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Italian Made Easy

I anxiously scan the Italian train schedule slapped to the wall. My high school French provides brief moments of clarity, but my non-existent Italian prevents me from understanding the little strings of words that melt together into an indecipherable mess. Tears pool in the corner of my eyes as I realize that I can’t read for the first time in twenty-odd years. For my first trip to Italy, this is not an auspicious beginning.

Meanwhile my sister Louisa, who is studying in Siena for a semester, calmly reads down the list, nodding her head in the understanding that comes with fluency. Ambling over to a rusty bench, she perches serenely on the seat, her apricot-colored Italian scarf loosely knotted around her neck. I slump next to her, wishing my glaring white American sneakers could be exchanged for a pair of Gucci loafers.

The shadows deepen as we wait and watch mice scuttle between the rails. A lone worker dejectedly pushes his broom through little piles of dust, while dull-eyed teenagers huddle in a corner smoking cigarettes under a mushroom cloud of smoke. A train pointing in the opposite direction lurches into the station, and housewives suddenly materialize from between the laundry lines that separate their backyards from the tracks. When the train chugs on, women in flowered cotton dresses lead bambini through the flapping sheets and broken terra cotta flowerpots.

On the train that evening, we squish onto plush fuzzy seats laced with the smell of exhaust. Sporadic “pronto”s punctuate the air as passengers answer their cell phones. The only light comes from the setting sun, which brushes the horizon between low hills and cypress trees. Using a hand-held machine, the rumpled ticket collector stamps the tickets with a “ching-ching.” Odors of mothballs, almonds, and expensive cologne hover above our heads like an invisible cloud. The train finally groans into Siena, a small city outside of Florence, and half an hour later, I collapse into bed at my hotel.

The next morning while Louisa is at school, I navigate the narrow, cobblestone streets of Siena, shivering in the bitter December chill. As a city on a hill, Siena overflows with plunging streets and precarious corners. The few people out roaming the city move with the stealth of wolves accustomed to their hunting grounds. Night still clings to the buildings but whiffs of chocolate and smoke sharpen the air.

Although buildings are soiled, cracked, and chipped, paint tones of cinnamon, butter, and raspberry warm the walls, which glow in the now-rising sun. Intricate balcony railings cover the sides of the buildings like ivy.

A street-cleaning machine growls behind me. I step to the side and into an alley, but the machine remains close on my tail. The driver shouts something at me, and I throw up my hands in confusion. Pointing and snarling, he bares his teeth and floors the machine but I elude him by slipping into Nanini, a white and pink marbled bakery. A slicked-hair waiter behind the frosted counter gives me a cappuccino, which jolts me awake with its electric sugar current. Fresh croissants and pastries nestle in the display like newly hatched chicks.

Near Nanini, I sit on the algae-licked steps of an old mottled church, which overlooks a tiny piazza. In the center, a small statue of a crouching wolf rests atop a twenty-foot-tall marble column. According to the Roman legend, twin brothers Remus and Romulus founded the cities of Siena and Rome. Sienese citizens later cultivated the symbol of the wolf, often believed to have raised the orphaned twins, as the patron of Siena to compete with Rome’s political power.

Tiny women shrouded in black dresses approach for the morning mass. Not wanting to loiter in a sacred spot, I leave the church steps and stroll to Il Campo. The piazza is a vast brick sundial that slopes down to a central point and is the site for the Palio, a late-summer horse race often compared to the running of the bulls at Pamplona. Closed trattorias with green and white striped awnings rim the outside of the piazza. The smells of smoke, pastries, trash, and soap bathe the streets.

As the morning progress, Il Campo slowly becomes a circus of tourists, bratty teenagers, and elegant women. At the edge of the giant sundial, Louisa joins me and we descend into Santa Maria della Scala, or the church of the stairs.

Although the upper level holds stained-glass windows and elaborate wall paintings, the lower level is a claustrophobic cave reeking of mildew and death. As the crowds percolate above us on Il Campo, we walk through the remains of the hospital morgue. Little urns litter the passageways, which hold discarded, century-old human organs and have peaceful sleeping people carved on the lids, alleviating the grimness by suggesting that death is merely a state of sleep.

That evening, we abandon morbidity in favor of gastronomy. Louisa’s host mother, Gilda, lives in a cramped apartment bursting with knickknacks, vases, figurines, ceramics, glass statues, and books. As she prepares dinner in her tiny kitchen, we nosh on crackers and brie. Gilda, who moves like a battleship, is sixty-five and sports silver jewelry and blue-tinted Bono glasses.

In between preparations, Gilda shows us cracked photo albums, stuffed with pictures of vacations on the French Riviera. At each hotel she visits, Gilda takes a picture of herself on the front steps. As Gilda flips the yellowed pages of her albums, she runs her fingers lightly over each picture.

We sit at a table decorated with a lace-embroidered, yellow-tinged cloth. Louisa and Gilda gabble away in Italian, their hands gesturing wildly, as the drama of Italian soap operas unfold on the television in the background. Although Gilda has no problem with guests overeating, each time she takes an extra helping, she slaps herself on the wrist. A glance around the apartment reveals the existence of at least three weighing scales.

As I observe and eat—coleslaw chicken, rigatoni quattro fromaggi, baked ziti, ham, salmon, asparagus, beans, cheddar, brie, bread, and fruit—understanding abruptly hits me.

“I never have time for my diets, no? Always the eating and drinking,” Gilda says in Italian, as best as I can translate.

She and Louisa go sailing off into another conversation, but this brief moment of comprehension slowly begins to erode my language barrier. As the meal continues, Gilda begins to address her comments to both of us, sensing that perhaps an inauspicious Italian beginning can be easily transformed into a warm Italian experience.

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