, and puts some corn in a bag. He then hands the shovel back to me, and gestures for me to do the same.

OK. So he wants me to shovel some of this corn into bags. I bet he wants to make sure mice don’t eat the corn! But still, why do I have to do this slowly? I comply and slowly shovel the corn into these bags.

I was clearly very entertaining that day, as when we got back to town, they couldn’t wait to tell Paola about this, and she started laughing her ass off.

OK, I am really on the outside here. Please explain… please?

After a good amount of laughter with the whole family at my expense, Paola gives me the rundown.

“He was asking you to go get a few bags of corn from the first floor of the house to feed the chickens”

Mais” (CORN), not “Mice“.

Pianoalso means “level

Terraalso means “Ground

“Blah Blah Blah (Please go get some) Corn, blah blah blah (and put it in a bag. It is on the), Ground Floor. — Use this shovel

Context matters.

The Takeaway

I’m getting settled in now, and finding a routine. I am finding my own way to learn the language, and making new friends. One of the funny things that really surprised Paola’s family was who these friends were. For some reason, many of these people were known to be mean and bitter old men in town. But for some reason they were attracted to me like a magnet, and were so incredibly nice with me. Maybe I was someone new and interesting with no preconceived notions?

While Paola had been the center of my world in Soriano before, I am starting to gain my own foothold and establish myself as an individual in this new country. I now have an identity, although that identity took form in several names for me:

  1. Michael (only for those truly close)
  2. L’Americano (The American)
  3. Paola’s boyfriend.
  4. That guts that is with the daughter of Ciari.
  5. That guy that is always with Sir Paolo Corsi’s youngest granddaughter.

At this point, my perspective is quite simple: The police think I am one of those notorious American terrorists, Paola’s family get great entertainment at my expense, although they were always very gracious. Those I have been associating with have been so incredibly nice with me, that I am truly starting to feel at home.

Nobody knew it yet, but I was going to slowly become a fixture ’round these parts, and nobody can slowly bury mice in the ground like this dude!

I know this is going to be a wonderful and fulfilling experience that will be part of my personal evolution. But why does it need to be so freaking cold?

The next part in the series will be more about my daily life, lessons learned, and some of the more interesting experiences in these first few months. It will be called “Part 13: Two Guys & a TuTu”

Until then, please leave your comments below. I love reading them!

4.7 3 votes
Article Rating
Personal
My Favorite Culture Discovery Vacation- Sam
Cooking
You Want to Feed the Meal I Prepared… TO YOUR DOG?
Culture
Open Mouth, Insert Foot: Tales of Linguistic Missteps Learning Italian
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

8 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Ann M Bowerman
Ann M Bowerman
1 month ago

🤣🤣🤣

Carla Tardy
Carla Tardy
1 month ago

Oh Michael I love learning about your life in Italy and all your adventures. Looking forward to the next installment!

BrianSharon McManus
BrianSharon McManus
1 month ago

I remember when Rocky was learning Italian with a tutor and a HUGE text book.
He taught us Deve stare molto calmo in Sicily 🇮🇹
You both are so brave and willing to take a little ribbing from your new friends.
Thanks for sharing the inside story of becoming an Italian dude.

Rosemary Colucci
Rosemary Colucci
1 month ago

Grazie Michael. Very entertaining. I love hearing about Italy back then. I visited for the first time in 1984. My relatives are farmers in Campagna. What a different/backward country it was in 1984. Thanks for taking me back.
I’m looking forward to your next installment.

Debbie
Debbie
1 month ago

Boy I got down tonight with this chapter. LOL

8
0
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x
()
x