This is a story of a dream deferred long enough. I’d worn out every sensible reason for postponing Italy when, as will happen, my 60th birthday arrived. In my mind, birthdays involving a zero demand special attention. “You know what I want, right?” I found myself asking my dear husband Floyd.
“Another bicycle?” he asked hopefully from his armchair.
(I don’t mean to make it sound like he is a chair potato. We own three bikes apiece, and his are often and impressively used. He just likes being at home, is what the armchair reference is intended to convey.)
The very next day I mortgaged my car and called a travel agent.
The obvious next step was to learn a little Italian. People say it’s a good idea: native-speakers appreciate your efforts. It’s polite. I thought it only made sense that for a trip to Italy, the cornerstones of my vocabulary should be food-related.
Menus are often helpfully illustrated, and I already knew a few words for various Italian foods; but what if un cucchiaio were needed? Not to mention il bagno. And I had a great deal to learn if I were to be able to ask locals about their favorite ristoranti.
I found myself an Italian teacher, a preternaturally patient man from that very country. Every day I practiced with Rosetta Stone, and every week I tried to sputter actual words to Carlos. I kept trying to remember that David Sedaris’s accounts of learning a foreign language are hilarious. All I can say is I am eternally grateful to Carlos for instructing me how to order penne and not pene. (He said the waiter would know what I really meant, but he would probably tell the kitchen staff that I had ordered a penis and they would have a great laugh at my expense.)
Carlos also warned me that the Italians are not snobby like some Europeans are, and that as soon as I even tried to utter anything in Italian they would be happy and start talking to me in English. This could make it difficult for me to get in any Italian practice at all. If I wanted them to speak Italian to me, he said, I would have to tell them I spoke a language not many Italians can speak. “Tell them you’re from Croatia.”
For three months leading up to our trip, I daydreamed about Italy. I read about Italy, I looked things up about Italy, I read restaurant reviews for every town we would visit, I walked miles in Google Street View, I read dozens of recommendations about what to pack, I bored everyone senseless. I auditioned my picture-taking equipment, decided to take the “good” camera, and ordered lots of stuff from a company called Pacsafe so no one could slash my backpack or purse and run off with my photos or euros. I was thrilled beyond measure when one morning I awakened at about three as usual and my first thought was, Ho sonno.
Floyd began to worry that no real country could live up to such daydreams.
Fortunately, it turns out that my Italy is the stuff of daydreams. And as for all the rest, Rick Steves’s stuff is fun to read and extremely helpful with the practical aspects. His stuff puts me in mind of my Catholic high school’s motto: Quodqumque dixerit vobis, facite. Do whatever he tells you.
Of course, we did lots of other things as well.