In 111 days, I’ll be in Italy. Between now and then, with the help of the World Wide Web, I’m teaching myself Italian. From “I haven’t done anything wrong” to “May I have another nectarine?” to “What is that thing in your right hand?” my online tutorials have placed me on the fast track to marginal competence.
While passing through a traditionally Italian neighborhood yesterday, I was poised and ready to practice my blossoming language skills. I spotted a caffe, opened the door, and the four or five men sitting in the middle of the smoky room abruptly brought their boisterous chatter to a standstill. They were the only people there and the vibe was very invitation-only.
I ordered a cappuccino. The dude who was the first to jump up went to work behind the bar. His amici resumed talking and I couldn’t understand one word.
I expected my drink to come in a take-out cup, but my host poured his delicately prepared mixture into a glass mug. By then, the rest of his crew had moved their conversation to a table outside. At one point, the most severe-looking member of the bunch stood up and peered at me through the window. As he saw, I was making myself comfortable on a barstool, the cappuccino in my right hand and a lit-up cigarette in my left hand. Not long after I had taken my opening sip, the host carried over a pack of Marlboros, a lighter, and a tiny Styrofoam cup for the ashes, setting it all down next to my drink. When in Roma.
“Where are you from?” he asked.
“Ohio. And you’re from Italy?” I asked.
That explained his confused expression when I grazie mille-ed him for the coffee. He was now traveling back and forth, in and out, from me to his boys. On one of his trips back inside, he got right up in my face to ask how I was feeling.
I felt 19 again. Not counting what may have gone on during a couple of after-dark escapades in the East Village this past decade, I haven’t casually smoked since one semester in college. I never fully inhaled, and many years after we graduated a friend revealed that everyone hated giving me cigarettes because I wasted them.
My handsome host, who speaks less Italian than I do, watched me closely enough to tell that I still puff like a poseur. He didn’t seem to mind.