Friday, April 15, 2011

Getting To Know the Neighbors

Leif has many friends here in Italy, and they all treat him like a favorite little brother. So we have been invited into many homes for dinner and I have finally become comfortable with the idea of sharing meals with people I know only slightly, but who love Leif and are willing to hold at least part of their conversation in English so that I don’t feel completely lost all evening. Two nights ago we were invited to dinner by the couple who live in the apartment below us. She is the sister of our landlord and they have both been kindness itself when we have dropped various pieces of laundry onto their terrace from our wash line. Well, I’ve never dropped anything. What made this dinner different than the rest is that these people don’t speak English. Well, maybe ten words between them, and they were pretty darn stingy about using them.

They are a lovely older couple who have their grandchildren over frequently and who have the most beautiful garden you can have when everything must be in pots. They also have the largest collection of umbrellas I have ever seen. I believe there are 6 different umbrellas crammed into the stand outside their door. Stefano is an amateur handyman and Leif consults him regularly, most recently about our hot water heater. Anna takes care of her grandchildren. She must do other things, but I still don’t know her well enough to ask what. I think they know about Leif from her sister Milvia and I know they are curious about me. I think that is what prompted this invitation. That, and Italians love to entertain. At least the ones I know.

So last night we took our bottle of wine and flowers downstairs. It is important here to never show up without a little gift of some kind and as I don’t really know them flowers seemed to be safe. I found some beautiful yellow roses tipped with red at the market. Leif always brings wine. Hmmm, maybe people don’t love him as much as I think. Maybe they just want the wine he brings? No…they love him.

My hands were sweating a little as we rang the bell. I may have been silently praying that they forgot and weren’t home, which would be very strange as Stefano had come to our door only hours before to confirm the time. It’s not that I didn’t want to have dinner with them. I just wasn’t sure how well I was going to handle a dinner entirely in Italian. This isn’t bad, a little fear keeps you on your toes.

So they met us at the door and we were ushered into their kitchen for dinner. Things were going smoothly. She made an awesome lasagna with a white sauce and spicy meat which we had with our Prosecco (spumanti for those who are wondering). I didn’t contribute to the conversation, but I was understanding almost all of it, which honestly thrilled me to no end. So I drank my aperativo and finished my lasagna and listened to the language kind of roll around me and felt just a little proud of myself. Big mistake.

The second dish was a beautiful rare roast beef sliced thin and peas with mushrooms and eggplant. We had a nice red wine with this course. I was still feeling pretty proud of my ability to understand the conversation when Anna turned to me, looked directly into my eyes and asked me a question. She probably thought I was having a stroke, I’m pretty sure I looked like a fish out of water. My mouth opened and shut a few times, my eyes bulged out of my head and not a sound came out of my mouth. I floundered (no pun intended) for a response. I tried looking at Leif for a translation, but she gave him A Look, shook her head and said “NO,” and waited for me to answer. I hadn’t understood a single syllable of her question. I couldn’t even remember what they were talking about immediately before that. I regretted that last glass of wine. I prayed for a natural disaster like a tornado or earthquake. Food poisoning. Anything. She just sat and smiled and waited. I was beginning to think we weren’t going to be good friends.

She repeated the question and I got a couple of words that time. No, I can’t remember what the question was, nor can I remember my answer. But I had taken the precaution of looking away as she repeated the question and that seemed to help. I think it’s the eye contact that throws me off. I continued to drink wine I was sure to regret as the conversation moved to other topics. She graciously allowed Leif to translate pertinent parts of the conversation, but she decided what was important for me to really understand. Direct questions continued to come without translation. I am no longer sure if I answered them correctly or not, but I’m pretty sure I at least made a stab at answering them.

I did understand when Stefano decided that we weren’t going to decide between the tiramisu and strawberries, but have them both. Nothing like a little sugar rush after a tense meal. The final nail in my coffin that night was the grappa, a shot glass of alcohol that can probably be used to clean engine parts. I have no idea if I even tried to enter the conversation after that, but have a sinking feeling I might have, with mixed results. Thankfully the meal started to wind down. Leif offered to take the rest of the tiramisu off her hands and she carefully stowed it between two plastic plates. I guess neither of them really wanted to have it around the next day as a temptation.

We drifted toward the door, everyone expressing (in their own special way) thanks for a good meal and great conversation and all. It might have just been my imagination, but I think they were looking a little relieved at not having to continue to try and communicate with me. As expected, they love Leif. I have a vague memory of climbing the stairs to our apartment, and even less about how I may have ended up in bed. Grappa makes me tired.

The good news is I no longer have to enter the stairwell and worry that I might not be able to communicate with my neighbors if I run into them.. I know that I can’t…

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