Top 25 Italy Moments – #14 Siena Language Barrier

Just Around the Corner from Here

In 2002 my good friend and talented chef Keith was studying cooking in Siena. I happened to be on vacation in Tuscany and made my way back to Siena a 2nd time (the first time is in the Top 5) on this journey to meet Keith.

I returned to Siena on a foggy evening in September. Keith had given me his address and we had arranged to meet that day; however, the time had not been pre-selected and I roughly knew Keith’s class schedule so I figured I would find him.

This is pretty much how things work for me in Italy and especially before cell phones became an affordable option. I would tell someone or someone would tell me where to meet them and then the dance would begin.

On this occasion I had a map of the city and Keith’s address. My Italian was serviceable at best so I had to ask things slowly and use lots of gestures. That is another funny thing about Italy, their gestures are a language unto themselves and so misuse of gesture is the equivalent of a non-verbal Malaprop. My ignorance of the language and gestures would really come to bite me in the ass the next day.

After 2 conversations with a pair of smartly dressed women and one with a merchant I finally reached what I believed to be Keith’s place. The street was completely sepia and wet. There were rows of single-story units much like duplexes lining the street. The road itself was flat which is a rarity for Siena. After receiving no answer when I knocked on Keith’s door I quickly found myself pacing. I happened to have a few smokes left from the previous night and wound up smoking alone in the misty evening. A curious pair of children continued to pop in and out of their home to see what the tall foreigner was doing.

I wish it was like this in America. Where I come from if we saw a foreigner, weapons got loaded and comments like “can I help you Mr?” and “you sure are far from home ain’t ya?” were the norm. I am certain this is why it has always been a nervous endeavor for me to wander aimlessly into a store in a foreign country because I assume someone will be suspicious of me. As was and is often the case in Italy, people are mostly curious without being overt. Kids tend to like people in general and especially if they seem like something new.

I began to make silly faces for the kids and they laughed and giggled running in and out of their front door. It was only around 7pm, however, the lights and the mist made it seem like a medieval midnight. I was growing weary of my own pacing and the cigarettes were clearly a bit stale. There was a bus stop about 150 meters from Keith’s door and each time it made a stop I assumed Keith would emerge.

After the kids went inside for good and I couldn’t possibly smoke another cigarette I decided I would leave Keith a note and make my way to a nearby bar for a sandwich and a beer. I went to the bus stop and when the next bus arrived out popped Keith just as casual as you could be as if I had been living with him forever and this meeting along a Tuscan road was nothing out of the ordinary.

I attempted to regale him with stories of my journey and within minutes Keith was at the stove cooking porcinis and making a tempura batter for vegetables. I was so jazzed to be getting a home cooked meal I soon forgot the ordeal of my last 2 hours and Keith and I drank beer, smoked his much fresher cigarettes, and discussed our next day.

I had not slept much in the previous days so Keith offered me a mother’s little helper and thus began my awareness of such miracles. 13 hours later I awoke as Keith was leaving for school. I walked with him to class and met his teacher before I disappeared into Siena for a foggy day. I was not really supposed to stay at his house without paying and of course the typical nosy Italian landlord knew I was there because he had spotted me wandering aimlessly up and down the street the night before. Che palle!

On our way to school Keith informed me that the old geezer had requested the honor of our presence that afternoon to settle my lodging debt. I was not looking forward to the formality of meeting with this guy.

I spent most of the day in an internet cafe and when Keith and I met just outside the cafe when he finished class we stopped by the pharmacy where I used my bad Italian to score an entire box of little helpers. We then moved on to a local bar for coffees and some smokes.

In Italy, the Bar is the central hub of each street area. Each neighborhood has its streets and on each is usually a Bar. Some bars are filled with jocks, gamblers, and douche-bags. A few bars are mixed-sex venues with high quality coffee and snacks. There are those for the blue-collar denim crowd, and these are usually a bit rough and tumble. Lottery tickets, freezer-burned ice creams, strong coffee, thick local accents and dialects are all ingredients in an Italian blue-collar bar. This is the kind of bar Keith chose for our coffee. Of course you can always buy cigarettes in a Tobacco shop but since we had just had a coffee we ordered smokes as well.

The proprietor was drawn and tanned like a raisin with a grey edge. He wore a denim jacket even though it must have been 80 degrees in the shop. He smelled of strong cigarette smoke and the Italian equivalent of Old Spice. I wanted to call him Vecchia Spezia. There were the usual cronies on both sides of the cash register. These guys were standing directly…actually they were leaning on the cashier’s part of the bar when we arrived. The reluctantly moved as we placed our orders but only to the two sides on our left and right. In essence we were surrounded by cronies.

Ancient Sienna Cronies

Keith gave the guy a 20 euro bill for our 6 euro 10 tab. The guy gave him back 3 euro 90. It was apparent to us that the guy shorted Keith and he told Old Spice in English, “hey I gave you a 20.” The guy did not grasp the exact words Keith used but it seemed apparent he knew the gist. Keith went back and forth with no success so I interceded with my way-too-direct Italian. In Italy if you simply come right out and say something it is assumed you are angry and that you do not respect the person you are addressing. This was not my intention, but boy was it ill -received.

At this point Old Spice reaches in the register and shows us a 10 euro bill he claims to have gotten from Keith. I look at Keith in hopes that he was in error, but Keith persisted with “that’s not what I gave you man.” I knew this was not going to go well as now the cronies were involved and each of them professing the proprietors virtue and pleading his case. Time seemed to slow as I assessed which one of these guys I would hit across the head first when it all started getting ugly.

It was at that point that Old Spice said something in Italian that I understood to mean,”this is not Naples sir, we are not thieves here!” I began to chuckle and the cronies began to gesture with two fingers in affirmation of this little-known fact and a certain didn’t you know that you stupid foreigner gesture. Keith still seemed unwilling to acquiesce so I told him I would give him the 10 euro, as once this kind of statement is invoked there was no hope of our proving the point.

I will never know 100% whether or not Old Spice stole 10 Euro from Keith. I do know that Mother’s little helpers did their job moments after we escaped the Bar with our lives.

I was quite stoned and very relaxed when we met the landlord. My Italian, failing and miserable in the bar an hour before, was now fluid and dulcet. I told the landlord I had come unannounced and that because of a train strike I was stuck in Siena. I explained that I would happily pay my way which of course the landlord very graciously refused. Keith was impressed I had swayed the crotchety old bastard, and I simply was happy to deal with a man that didn’t smell of Old Spice.

In the end, Keith and I quit our corporate jobs to chase the dreams only these kinds of experiences can illuminate. I continue to frequent blue-collar bars in all Italian regions and it never fails that someone is wearing denim.


    • says

      I prefer to stray from them as well, but the guy stole the money so we had to at least attempt to to suggest he made an error. This was likely closer to ugly than I described. I remember thinking that my language has to improve…and it has :-)

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