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Unconventional Learning: Understanding the Italian Language Via Smurfs

It was hot.  But not as hot as it had been in the cities. The sun had been unforgiving in Berlin, Paris, Milan, Florence, and Rome. Here, for one night in a farming hill town near Frosinone, about ninety minutes southeast of Rome, the heat was tolerable. However, my family didn’t think so. Every so often they’d look at Stacey and I and frown, fanning themselves with their hands or tugging on their shirt collars. “Caldo,” they’d say. The tone of their voice was apologetic like they were sorry they couldn’t control the temperature. They didn’t have air conditioning; they relied on the openness of their homes provided by the fresh air that rolled off the nearby hills.

The language barrier made it difficult for me to tell them that they should not worry because it felt like a retreat after spending so much time in the thick heat of the big cities. My Italian is extremely limited; it’s based on words I remember my grandparents speaking and whatever beginner knowledge I picked up from Pimsleur Language Program CDs I borrowed from the library a few months before travelling. Being a second generation Italian-American, Italian wasn’t something that was forced on me. It was my grandmother who would scold my grandfather when he spoke to me in Italian, making him speak English.

But my Italian happens to be better than their English. Living in a rural area about a hundred miles outside of Rome, far enough away to warrant no tourists, there’s no reason for them to speak anything other than Italian. The only English I heard while visiting them came from my seven-year-old cousin, Savina, who counted from one to ten for us. A fine job she did, but that knowledge wouldn’t help with further verbal communication. For the first time on our European trip, we were without the comfort of knowing that someone close by could bail us out in a communication crisis. “Va bene,” I’d reply and shrug my shoulders, hoping they’d stop worrying about the weather.

We ate dinner outside in the gravel courtyard around the time the sun began to set and give a distinct glow throughout the valley. The air absorbed the light and became a thin layer of translucent gold that lay gently over the hills. The forests on the hillsides dimmed as they drowned themselves in their own shadows. The low crops in the valley fields became more prominent, matching the tone of the air that surrounded them. The tranquil air was silenced as the sun took what little noise there was during the day with it. The eerily screams of the red fox was the only sound that could be heard in the valley that intermittently broke up the silence.

We sat right in front of the converted monastery-to-home building my grandfather was born and raised in ninety-one years ago. The Nazi Party, World War II, and the hard times that followed split up the seven siblings that grew up in that house. The oldest, who I never met, stayed home and passed the family property down to his son who is now deceased. There I was, visiting the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of my grandfather’s brother. I could see a resemblance in appearance, but we did not sound anything alike.

My family kept dinner simple and it consisted of just pizza, giant pizzas: a mushroom and mozzarella pizza; a pepperoni and mozzarella pizza; a ham, artichoke, and mozzarella pizza; a Parmesan and arugula pizza; and a pizza with salt, pepper, and olive oil.  There was enough pizza for the eight of us and an additional twelve people who never showed.

By dinner, I felt comfortable enough with my family to tell them basta, enough is enough, and only ate what I could handle. I was also learning that anything went at the dinner table. I had always been told it was rude to change the food that is served to you; don’t add salt before tasting. I watched as one of my cousins added mortadella slices to a piece of seasoned/olive oil pizza. He also brought out a brick of Parmasan cheese to add more on every piece he was eating. I felt comfortable enough to make a piece of pizza modeled after one of his creations. I too took a slice of mortadella and added it to a seasoned slice. He smiled at me, satisfied in my copying ability, and I smiled at him, satisfied with what I had just put in my mouth.

By the time dinner was slowing down with us, Savina sat down next to Stacey and me, and she had with her a sticker book. I recognized the drawings of the Smurf figures on the book.

“The Smurfs!” I pointed it out to my wife, Stacey, who was equally excited to see something familiar after spending over two weeks away from any kind of American pop culture, but for the occasional song we’d here on the radio in shops or restaurants.

Stacey pointed to Savina’s book and said, “Oh, you know The Smurfs?”

Savina, smiled politely at us.  Stacey gave me a puzzled look.

“I guess she’s not excited that we know about The Smurfs too,” I told her, and we went back to eating more pizza.

Some amount of pizza slices later, I watched Savina as she flipped back and forth through her Smurf sticker book, carefully placing stickers in their appropriate location.  Then I noticed the front cover in detail.  At that moment my body was full, emotionally with excitement and physically with pizza. I had the kind of excitement I thought Savina would have had when Stacey and I, the out-of-town relatives from the United States of America, recognized The Smurfs.

I Puffi!” I exclaimed, as I brought Stacey’s attention to the title on the front cover of the sticker book.  Savina looked up and her faced moved from total sticker book concentration to an enthusiasm that matched that of mine when she realized I was familiar with I Puffi.

I Puffi!” she repeated.

ItaliaI Puffi.  America.  The Smurfs,” I explained and she understood.

We spent time going over the names of the Smurfs.  Stacey pointed to the one in the red hat.

Grande Puffo,” Savina said.

“Papa Smurf,” we told her.

Stacey pointed to the blond Smurf, Smurfette.

Puffetta!”  Savina explained.

There was Puffo Vanitoso (Vanity Smurf), Puffo Inventore (Handy Smurf), and Baby Puffo (Baby Smurf).  She taught us all about I Puffi as we explored her sticker book, and I started to feel like some sort of Puffo myself after eating too much pizza.

Puffo Quatrocchi,” Savina said as she showed us Brainy Smurf.

Quatrocchi?” I asked.

Quatrocchi,” she repeated and pointed to my glasses.

I took my glasses off and pointed to them. “Quatrocchi?

No!” she laughed. “Occhi,” she said, and placed her fingers on her eyes.

It took me a moment. Brainy Smurf wore glasses. Occhi means eyes. What does the prefix stand for? Quatro occhi. Quatrocchi. Four eyes. In that moment I regretted not staying longer and learning more Italian.

We got to the page with the mean, old guy that looked like he was excommunicated by a group of monks.  “Gargamella,” Savina said.  I laughed at the thought of the creators keeping the name Gargamel similar, but changing the word for Smurf to Puffo.  I then assumed the cat’s name was some form of Azrael.  It wasn’t.  Azrael is known as Birba in Italy.

There we were, an English-speaking thirty year old man and twenty-eight year old woman from Michigan and an Italian speaking seven-year old girl in Italy, breaking down the language barrier one sticker book page at a time.

Savina’s Smurf sticker book became our Rosetta Stone.

Gravity Walks

Our Glacier Pass train ticket allowed us to get on and off at any stop on the way to and from Jungfraujoch, the highest railway station in Europe. On our train ride back down the mountain, I decided I wanted to do some hiking in the Lauterbrunnen region. We had a day and a half in Switzerland and this would be our only chance to hike anywhere in the area. As we approached Wengen, the last stop before our destination, I convinced Stacey to get off and walk the rest of the way.

After stepping off the train, we found the marked trail sign that pointed our way back to Lauterbrunnen.

“See, Stacey. It’s only a forty-five minute walk.”

The walk started off fairly easy. A few winding roads in Wengen gave us spectacular views of the Lauterbrunnen Valley. The area looks like God’s model train village. Small passenger trains slowly weave through dense forests, peacefully winding their way up and down the mountainsides that cut dramatically into the valley. Buildings are sporadically but beautifully placed on the valley floor. The town’s church is small and humble, yet its bells are boastful, ringing out each hour. Small herds of livestock roam the rough mountainsides. Their bells quietly fill the air between the methodical strikes of the church’s clock tower.

We had followed the trail, but were lost in the beauty of our surroundings. We came across another marked sign which brought back to us the awareness of our hike.

“Thirty-five minutes?” I looked skeptically at the sign pointed towards Lauterbrunnen.

“How long have we been walking?” Stacey asked.

“At least twenty minutes.”

“You said they were marked by average hike times.”

“We must have taken the long way or missed a turn somewhere.” I hoped that was the case and not that we were much slower than an average pace.

We continued on and the trail began to snake steeply down the side of the mountain. We weren’t prepared for this. I thought we’d have a nice relaxing nature walk back to Lauterbrunnen overlooking the valley. And Stacey thought I knew what I was doing. I kept waiting for the “What did you get us into?” look, but fortunately I never got it.

Stress enveloped my knees upon the impact of every step, like a doctor had wrapped a blood pressure cuff around my joints and furiously pumped away. Every time I lifted my foot off of the ground to take another step, my weak leg shook, warning me to stop and take a break.

Stacey was aching too. “I wish I had a walking stick,” she panted.

We marched on through the pain. The dozens of rushing waterfalls that began as melted snow plunged over cliffsides into the Staubbach River in the distance gave us the visual aspirin that silenced the aching screams of our bodies.

But what couldn’t be silenced were the effects of the cheese fondue.

Earlier that evening, before reaching Wengen, we had stopped in Kleine Scheidegg on our way back from exploring Jungfraujoch. We had skipped lunch and decided to stop there to fill our eyes with beautiful views and our bellies with some fondue. We ate an early dinner at Eigernordwand that consisted of their signature fondue: a communal pot filled with garlic, onions, green pepper, mushrooms, and herbs engulfed in molten cheese. To eat this fantastic concoction, they brought an obscene amount of bread and potatoes to submerge into the bubbling cheese and absorb all the wonderful flavors. To wash it all down, we drank hot chocolate made from milk of cows whose bells we could hear clanging on the nearby wildflower covered hills.

The fondue weighed down in our bellies, working with gravity to force us to move faster than desired down the trail. This, however, resulted in having the strenuous walk help work off our dinner. Gravity pulled while the fondue pushed. I farted my way down a mountain.

The view of the valley disappeared as the trail continued to wind through a beautiful wooded area of the mountain. We were the only people on the trail, hidden in a fairytale forest of ancient pine trees. The sun’s rays found their way around the massive tree trunks to the heavily vegetated forest floor and made for a humid trek. I had already taken off two of three shirts and debated removing the third. We had started our day at Jungfraujoch in thirty-two degree weather and were now walking through temperatures in the lower eighties. No big deal though, that’s a typical spring day for two people from southeastern Michigan.

“I hope we don’t see any predators.”

Stacey laughed. I was serious. The scenery was wonderful, but we weren’t prepared for the hike. Thoughts of my mangled body pictured in the local news rushed through my head: “Tourist found mauled by bears; backpack full of meats, cheese, and beer found meters away from body.”

Finally, the valley came into view again and we could clearly see the Staubbach Falls which was near our hotel. A little further and we were back on flat land. My knees were happy for the moment, but they’d have their revenge later.

Upon returning to the hotel in the evening, Stacey flopped on the bed and refused to get up the rest of the day. She was full of good ideas. I was full of cheese, gas, and pain.

She reached over and picked up a hiking map off the nightstand. “Look. All the paths around the valley are mapped out. And they’re color coated by difficulty.”

“What’s it show for Wengen to Lauterbrunnen?” I asked.

“Red. It’s the only red path on that side of the valley. ‘Warning,’” she read, “‘walking downhill can be extremely difficult and may cause physical pain. This path is not for beginners.’”

They should add, “Especially after eating a loaf of bread dipped in a bucket of melted cheese.”

Flush with Confusion

I waited in front of the closed door. The slot above the door handle was red. I had left my wife sleeping comfortably in her seat; I had been able to minimize my movement when making my way to the bathroom. The water and coffee the train attendants had served me had worked their way through my body quickly enough that I would both ingest and jettison them on this train.

Pressure built and I became impatient. I wondered what was taking the person inside so long. Universal bathroom etiquette, I always thought, was if there’s only one unisex bathroom available, you must rush your business. Apparently the W.C.’s current occupant did not live by the same code.

To pass time, I wondered if it was a man or a woman inside. I guessed a man. Then I wondered what nationality this man was, which I knew I wouldn’t be able to verify upon this person exiting. Gender I’d get right nine times out of ten I hoped. Nationality based solely on looks would prove trickier. I would at least need them to talk to pick up a different language or an accent. I didn’t count on any type of communication, but I humored myself to keep my mind off the discomfort below my waistline.

There was a good chance he was Italian, being that this train was travelling from Switzerland to Italy. But then again, he could be Swiss. Also a good chance he was American or Japanese on this train for the same reason I was.

I went with the odds and decided the person inside the bathroom was an Italian male. I still, however, had plenty of time to debate the issue.

As I moved past the gender and nationality guessing game, I wondered how long this person had been in the bathroom before I left my seat. I hadn’t seen anyone enter. The possibility of no one being in there crossed my mind. Maybe the door was locked because the toilet was out of service. Maybe there was someone in there and that person required medical attention. I became physically and emotionally uncomfortable.

The slot above the door handle finally went from red to green. My emotional distress subsided, and I found comfort in knowing my physical discomfort wasn’t far behind it.

The door opened and a stocky, middle-aged man walked out. He was wearing a dull Hawaiian shirt, khaki cargo shorts, and sandals. At the sight of his bucket hat I wondered if this train would wind up in Naples instead of Napoli. His outfit flaunted stars and stripes. His face flashed panic and frustration.

He looked at me as if he wanted to cry but not because he was sad. His concerned eyes were filled with sorrow like he was a veterinarian coming out to tell me he put my cat to sleep. He held his arms out to the side, elbows bent, and shrugged his shoulders. He spoke, sort of. He was trying to communicate with me, but his words were inaudible, single-syllable noises.

“English?” I asked.

More mumbling.

“L’inglese?”

I was getting more information from his body language. He pointed to the toilet and finally spoke an intelligible word: “No.”

He then mumbled, “Sorry.” His accent was undetectable, but at this moment I realized the problem. He was embarrassed.

The practice of using a restroom in Europe can be a confusing, uncomfortable experience for Americans who are used to consistency. In America, the only thing we worry about in public restrooms is cleanliness. If a bathroom is up to our standards, we don’t have to worry about anything else. The only questionable part of using a public restroom is how we dry our hands: paper towels, blow dryers, turbo jet blow dryers, your own pants, or those reusable revolving towels- which, by the way, are not up to my standard of cleanliness.

There are just as many different types of toilets in Europe as there are languages, and just because you’re familiar with one doesn’t mean you’ll understand another. Two toilets in the same hotel can even be completely different. We take the knowledge of flushing a toilet for granted. A toilet can have the handle on the back, which is what we are used to, but that is very uncommon. It can also have a button on the tank, sometimes the button can be on the wall above the toilet. Even the button functions can be different: sometimes the toilet will continue to flush until you push it again. Some toilets have two buttons: a big one and a small one to use depending on what needs to be flushed. Sometimes the toilet tank is high above the toilet and a chain hangs down from that in which you pull to flush. Other toilets have foot pedals on the ground next to the toilet. Not uncommon, sometimes there is no toilet at all, just a simple hole in the floor.

The man on the train was ashamed. He’d done his business but didn’t know how to outsource. He mumbled “sorry” one last time and returned to his seat, leaving me with his problem.

I held my breath and slowly peaked inside. I squinted my eyes like I was watching a horror film, ready to fully close them at the first site of a grotesque creature making a surprise jump from the swamp. Between my eyelids, I noticed the toilet lid was down. I felt reassured and opened my eyes. The man who was here before me may not have been technologically advanced, but at least he was courteous.

I looked around the bathroom. There were no flushers above the toilet and no foot pedals on floor. The man’s apologetic look was etched in the forefront of my mind. I couldn’t hold out much longer, but I dared not open that lid. A stranger left me a stinker of a puzzle that I did not feel obligated to solve. I decided to go to the next train car and try my luck there.

As I swung around to leave the bathroom, I noticed a small red button nowhere near the toilet on the opposite wall about two feet above the floor. There were no words or pictures on or around it. This must be the flusher. I leaned in to push it but hesitated. It was too small and out of place to be a flusher. Could it be an emergency button? What if it calls a train attendant who thinks I’m the one who left my scrap? What if by pushing the button I bring the train to a screeching halt?

This was nonsense. I pushed the button.

A loud suction came from the depths of the toilet and it flushed. I was relieved so I pushed it again. Then I relieved myself.

As I was washing my hands, I wondered if the man did too. Perhaps he had forgotten in the midst of his hunt for a flusher.  His bathroom ritual was thrown off. He panicked, apologized, and then scurried away in humiliation. It was a dreadful experience for him and I could only feel empathy. I happened to find the oddly placed flusher by chance. I could have easily been the terrified American tourist stuck in a bathroom while another traveler stood on the other side of my only exit.

You never know what kind of engineering you’ll find in a European bathroom. Also, Europeans love their football.

The Schiphol Hustle

AUTHOR’S NOTE: This is a real story…well, however real a story can be that is based on my travel journal and memories from a trip to Europe my wife and I took in the summer of 2012.

I pointed to the gate number on my boarding pass. The airline worker understood English and I understood her lack of confidence in us as she spoke the words, “B24. You might make it.”

I looked at Stacey and said, quite calmly, “Run.”

With our carry-on bags rolling along behind us as we ran, I had doubts that gate B24 actually existed. Back on the plane, before landing, being the overly prepared and worrisome person that I am, I used the monitor on the back of the chair in front of me to search a terminal map of Amsterdam’s SchipholAirport. I checked the departing gate on my boarding pass. Gate B24. Simple: find Terminal B, and then look for the gate number.  Terminal B was easy to find on the map, but it only showed gates B1 to B19.  B24 was nowhere to be found. I asked a flight attendant before landing and she pulled out a map of the airport. We looked over it, I with extreme care like it was a treasure map, and she like it was a brick wall standing in her way from getting to her seat in time for landing.

“Here’s B.” I pointed to the area of the map with B gates, after explaining that we would be pressed for time once we landed. “See, no B24.”

“Hmm.” She pretended to think about it. “Yeah, it’s not on here. Good luck.” She smiled.

The Dutch had no confidence in me.

Stacey and I wove between people as we raced to Terminal B. We could only exchange confused looks at each other while sweating, grunting, and pointing at signs. I didn’t want to full out sprint yet for fear Amsterdam would have a bad first impression of me. I wondered if our running through the airport was culturally acceptable there. As I avoided eye contact and looked to the ground, I came to a sudden halt as I bumped into someone, who transferred their end-of-the-line status to me along with a displeased look.

Customs. I completely forgot we had to go through customs. I looked at my phone for time: nine minutes until takeoff.

I flagged a woman over, asked if she spoke English, and she did. I showed her my boarding pass and frowned. She called an older woman over. They spoke Dutch, discussing our fate, while I reflected on booking these flights. We were expecting a quick layover in Amsterdam on our way to Berlin.  According to my meticulously planned itinerary, it would be an hour wait. “Get off of a plane and find the other gate,” I told my wife six months ago while making our travel arrangements. “There’s nothing to worry about.” Speaking those sure words guaranteed a late arrival and docked forty minutes off of our planned sixty-minute layover.

I wondered why it was taking so long for them to take action. The older woman looked and sounded like she was getting upset with the younger one. There were more head shakes than was comfortable. “A few minutes in Europe and we’re already causing problems,” I thought.

The older one turned to us and smiled. My heart sunk. I wondered, “Is smiling before you give someone bad news universal?” Fortunately, I misread their body language and the younger one told us to follow her as she led us up to the front of the customs line. Stacey was the first of us to say “dank u.” We repeated it a dozen times with full sincerity while the customs officer stamped our passports. We had officially arrived in Amsterdam but could only stay for three more minutes before our plane departed.

“Are you kidding me?” Stacey muttered as she saw the line for the security checkpoint.

“This is absurd. They just stamped our passports and now they want to go through our luggage? They already let us into the country. And what could we have possibly added to our bags? We went through security in Detroit and we landed what, six minutes ago?”

“Go. They’re waiving us over,” Stacey said, relieved that we were next which would momentarily stop my complaining.

On her cue I remained quiet as I approached the security guard. I didn’t want to draw attention to myself anymore. I was already sweaty, out of breath, and panicky, which can easily mean doom at an airport. They didn’t require me to take my shoes off though. Great, an extra thirty seconds that could make or break us because who has time for shoelaces?

“Do you have a laptop?” the security officer asked.

“No.” I put my belongings on the conveyer.

They went through at a subjectively annoying pace and I reached for them as they began to show themselves like the head of a turtle coming out of its shell.

“Wait. You have laptop.”

I didn’t answer. I glanced over my shoulder and Stacey was there, ready to run. I debated grabbing my bags quickly and making a run for it but was able to rationalize how that was not a good decision. I shook my head instead.

“An iPad?”

“No, I don’t have an iPad or laptop.”

“I see you have laptop.” He pointed to his screen.

My Asus Transformer tablet caused absolutely no problems at Detroit Metro, but here in Amsterdam its presence threw me into a nightmarishly cheesy commercial.

“It’s a tablet.”

“A what?”

“Tablet.”

“A laptop?”

“No.” I resorted to one word answers hoping it would speed up the process.

“An iPad?”

I wanted to discuss with him, at this moment, the use of his word iPad. Were all tablets known as iPads in Europe? Do they sell Windows or Android tablets or are citizens on this continent not given the basic human freedom to choose their tablet OS that we must take for granted in the States?  Or is it like ordering a pop in Texas, not knowing they call all pop Coke? I wanted to discuss and come to a friendly understanding on the international categorical meanings of laptops, iPads, and tablet electronics. Being four minutes behind schedule didn’t leave time for semantics.

“Yes. An iPad.” I gave up.

“Take it out.”

I did. Upon seeing me take the tablet apart from the keyboard dock, the security officer agreed with me.

“That’s not an iPad.”

In the interest of time, even knowing it was already past our flight time, I kept my mouth shut and watched him run my belongings back through the security conveyer. Stacey and I used this as an opportunity to catch our breath. I grabbed my possessions as they passed through security a second time, agitated that this delay would result in me having to move at the speed of a slow sprint to the gate instead of my planned mild hustle.

Amsterdam’s SchipholAirport is huge, or at least it feels that way when you’re rushing through it. Fortunately it is equipped with those futuristic Jetsons-era moving sidewalks. Unfortunately, some of them were missing a few space sprockets and weren’t functioning properly. Broken down sidewalks of tomorrow become non-moving sidewalks of today with restricted space that do not help me speedily reach my destination. In fact, non-functioning ones deceivingly look as if they are moving as you swiftly approach them from afar, only to get stuck behind two slowly progressing travelers walking side-by-side.

On the way to our gate, thoughts started to burn up precious oxygen in my brain that I really couldn’t spare at the moment. What am I doing? This is how I’m starting a two-and-a-half-week trip through countries I’ve never been to, where I can’t speak their language? I spent a lot of money for this? My wife is never going to want to travel with me again, or at least never let me be in charge of our itinerary. If we missed our plane, I hope I can talk to someone who speaks English to catch the next flight to Berlin. How long have I been awake? I must be going on hour twenty-two. I wonder where the nearest Applebee’s is from here.

After many anxious thoughts, moving sidewalks, non-moving sidewalks, and extremely long corridors, we turned down a hallway with a sign above that read, “Terminal B.” Our gate number did exist, and as it came into view at the other end of this final passageway, I kicked it into hyper mode.

I’m no runner. I’m a slow-moving, one-hundred-and-ninety-pound, six-foot-one-inch-tall male, with an imagination. To me, I was breezing through the corridor with Olympic speed and fitness, leaving my wife in the dust two terminals away. The disgusted gazes of blurry-faced onlookers as I ran by suggested that I was just a large, hairy, heavy breathing beast, who was grotesquely sweating. To add to the view I gave them, somehow my glistening, fat, unfit body was making my shirt defy simple laws of gravity.  With every ungraceful step I made it was getting pulled up, wedged between my back and my backpack.

I was getting closer to the gate when I heard, “…Crupi…Brandon Crupi,” explode over the loud speaker. I let out a grunt of excitement at the thought of the plane still being there.

My embarrassingly naked belly arrived at the gate just before I did, and my wife wasn’t far behind.

“Brandon Crupi?”

That’s me!” I yelled in their faces, as I had no energy left for volume control. I wiped sweat from my forehead, but that proved useless. I needed a shower.

“Good thing. That was last call. Hurry up and get on the plane. They’re all waiting. And just so you know, you’re checked baggage will not be on this flight since your arrival plane was late.”

I had enough energy left to smile. Bringing with us only carry-on luggage for a nineteen-day European vacation had already paid off.

We boarded the plane, which was small enough to feel the angry stares of every passenger on board. I felt bad for being late but didn’t feel guilty because it was beyond my control. I had the sweat and panting to prove it.

Stacey and I took our seats, and the undermining words the airline worker spoke to me echoed in my head.

“B24. You might make it.”

Have some confidence in me, Europe.