Sunday, July 5, 2009
Adventures Abroad: Rome

Previous Adventures Abroad post here.

We landed in Rome after 17 hours of traveling and slowly made our way to the baggage claim.

While I've been excited about this trip, it's excitement mingled with a healthy dollop of terror. I find the thought of being in a foreign country vaguely frightening. Not because of culture shock, or pickpockets, or strange food. It's because of the language issue.

There are only about three things that I'm really good at, and communicating is one of them. Well, actually that's not true, it's not communicating in general, it's use of the English language. In English I'm clever and articulate. I'm funny. I'm persuasive.

If I have a superpower, it's probably my use of words. But now, suddenly I'm visiting a place where there is no yellow sun. I'm going to be powerless, and the thought is troubling to me.

I'm not entirely monolingual. I studied German for four years in high school, but that was a long time ago. I remember phrases like, "At least the sink still works" and "I have too many monkeys playing in my attic."

It would be hard for me to work these into a conversation even if I were going to Germany, which I am not.

Sarah has prepared herself. She listened to language tapes and bought a phrase book. She's proactive

She says, "Are you ready? Here's how you say, 'I don't speak Italian.'"

"That's a pointless phrase," I say. "Within two seconds of interacting with anyone, it's going to be blindingly obvious that I don't speak Italian. Why should I tell someone, in their own language, that I don't speak their language?"

Sarah gives me a look. She has many looks. You would too, if you had to deal with me on a regular basis.

"All I'm saying," I continue. "Is that if I'm going to learn a phrase, it should be something that communicates information that someone can't easily infer on their own. I don't need to learn how to say, 'I have a beard.' They can see that. I should learn how to say, 'I have been stabbed in the guts, and I fear my pericardium is punctured. Would you please summon an ambulance?' Or 'Where is the nearest methadone clinic?' Those might be useful."

"How about 'where's the bathroom?'" she asks.

"I can mime that," I say. "How do you say 'hookers' in Italian?"

That's pretty much where my instruction in Italian stopped.





So here I am, in Rome, walking to baggage claim, and utterly at sea.

Now normally this would be the part of the story where there's a dramatic reversal of expectation. I'm expecting things to be scary, but it's not nearly as bad as I'd feared.

Except it's just as bad as I'd feared. In fact, it's worse. After grabbing our bags, I go to the information booth to ask where I can change some currency. The woman there can't understand me, so she calls over someone else and I ask him. He points me in a direction and I wander off, feeling like a complete idiot. Not an auspicious beginning to the trip.

Another problem was that I'd been focusing on how hard it would be for me to get my point across to others. What I hadn't realized is that with no working knowledge of the language, I was effectively deaf. I can't understand a word being said by anyone around me.

This wasn't really a surprise, of course. But I was startled at how self-conscious it made me. As I walk to the baggage carousel, I pass a group of women who burst into laughter, and I become convinced that they are making fun of my shoes. I pretend that I don't notice, that I don't care. But of course I do.

I've been in another country for 20 minutes and I feel nervous and awkward. I'm confused and self-conscious. I knew there was a time difference between the US and Europe, but I didn't know it was big enough to make me feel like I'm in high school again....


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Friday, June 12, 2009
Adventures abroad: Prologue

Before I start talking about my trip to Europe, I should mention that in many ways I am embarrassingly American. I'm monolingual. I'm fat. And in many ways, I'm terribly ignorant of the shape of the world. For example, until a couple years ago, I didn't know where Belgium was. True story.

This means that about 95% of my knowledge about Italy comes from two sources. 1) The movie Hudson Hawk. 2) The episode of Angel where they go to Rome to face down the Immortal.

This is important because Rome was going to be our first stop on our European walkabout.

Sarah was good about preparing herself for the trip. She did research. She got phrase books. She looked at maps. I was too busy getting the first draft of the book ready to do much preparation. I didn't study any languages. I didn't look at any tourist guides. I know that somewhere in Rome there's old stuff and a cool fountain. I know that somewhere in England there's Stonehenge. Somewhere in Amsterdam there are whores. Other than that, I'm flying blind….

And I do mean flying. Our flight goes from Central Wisconsin --> Detroit --> Amsterdam --> Rome. I've done a lot of flying in the last couple years, but this is different by an order of magnitude. Pretty much a whole waking day spent in the air.

Interesting fact: When you get pregnant, your body makes a bunch of extra blood. Pints and pints. Sarah told me this. She's a font of bizarre information about pregnancy. "Today Oot is growing a pancreas," she'll say. "Now he has gills like a fish."

I'm fairly certain that she makes a lot of it up. But still, I look attentive whenever she gives me these facts. Partly because I prefer things that are interesting to things that are true, but also because Sarah will cry at the drop of a hat under normal circumstances. Pregnancy has magnified this amusing quirk in a exponential way.

I actually took a video of her crying on the trip. Yes really. These things need to be recorded for the sake of science. She cries because she's upset, then I cheer her up and she cries because she's happy. Then she cries because she loves me. Then she cries because she's crying.

I probably shouldn't post that video without asking her, but here's a picture, just add a little verisimilitude.





Witness my mad comforting skills. She was weeping just minutes before this picture. After all these years with Sarah, I can stop someone's crying jag with two hugs and less than 50 words. You'll be tear-free in 60 seconds or your money back.

By the way, Oot is the baby's in-utero name. I figured we couldn't just call it "it" until it was born, so I gave him a temporary name. It's pronounced like "boot" without the "b." Just so we're clear.

Anyway, the point is that pregnant women have a lot of extra blood. So Sarah says. I can't remember her saying if it happens to all women, or just her. For all I know it might be something Sarah decided to do on her own.

Either way, apparently all this extra blood makes it a bad idea for her to sit still for long periods of time. There's a risk of blood clots. To prevent this, she has special stockings to wear and instructions to get up and walk around regularly.

Luckily, the guy next to me is willing to switch seats so Sarah can sit next to me. It's easy to forget if you watch too much news, but the vast majority of people in the world are kind and generous.

The down side is that Sarah's fear of blood clots combined with her favorite hobby, peeing, means that she wants to get up every three and a half minutes. This means that I, sitting in the isle seat, have to get up so often you'd think I was doing jumping jacks.

Why didn't I just give her the isle seat, you ask? Well... mostly because I like the isle seat. And jumping jacks, for that matter.

Eventually we made it to Amsterdam. And while Sarah and I were walking to the new gate so we could catch our connecting flight to Rome, I hear two people talking behind us. They're speaking Italian, and I hear one of them exclaim, "Mama Mia!" He says it twice in the time it takes us to get to the gate.

What really throws me off is the fact that he sounds like a bad stereotype. His accent sounds exactly like someone pretending to have an over-the-top Italian accent. If a really bad sitcom was going to have an embarrassingly unoriginal Italian character, that character would say "Mama mia!" in exactly this way.

Since this is, in many some ways, my first European experience, I can't help but wonder: is all Europe going to be like this? Are all the stereotypes true? Will a dark, handsome Italian man try to seduce Sarah? Will English food be horrifyingly bad? Are the French going to wear berets and mime at me?

These were my thoughts as our plane touched down in Rome….

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