Some words are universal. I’m sure there are examples of Italian words that we leave alone, but I cannot think of any. In English, one such word is Pacemaker. It is the same in every country, though investigated far more thoroughly in Europe than I’ve ever encountered in the States. Here, I can declare my pacemaker and be waved around any metal detector. After making my declaration over there, I had to show my Medtronic device card and passport. I was escorted around metal detectors then patted down, where available by female police or security. Thoroughly. So thoroughly in the Naples airport, in fact, that I learned exactly where I fit on the sliding spectrum of sexual preference. Let’s just say Mike enjoyed the show and I needed a drink when she finished.
We were told in advance that there was no real reason to learn Italian because everyone speaks English and is eager to help. With a handful of exceptions, most of whom were Gypsies, this was blatantly wrong. We ended up playing a lot of charades, the most futile game of which took place in a Naples farmacia just seconds before they locked their door for the night. I hurried in and asked the pharmacist if he had any Tums. The café and wine based diet has one major disadvantage. He gave us the universal non comprendo shrug. It made sense to me that if pacemaker was universal, heartburn would be as well, so I said it while rubbing my tummy.
He smiled, went to the back and left me standing with his cashiers for an awkwardly silent amount of time, then returned with an item in each hand; panty liners in the right, tampons in the left. Later, Mike tried to spin this into flattery. “At least he thinks you look young enough to still need those.”
I reminded him I am still young enough to need them, just not right that moment. The interaction left me grumpy until our next bottle of wine.
Back to the farmacia. I said no with my mouth, my head, and my hands, and tried again.
“Heartburn. Stomach acid.” This time I rubbed higher up, on my rib cage. He retreated to the back again, and returned with a green box labeled Anacidol.
That seemed like a reasonable translation of anti-acid, so I said grazie, perhaps overly enthusiastic to end this game of charades, and paid the seven euro.
The seven euro was my first hint that I was not buying the right product. So far, everything had been much less expensive in Italy. By my calculation, Tums should have been no more than two euro for a box that size.
The box was my second clue. Tums doesn’t come in a box at home and by what I’d seen of Italians so far, they shunned unnecessary packaging. Hell, sometimes they shunned sanitary packaging. When we reached that next bottle of wine, I investigated my purchase. Magnesium and dimethicone. Constipation and gas.
That’s when I decided to smile more, so as not to look alternately menstrual and constipated. And that’s where the wine came in handy.
Now, this tidbit of information may only apply to the parts of Europe we were roaming last week, but Mike, with his silver hair and Carribean Sea blue eyes seemingly has the word ‘American’ stamped across his forehead in blazing, capital letters. I, on the other hand, with my muddied DNA, could be (and in varying degrees, am) almost anything.
I watched as multi-lingual beggars, aggressive street vendors, and other peoples with questionable motives approached him and, in decent English, asked for money, pitched their wares, or attempted their ploys to lure tourists into dark alleys. These are tenacious people who do not take, ‘no,’ for an answer. When walking alone, just as many people made their appeals to me in God-only-knows what languages, but never in English. On our first morning in Rome I realized there was no language in which I could rebuff them that they don’t speak better and could continue their spiel. So I made one up.
Raise your hand if you remember the Ricky-Martin-spawning, Puerto Rican boy band, Menudo. If you don’t, I’ll give you a minute to familiarize yourself.
All caught up? Good. So, Menudo doesn’t sound like a real word, right? With each unwelcomed entreaty, I gave a sympathetic shake of the head and said, “Menudo.” Sometimes I felt a shrug and a, “No, menudo,” was a better response.
I got only baffled looks in response as my accosters retreated. It worked so well that Mike started using it.
Only once we reached Naples did it occur to me that I might have inadvertently been saying an actual word. How would I know? I turned to Google Translate. Great app; I recommend it for everything from ordering lunch to deciphering graffiti.
“Menduo,” as it turns out, means nothing in Italian. However, “Ma nudo,” which is how it is pronounced, means “but naked.”
So for four days we had been startling street people around Rome.
“Can you spare change?”
“Do you need tickets?”
No, but naked.
“Have you any bread?”
No, but naked.
“Selfie sticks, five euro!”
“Have you seen my daughter? She’s this tall with brown hair.”
I really have no idea what was being asked of me when Mike wasn’t around, telegraphing his Captain America beacon. But, I learned that in dealings with people whom you cannot understand, instead of pretending to speak a language they’ve never heard, it is perhaps more effective to appear insane in a language they know well.
And only now does it occur to me I’ve been doing that for years.