On Sunday over dinner with our friends Brett and Bill, we talked about cultural disconnection. All of us had lived in Buenos Aires for several years, and after trading anecdotes, I found myself recounting another story, one about living in Rome, and about how at the beginning of our four year stay I had asked our portiere for a key to the mailbox. She had responded by giving me her key. Then she told me I could get it copied at the Upim department store in Vigna Clara, where we lived.
So I went to the Upim the following day, and found the kiosk where the key copier worked, quite easily. Only trouble was, he wasn't there. Instead, there was a sign. He would be back the following afternoon.
And so I returned the following afternoon, and gave him the key to be copied. Sorry, he said. He couldn't copy it right then. Could I return the following afternoon?
I told him that I could. And indeed I did. But when I returned, with the portiere's key in hand, he waved it aside, and automatically handed me a ready-made replacement. "Don't you need this to copy it?" I asked him, in Italian.
"No no, senora," he replied. "All of those keys are the same."
I went back home with my newly purchased 'copy'. Now I was able to open up the mailbox.
Except there wasn't any mail inside our mailbox.
It was then that the portiere explained. While I might have wanted a key to open up the mailbox, I didn't actually need one. Because the mail was never put into those boxes. Instead it was her practice to hand each resident their mail, whenever they passed her doorway. There was no need to bother with the mailboxes!
I had asked the wrong question. Instead of asking "how do I get my mail?" I had asked for a mailbox key. I had made a mistaken assumption.
Another time, also during the first few weeks of our four years in Rome - the portiere's husband informed me that I had parked my car in a place intended for TWO cars. At first I thought he meant I had squeezed in too closely in the space out front - a space I had assumed would fit three cars without any problem. But no. He was referring to the time I had parked my car just inside the building - in a place intended for TWO cars. But in my American greediness, I had taken over two spots entirely with one car.
It's all about perception.
Meanwhile - I've discovered that there's an Italian ghost living inside my computer. It all dates back to the days when the Italians tried to install new software on my desktop - and installed an Italian version of Word.
The ghost only shows up every so often. For instance today, when I was writing - and chose the word "elaborate" it was automatically underlined in red. "La voce verbale 'elaborate' non concordia in numero con il suo soggetto," I was warned. And then I was advised to "sostituire elaborate con elaborara".
A few minutes later, I used the word "wrapped". The Italian ghost didn't like that. It offered serveral alternatives: "rappe, frappe, grappe, trappe, and rapper."
Then when I typed "below" it suggested I might mean "belo" or "bello, belo, or even Belo - or Bello'"
I do try to leave Italy behind me, much as I am fond of it. And yet it continues to haunt me in subtle and amusing ways.