Just by looking at people’s feet, I could always pretty much dependably tell who was American and who was European (or other nationality) before I even met them.
Whereas we bumpkin Yanks almost always wore some brand of tennis shoes, flip-flops, or sneakers, Europeans mostly wore fine leather shoes or leather sandals (with socks!).
But one of the most distinguishing traits of Americans is how loud they are in public (notice how I’m disdainfully distancing myself…). Well, actually, they can easily be heard when in their rooms, too. And in restaurants.
After our very first day of carving, I met with our instructor and a couple of the other sculpture students in a really nice little trattoria to celebrate our adventure in carving stone together. We were just sitting back, enjoying our after-dinner coffee.
We were all gussied up. It felt wonderful to change from sloppy dusty arty attire into silk top and swishy summer skirts. I felt elegant, for once. We were relishing our meal and conversation.
Right next to us was a couple who were the classic epitome of the loud, obnoxious Yankee.
They were outright slobs, top to toe. I like to give people the benefit of the doubt – who knew what kind of situation they were experiencing? But they could at least have toned their voices down. They didn’t have any idea how disruptive they were, how their voices overtook any conversation anyone might have tried, simply by sheer trumpeting volume. Or who knows? Maybe they knew and just didn’t give a rip.
I was appalled by such terrible behavior. It was like a couple of pre-teens who had never had any education as to how to listen to others, be at least minimally polite, or have any consideration for anyone other than Self.
I was horrified and embarrassed – for them, and for me and my colleagues, as fellow Americans. I wished I could just wave a magic wand and disappear them.
Their voices got louder and louder. So loud the restaurant owner came out and politely asked them to be more quiet.
Oops – bad move. Indignant, they both leapt up and started in on him for having such nerve as to ask them to please have some consideration for others’ dining experience. Poor guy just stood there, face burning red with embarrassment. And then slowly mutated to crimson tooth-gritting fury as these awful people went on and on at him.
He finally gestured to the kitchen, and two big meaty guys came out and – well, let’s just say, ‘escorted’ these gross examples of how not to be, out the door.
Spontaneous applause rose from our table and the other diners. We were so chagrined, but couldn’t figure out what to do for the poor owner other than apologizing for our countrymen.
He very graciously shushed us, saying it was a common occurrence and not to worry about it. That made me feel even worse – a common thing? Good grief.
He ended up sitting with us, regaling us with hilarious/awful tales of outrageous behavior that would make almost anyone want to die of shame.
I’m not sure why Americans are so sure of their entitlement to dominate and destroy the ambience of any situation. Who do they think they are, anyway? More and more, I pretended I was Dutch, hanging out with – well, you’ll meet them in a second.
Then there was the beautiful, 23 year old dark haired gal who was staying at the hotel, practicing to become an opera singer, screeching out her window every day from her third story room like a bereft Juliette. I was so glad to have my own apartment!
She would come with the sculpture crowd when we went out to eat, and wanted to sing for us as we waited for our meal to be served. Can we spell disaster? We were hard put to find polite ways to refuse her kind offers. She really ought to have been a computer programmer or a librarian – something demanding quiet.
I felt so bad for her. She fell massively in love with one of the hotel guys. She couldn’t see the obvious, that he was a player right down to his toes. She’d follow him around like a brand new puppy when she wasn’t in her room destroying perfectly good music.
He’d sneak looks at us, making pathetic begging faces like, help! What do I do? Can’t you shut her up? Keep her away from me? If it wasn’t so tragic for her, it would have been funny. None of us knew how to get it through to her what the real reality was. She even extended her stay so she could be with him, much to her paying-father’s ire.
One day soon after, she came to me bawling her eyes out. He had finally snapped and told her to leave him alone. He didn’t love her, what could she do, wasn’t he handsome, she’d wanted to spend her life with him, she’d wanted to marry him … and I just had to lay it out for her. She was devastated. She called Daddy, packed up, and left the next day.
Arlo was a 6’4″ stooped-over skinny guy, an older friend of the hotel guys. He came with us one night to one of our favorite family-style restaurants. There were eight or nine of us, all sitting around small tables placed together for us. It was a tiny, lovely, intimate venue - maybe a total of three other four-top tables, all full.
Arlo sat opposite from me. As the evening wore on, the wine he was guzzling undid his brain, and he started acting like a complete doofus. Slowly, gazing dramatically into my eyes, he reached over the table and grasped my hand, softly stroking it like petting a cat. He began singing to me. Frank Sinatra songs.
Sorry all you Frank lovers – I don’t know why, but Frank Sinatra’s singing makes the small hairs on the back of my neck stand up and prickle. I detested the songs and how he sang them. A switch went off in my head. This must end.
Grimacing, I snatched my hand away, and asked him to please stop.
Obviously believing the myth that a girl’s ‘no’ means ‘yes,’ he sang louder, miming a love-struck teenager, blue-eyed blinking at me with that sappy I’m-in-love-with-you sixteen-year-old-boy expression.
Again, I asked him to please stop – at first gently, then more forcefully. Then loudly – “NO, Arlo, STOP it! Leave me alone!”
He shoved his chair back, stood, folding himself to crouch over me, and threw his drama queen hands up in the air, sloppily and top volumely declaring that I must be a lesbian and a nazi if I didn’t like him or his singing. (Hush you grammar freaks – I refuse to honor That Name with a capital letter.)
The genial hum and buzz of a happy restaurant evaporated. Sudden silence struck every person. Thick, like a blanket of sticky cotton candy. Surprise and shock on every face.
That was IT for me.
I don’t drink, so I was stone sober. Outrage zinged through my veins like wildfire. I jumped up, grabbed our little plate-filled table by its edge, pulled up -hard- and dumped the entire thing in his lap.
Walked very quietly over to the counter, paid for my meal … and crashed out the door.
NO one gets to call me names, accuse me of being something I am not, or – especially! – call me a nazi!
Outside now, I halted and hung my head to regroup, panting. I could hear the whole restaurant erupt.
My buddy artists all came bursting outside after me; the restaurant owner came dashing out, in tears, embarrassed and upset, and livid with Arlo - apparently this wasn’t his first disruption there.
The other diners waved arms and hands or stood bent in laughter, watching Arlo, looking at all of us outside through the window, roaring with delight at the show.
He came to my door the next day and tried to apologize, but I was still so pissed I told him to scat or I’d call the polizia.
His friends tried once more to get us together, putting me next to him in the back seat of a car we were going to go sight-seeing in. I forcefully pushed him out the door and refused to go with them if they insisted he come along. I know – bitch – but – nazi? Really?
GWEN & MARION
After having had my grand apartment all to myself, the hotel called and asked me if I’d be willing to have two 20-year old Dutch women as apartment-mates.
I said sure, glad to have some company, and the lovely, tall, lanky blond Gwen and her even taller friend, sultry long-legged, coffee-skinned Marion (MAH-ree-own), blasted into my life.
We hit it off at once. Funny, that, because I was a grown woman at 44, with kids almost their age. But we got along like long-lost sisters.
Marion’s parents were in Italy, too, staying at the hotel. They had all come together - it was a celebrate-Marion’s-birthday trip.
They were fabulous – the mother was a big, busty, blond, slyly funny, highly educated white gal. She was one of those women who pretended to be air-headed flicky-handed flighty, but if you stuck around her for any length of time, it was crystal clear how powerful and deadly smart she really was.
Marion’s father was a studiously upright, very dignified black gentleman, diplomat to Holland from I forget what country, who had sparkling crinkly eyes that betrayed his hilarious sense of droll humor.
On my days off from carving, I joined them for their touristy jaunts, all crammed into their little Citroën. We zipped around all over Tuscany, seeing beautiful ancient arched stone bridges still in use even after centuries, little towns forgotten by time, lusciously rich vineyards; quarries, studios, and artists’ galleries; and other towns bustling busily with au currant art, fashion and incredible food.
We even went to a couple of the bath towns, although none of us were game to go into the waters.
I felt utterly bereft when they left for home at the end of their stay – they had made me a part of their family, and made my visit to Italy come alive in such a spectacular way.
Before I left for Italy, I was a darkish honey-blond with light streaks. Upon noticing that my streaks were growing out, I decided to find a salon to get them re-upped.
When they asked me what I wanted, I replied in my stumbling Italian, “un po piu bionde, per favore.” A little bit more blond, please.
An hour later, they swooshed the cover off my head and unveiled … someone who looked like that gal - Brigitte Nielson - Sylvester Stallone’s girlfriend.
What? I just wanted streaks, not my whole head done! I looked like someone had stashed the sun in my skull.
I couldn’t believe my eyes. I wanted to run back to my place and shove my now glowing-white head under my pillows!
But then I thought, no, I’m going to look like this from now on, might as well get used to it.
To appease myself, I decided to have a nice meal at my favorite restaurant. I usually sat in one of the back corners. I expected to be sat there as usual. Nice and quiet. With no one noticing me.
Uh-huh. Ha ha ha.
The second I walked in, Maurizio, the maître d’, came running over to me, wagging his skinny little butt like a happy poodle, exclaiming in his penetrating, oddly high voice, “ANGELA! BELLISSIMA! BRAVISSIMA!…”
And so on for seemingly centuries, until I’m sure the entire town knew where I was and that I looked fabulous, marvelous and miraculous.
Once again, the old inner-introvert was dying to cringe and escape, to go hide under the covers. But I fake-smiled my gritting teeth as he placed me. Right in the middle of the restaurant. I felt like a misplaced light house lantern.
But - it was there that night that I had my first ever serving of pasta con fungi con pomodoro - perfectly cooked 3″ square flat pasta, smothered in wine-soaked tomato sauce made in house from the fattest, ripest tomatoes you ever saw, with giant fat mushrooms from the local forests.
If there is any one dish I would fly half across the world to have, it would be that one.
I forgot my mortification and enjoyed every bite.
Continued in Part 6, where I was surrounded by 17 Rome airport Guardia, machine guns out and ready to fire….
text and images © Angela Treat Lyon
The Inside Secrets book series: Stories I’ve Never Told Anyone, Volumes I-IV, plus my audio books and a whole slew of free ebooks: https://atlyon.gumroad.com
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