There was no sign of life behind the restaurant’s crisp white curtains. The coffee bar, where mostly older men gathered in the early morning hours to enjoy a cappuccino, was also devoid of activity. I let out a long sigh. Why couldn’t at least one business have thrust open its doors for the early risers? Except could I have described my plight to anyone anyway? I only spoke a few words of Italian.
I let another sigh still. It seemed I had no choice but to retrace the mile or so of road I’d just driven in my rental car. The thing is, I’d have to do it in heels.
Well, at least I’d managed to steer the Fiat to the piazza’s curb before the sputtering ended and the engine died completely. For that matter, I was also fortunate that the phones in the row house I was renting had been activated three days earlier since I hadn’t yet learned what type of cell phone I’d need to purchase for my prolonged stay in Italy (it was 1999). Hence, I had no choice but to use my home phone to contact the rental car agency.
As I began my walk back to the house, I suspected they’d agree to deliver a different car to me immediately. I’d have time to walk back to the piazza again since it would likely take them at least half an hour to arrive. Their business was located in the same small town as the air base where I’d recently begun to work as a contracted clinical social worker in its mental health clinic.
I stepped up onto the narrow marble slab that separated my row house from the shoulder of a narrow street which was lined by row houses on the side on which I lived, but where both a fruit and vegetable store and a coffee bar on the other side drew customers that invariably parked right in front of my door. But at this hour, I was still able to reach it easily. I slipped the key into a door of wooden panels which appeared to have been cut into boards that filled an archway etched with the date 1703.
I pushed open the door and stepped onto an oriental rug. I had laid it out with the hope people would note that it pulled the pieces of furniture together nicely, but they’d disregard the patterned green tiles that lay beneath. I moved just a few steps to the right and picked up the receiver of a green phone that had obviously been a fixture in this property for many decades. And it was going to remain where it was since the movers had placed a breakfront in front of its outlet. Sure, in the United States one’s movers might have been willing to shove the large piece of furniture to the side momentarily if you apologized and explained that you’d forgotten to unplug this phone you wished to replace with a newer rendition. However, I’d been warned that with the Italian movers, once a piece of furniture was in place, they were not about to touch it again. Thus, that phone which matched the tiles was going to sit on that same tall wooden stand for as long as this place remained my domicile.
I dialed the number for the rental car agency. I listened while the phone rang incessantly.
Really, there was no answering service? No recorder? I wouldn't be able to speak to anyone until the business opened somewhere between nine and ten o’clock? How could these people stay in business? And why hadn’t someone else stepped forward who understood the concept of customer service and wiped this business off the map?
I looked at my watch. Good, it was after seven. I’d call and ask my coworker, Sherry, to come and get me. And then I silently prayed that she hadn’t booked any psychotherapy clients for both the seven o’clock and eight o’clock appointment hours.
I breathed a sigh of relief when she answered her phone, and it didn’t go into voicemail. I delivered my tale of woe and added at the end, “Can you believe they don’t have any means to handle emergencies such as this during non-business hours?” Indignation dripped from each and every one of my words.
Sherry laughed. “This isn’t Dallas, Texas,” she said—referencing the city from which I’d recently moved. “You can’t expect to call businesses around the clock and have them generate solutions to your problems immediately.”
I moaned into the phone, “You can probably get better service in the middle of a cornfield in Iowa than you can get here.”
Sherry burst into laughter again. “Well, you might as well make up your mind to embrace the differences you’ll be encountering here in Italy. After all, I don’t suspect the Italians will be changing their ways anytime soon—and especially not since they likely believe that we’re the crazy ones.”
What do you mean by that?”
“Well, they see us as living to work whereas they work to live.”
“So, that explains their seemingly total disregard for good customer service?” I muttered into the mouthpiece of the phone.
Sherry cleared her throat. “Perhaps after you’ve had more time to observe generations of family members out there skiing in the Dolomite Mountains together, or you hear neighbors singing enthusiastically in the local bar, you might conclude they have the right idea after all.”
I wasn’t certain that was ever going to really happen, but then I reminded myself that Sherry probably knew what she was talking about. True, she’d only begun working at the mental health clinic a few months before I had, but her husband had been employed at a foundation in Trieste for several years. As a result, she’d been observing the Italian people for much longer than I had— and this had included as she shopped, banked, and took care of other necessities of life. After all, the two of them had to “live on the economy.” We could accomplish most of the tasks of daily living surrounded by Americans at the Base Exchange.
“Tell me where you live,” Sherry finally said.
“I’m embarrassed to say this, but I can’t give you good directions. There don’t seem to be any street signs around, and I’m not familiar with the type of landmarks you all seem to rely upon, either.”
“I get it,” Sherry said. “You’re probably too worried about some car flying around the corner on one of the narrow streets, thereby forcing you to steer the car onto the sidewalk , that you barely notice anything in your midst.”
“Yeah, and I just pray there’s no one on the sidewalk at the time,” I said with a chuckle. “Anyway, just meet me in the piazza.”
“I certainly know where that is. Your town has my favorite pizza restaurant.”
“I think it’s where most of the Americans like to go,” I said before hanging up the phone.
I closed the front door and stepped around the Piaggio Ape (a very small truck with three wheels) now parked in front of my home’s archway. For that matter, there were several mopeds lined up in front of it. One probably belonged to a woman since it had flowers in its front basket.
I marched past lots where newer houses—covered in white, pink, or coral stucco—stood in the midst of grass which seemed tall and unruly by our American standards. A few times a German Sheppard or a skinny mutt would come up to the house’s wrought iron gates and bark at me. As much as I loved dogs—I had a sheltie named Heathcliff who was sharing my Italian adventure—I was actually glad there was always heavy metal between these dogs and me. But then, whereas many Americans considered their dogs their furry children, the Italians seemed to favor outdoor watchdogs.
Soon, I found myself on a section of road where nearby trees and greenery grew unrestricted on a hillside. Once that thick greenery ended, though, I found myself surrounded by old buildings which abutted either side of the narrow street. One window after another had a box in front of it from which flowed flowers in brilliant corals, reds, and purples. They brought a new kind of life to the grey walls—some of which the owner of the gelato shop in the piazza had told me dated back to 1100.
I rounded a bend and looked upward to take in what had already become my favorite vista. It was the façade of a medieval castle. Somehow, it still managed to appear to stand proudly atop a hill stretching behind the small town’s center and the river which ran through it.
I’d been leaning against the dead Fiat merely minutes when Sherry pulled up beside me in a white Honda Accord. I was surprised to I realize she wasn’t alone. A Lieutenant Colonel from the mental health clinic—the base’s lone psychiatrist—was seated in the front passenger seat.
The good doctor sprung out of the car and bounded toward the Fiat’s hood. “I’ll check and see if I notice something obviously wrong that might be correctable,” he said. But then shortly thereafter, he gave the hood a hard shove and commented, “I’m glad you were able to get the car to the side of the piazza before it died. I came along because I thought we might need to push it out of the way. After all, it could be sitting here for four or five hours.”
I felt my eyebrows shoot up and my forehead wrinkle. “Really? They don’t make retrieving their dead cars a priority, either?”
He gave his head a shake. “Not from what I’ve observed.”
“And I take it you’ve seen a few rental cars die almost immediately?”
“Sure, since around here they just rent out clunkers. Also, I suspect they don’t bother to service a car until it has died like this.” He stepped toward the car’s front passenger door. “You can just be glad it happened here and not in the mountains on some curve where there are no side rails, but merely a massive drop to the valley below.”
“I guess I’ll put off my first trip to Cortina until after my big BMW has arrived,” I said.
“Good idea,” he answered before we pulled open the car door and slid onto the fabric seat.
As I clicked my seatbelt into place, I announced, “It doesn’t seem that difficult living in Italy when everything is going right. But then, something goes wrong, and you suddenly realize how much more challenging life over here truly can be.”
A brief silence followed my comment. And then the psychiatrist turned around and looked at me. “Can’t you essentially make that statement about life in general?”
“Yeah, I guess that’s true,” I said, and leaned my head against the seat’s back.
Yes indeed, most people could handle their lives when they weren’t facing any immediate problems. But didn’t it seem such times were the exception as opposed to the rule? And because of that, perhaps it was best to just accept the fact that life was more inclined to be difficult as opposed to easy? However, whenever there were people around you willing to step forward and help you tackle that problem you faced, it certainly made life easier and more pleasant.
As Sherry steered the car along one of the building-lined narrow roads that still scared me, I suddenly felt a rush of gratitude not only for my helpful colleagues, but for the fact I’d had friends in Dallas who’d helped me to realize my dream of moving to Italy to live and work. After all, there’d been numerous challenges associated with bringing this dream to fruition. I probably could never have met them alone.
Sherry turned the car onto a road the Americans called the Mountain Highway. I looked up and took note of the small village atop what were essentially foothills to the rocky sculptures known as the Dolomite Mountains. I’d been told that the Nazis had killed all the men from that small village during World War II because some of the residents had supposedly assisted people who were part of The Resistance.
I suddenly sensed this time in my life was going to be life-changing in many ways I couldn’t currently imagine. So indeed, I’d truly been fortunate to have my own “dream team” who believed in having dreams in the first place, but then they were also willing to help others breathe life into theirs.
As we passed the next little town—this one was tucked besides those foothills as opposed to sitting on top of them— I realized that with people in my life committed to helping me to meet the challenges of my new life, I didn’t particularly need businesses that could deliver great customer service around the clock. And just perhaps that was something the Italians had always known—because family and friends had always taken priority in their lives and hence, there was always someone available to assist in your times of need.
I was thinking that perhaps they had the right idea after all when suddenly, I had this sense that I was going to be learning other lessons as well in the years to come. Furthermore, where might my lessons served Italian-style ultimately take me? And might I somehow come to share them with others?