Lessons Learned From Rome:
1. Be dauntless.
Crossing streets in Italy is not for the faint of heart. If you wait for an adequate gap in traffic to dart across, you might never find out why the chicken crossed the road – for you, meek American, will be politely waiting all day to get to the other side.
Instead, simply walk across. There is no need to look both ways first or to dash across. In fact, if you make eye contact with any of the approaching cars, you have made your fatal mistake. You will then have to stop and let them pass, as they throw their arms at you and lay on the horn. Walk slowly with your head up, looking only at your target: the other side.
They will stop. I promise, they will stop. Motorini and vespas might graze past you, and cars might slam on the breaks inches from you. But they will stop. This is the expected way of crossing the road in Italy. The minute that you look uncertain or hesitate, the drivers will take advantage of that weakness.
Life lesson? Go about your day with purpose. Others will make a path for you. Even if you are unsure, make sure that you exude confidence. Others will notice.
2. Say yes to everything.
Most people in Rome speak English – which helps make up for me poor, though passable, Italian. If nothing else, hand gestures are the universal language here. Young bambini are taught the traditional gesticulations while they are stroller bound and learning “Da-da.” I get by just fine with a goofy smile and saying “si” – yes.
My simplistic and grammatically incorrect Italian gives it away. (That, and my frat tanks and yoga pants. I am not the epitome of the European style.) Often times, Italian baristas will look out for me by giving me a café latte (coffee with milk) when I order a café (espresso). They are constantly double-checking my order in slow, sure English, to make sure that I am happy and receive what I actually want.
When my parents visited, they were impressed by my ease in talking to the older Italian waiters – most of whom speak little English. To the untrained ear, it appeared that I understood everything the waiter was saying in my response “Si, va bene” – yes, good. The joke is that most of the time I don’t know what they are saying. But I put my trust into them, and confidently say yes.
When in doubt, I say yes. Yes to suggested entrees, yes to suggested drinks. I say yes to everything, even if I don’t know what they are asking me. Always yes. I have yet to be disappointed.
3. All dogs go to heaven – and speak the same language.
Almost everyone in Italy owns a dog, and Italians are great dog owners. Their pups are the best trained I have come across. The dogs don’t pull away, they don’t bark, they don’t jump. They seem, for the most part, disinterested in other humans and other canines.
In fact, most owners don’t give their dogs much attention on a walk. The owner walks confidently ahead, and it is the pups job to keep up. When crossing the street, owners don’t look around for their dog; the dog is expected to keep up. The dogs are often off the leash, which is surprising to me. My dog, Brooke, would never be well trained enough for that, as sweet as she is. She would be distracted by every little thing in the city. For good reason. Food, people, other dogs. Even I am distracted.
I have made it a habit of asking passing dog owners, “Posso?” (Can I?) This is my way of asking to pet their dog. They are always happy to oblige. This is one of my simple pleasures. While my Italian is beginner at best, I am pleased to say that all dogs speak the same language. Yesterday, a very old and happy golden retriever came in to the café I was sitting in. (Did I mentioned that dogs are allowed everywhere? The bus, the grocery store, the cafés.)
I sat with that old dog on the floor. The owner, an older man, laughed with me as I got kissed and slobbered on by that old dog. I scratched under the collar, behind the ears, the length of his belly. For that dog and I, this moment was pure, unaltered, simple joy. I’m sure Italian pups don’t understand English commands, but yesterday we spoke the same language.
As I left, his owner said something to me, smiling and laughing. Although I didn’t understand, I smiled back. Yesterday, without even exchanging a word with the Italian owner, we were speaking the same language.