Monday, January 9, 2012
Since Juarez and British Columbia can't really be considered faraway, exotic travel, my first real adventurous trip was to bella Italia my junior year in college. I studied a semester of Italian in college (the entire fruits of which you have just read in the previous sentence), and I dreamed of moving to be a missionary in Italy...you know, suffering for Jesus. So I went on a mission trip with my college buddies to help kickstart a new church that was being planted in the lovely city of Torino in northern Italy.
The missionaries starting the church had just barely arrived in Torino themselves, so we were helping out by visiting the university, chatting with students, and finding out if any of them were interested in this new church (a friendly way of saying "cold-turkey evangelism"). My partner was Daryl, one of my good friends and someone bold yet comfortable enough to make evangelism slightly less terrifying. Our translator was Ena, a to-the-point woman from Estonia.
What we discovered first in Torino was the espresso....machine espresso, but still wonderful to a couple of wide-eyed American college students. Each morning, our first stop was to the espresso machine on campus to get our fix and try to blend in while fumbling with our teensy little coffee cups. We learned that the silver coins with the gold middle were like gold - they could buy you one nice little cup of espresso.
It was in line one morning that we met Titziano - who seemed to me to be the breeziest, coolest person I had ever encountered with a devil-may-care attitude and a cigarette to boot. We struck up a conversation and started talking about university, life, religion, espresso, and everything under the Italian sun. He suggested we get together later in the day (over espresso, of course) to talk more and he would bring a friend, John Franco.
We met him and John Franco that afternoon at the cafe patio near the university to drink and talk. It strikes me now how unusual this would be in America. We simply don't (or rarely) meet strangers, start up a conversation, and then decide to just sit around for hours talking and drinking coffee. But to them, they didn't seem to view us as weirdo strangers wanting to convert them, but friends from another place and an opportunity to have some good conversation and a good afternoon. What a refreshing pace of life!
We met John Franco and Titziano for coffee several more times before we left. Each time we would say hello to John Franco, he would say "Hi, hi!" and wave both of his hands at us. He seemed to figure that since we say "bye, bye," we also say, "hi, hi." He would then say goodbye to us in the same fashion, but with "ciao, ciao." I still to this day wave both hands and say "ciao, ciao" to say goodbye to people occasionally. They have no idea what I'm doing, but I do.
One of the things I remember most about bella Italia is, of course, il cibo - the food! My first taste of gelato was under a colonnade on the piazza - the creamiest strawberry ice cream I'd ever eaten in my life. It was like butter. Strawberry butter. We stopped each day for lunch at a pizza place on the colonnade where we bought hot and saucy calzones with the euros jangling in our pockets. My first experience of Nutella was at our hostel, where Nutella and rolls were our daily breakfast fare. Meeting Nutella was a religious experience.
One morning, I had what has gone down in the history books as my "most embarrassing moment" - an easy out whenever this topic comes up. For although the memory doesn't smart anymore, at the time, I was agonizingly embarrassed. Daryl and I went to the bank to get some extra cash. I, with my handy little Rick Steves Italian phrasebook, completed the entire transaction in Italian and was rosy cheeked with smug pleasure. As I headed out, I saw a door with "uscito" written on it - Italian for exit - in green lettering. Green means go. Nevermind that there was another longer word before "uscito" that I didn't quite know.
I pushed out the door. Sirens went off. The whole bank went into lock-down. Apparently that long word before uscito was important. I had tried to go out the emergency exit. The small Italian man from behind the counter came out, splattering Italian all over me and pulsing his hands in the air in exasperation. He picked up a trash can and very loudly...and with feeling...plunked it down in front of the green uscito to keep the stupid Americans from making the same mistake twice.
It took a minute or two to get the alarm turned off and the doors unlocked, and in those two minutes, it felt as if every dark Italian eye turned on me and seared into my skull. When we finally escaped, I wanted to crawl under my hostel bunk bed and die. My rosy cheeks were no longer smug, but humiliated. The mere thought of walking up to any Italian strangers to strike up a conversation was simply too much for me, so Daryl and I spent the afternoon shopping along the streets of Torino with the white Alps towering over us in the distance. So not too shabby a day after all.
My overall impression of Torino was of its beauty. The city oozed romance to me. I realize now that it was simply atmospheric conditions, but it was simply lovely. This zero-humidity Colorado girl had never experienced the beauty of mist. Each morning as we walked down the green hills and passed over the bridge on the river Po, a pink mist hugged the city, making everything soft, friendly and mysterious. The harsh lines of the marble domes and columns were enveloped by the feminine mist of the river. It made me want to recite Italian poems, wear gauze, and eat strawberry gelato. (And move to Italy, of course.)