Nothing Lost in Translation
My girlfriend Nicole spent most of her childhood in Italy. Her mother still lived there. After Nicole and I had been lovers for three years, her mother wanted to meet me. So, to celebrate Nicole’s twenty-fifth birthday, she sent us plane tickets to Milan. I arrived jetlagged, disoriented, and overjoyed to be in another country for the first time. I could hardly wait to see Florentine art—the frescoes looked like the visions I had begun having when I was twelve years old. As a boy I thought I was completely mad; but, when I discovered the art of Fra Angelico, Masaccio, Botticelli, and Michelangelo, I felt linked by imaginative correspondence with artists from that time.
After three days in Milan, we took the train to Florence. Nicole’s mom had arranged for us to stay in the very house where Dante’s wife, Gemma Donati, was born. Her home had become a pensione; a bed and breakfast, inexpensive because the bathroom was down the hall and because they didn’t serve breakfast. Unfortunately, it seemed as if the sheets hadn’t been changed since Donati married the Vis Poetica and moved out.
Nicole is tall, statuesque, with long brown hair, and eyebrows crisp with intelligence. Naked, she suffused our cheap room with splendor; her long legs, fair skin and blithe expression flooded my senses. I grabbed the bedpost in fear that I would float away. But when Nicole pulled down the covers, she gasped.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“The sheets are filthy,” she said. “Look, they’re covered with hair!”
“There, there,” I said and, attempting humor, I brushed away the hair with my hands.
“I’m not getting into that bed,” she told me. “Go to the front desk and get fresh sheets.”
I began to sweat. Nicole spoke perfect Italian. She was fluent in French and German. But I’m dyslexic and hadn’t been able to make any sense of the Italian phrase books, or the language tapes, I’d attempted to study before we left home.
“Sweetie,” I said, “you grew up in Italy, you speak the language. What if the guy at the front desk doesn’t speak English? Why don’t you….”
“David,” she said liltingly, amorous but firm.
Being independent and forceful, Nicole naturally expected me to rise to any occasion. I considered her breasts, round and lovely, upturned and beckoning. They assured me that her command was my wish. If I desired her favors, I must favor her with the ardor of my inventiveness. I braced myself and prepared to descend to the main floor to wrest fresh sheets from the tumult, the Babel of words.
“I’ll be back. Nicole, I shall return.” I bowed, taking her hand and lifting her fingers to my lips. Then I considered the bed once more. “I could just put my coat over the sheets.”
Giggling, Nicole shooed me to the door.
“I go,” I cried. “Lay on MacDuff.” Throwing an imaginary cloak over my shoulder, I set forth.
Downstairs in the little foyer, I felt apprehensive but determined. If I were to express the core of my dyslexia, I would have to say that language is a secondary form of communication. I knew very few Italian words: pizza, spaghetti, and cappuccino. Nicole hadn’t taught me the word for sheets because I’d never be able to pronounce it, let alone remember it. This was a game, a test, an adventure.
“Buona Sera,” the attendant said, as he stepped behind his desk.
“No speak Italian,” I said. “Just English.”
“I no speak English,” he replied.
I held up my finger and pointed to my watch. I held up my finger again and cried, “One momento.” And, channeling Charlie Chaplin, I opened the door of an imaginary bedroom, stepped inside, and pretended to take off my clothes. Yawning, I pulled down invisible covers, and jumped back in horror. The attendant chuckled as I cautiously returned to the imaginary bed. My hand, trembling, reached for the covers and pulled them down. I again recoiled, pointing at the sheets, the bed, then at the hair on my head. I showed him the hair on my arm and then gestured to the bed.
The attendant laughed, and asked, “You clean sheets, yes?”
“You speak some English?”
“No,” he said, “just words.” Then he reached under the counter, speaking. “Sheets, yes. Deutsch: bett laken, yes, sheets. Francais: literie, yes, sheets. Italiano: lenzuola, yes, sheets.” The attendant nodded with a smile as he handed me fresh sheets, towels and blankets.
I returned to Nicole, entering our cubicle with a heroic stride. I knelt before her, holding out the linens as a sacred offering. She kissed me and whispered, “I knew you could do it.” As we made the bed, I caressed her cheek. We made love. Fulfilled, we lay entwined.
Suddenly a gruff voice shouted in a strange tongue from the wall behind our heads. Puzzled, I looked at the wall. Then a reply shot back from the wall beyond our feet, the voice furious and feminine.
“What?” I asked. “What was that abo—”
“Oh nothing, darling.” Nicole’s voice rippled with sleepy mirth. “The Frenchman yelled, ‘Are you finished? I want to sleep.’”
“Really, he did?”
“Then a German woman barked back, ‘Don’t be a fusspot; the sounds of love are good. They soothe the spirit.’”
“Oh, God. I didn’t think—”
“It’s all right.” Nicole sighed. “The walls are thin.” She closed her eyes. I watched as she drifted away to sleep.
The next morning, I remembered it was Nicole’s birthday, and I didn’t have a gift. I leapt into my clothes. It was eight o’clock. She was still sleeping, so I left a note saying I’d be back by nine-thirty. Then, with excitement and a dash of dread, I left the room.
Since I have no sense of direction, I live with the ever-present fear of getting lost. My life is like the song Amazing Grace: first I’m lost, then I’m found. In a new city I use visual cues to mark where I am. I checked my pocket to make sure I had the pensione’s business card and phone number. The Piazza del Duomo was only a few blocks away and gift shops would be plentiful. Since the Duomo is visible almost everywhere in Florence, I only needed to take a sighting to find my way back to the room and Nicole. It appeared to be a straight shot to the Piazza. I scanned the narrow street, memorizing the stores around the pensione’s entrance, and sallied forth.
I wandered toward the cathedral, a slice of its red dome visible in the distance. Before long I was in the Piazza del Duomo, encircled by one of Florence’s main boulevards. The sounds of car horns, Vespas and buses were muted by the many aesthetic pleasures of the cathedral. The dome appeared insubstantial, airy, like one of my boyhood visions, yet solid as a mountain. The aged marble walls, harmoniously patterned with black and green stripes, reached up to embrace the cupola and I felt connected to all of creation. I sat down on the cathedral steps, the sounds of traffic in auditory soft focus.
A few feet away stood the Baptistery. The sculptor and goldsmith Ghiberti designed the Baptistery doors. Michelangelo is said to have christened them, “The Gates of Paradise.” Crowds of tourists were already swarming, trying to peek through the steel fence which protected Ghiberti’s high relief compositions of biblical tales. Closing my eyes, I listened to the melodious tapestry of language, a cornucopia of voices like bird song.
“I’d better get moving,” I thought. “I have to find Nicole a present. There’s more than one gate of Paradise.”
I explored the gift shops and carts around the piazza. T-shirts with images from Michelangelo, Botticelli, and Leonardo da Vinci were everywhere, but the colors were wilted like old flowers. Then my gaze was caught by a cascade of vibrant color. The window display of a stationery store offered blank books, picture frames, boxes and pads, even pencils, all covered in brilliant hues and designs.
“This is lovely,” I murmured, discovering for the first time Carta Fiorentina, a Florentine floral design famous throughout the world. Entering, I examined boxes covered with a delicacy of line and richness of color that called to mind the gold leaf illuminations in medieval manuscripts. Flower petals grew from flower petals in swirling circular patterns. Lilac gave way to sky blue. Blithe birds, open throated, called to gold-tipped butterflies. I picked up a book; the flower pattern was muted, more thoughtful, golden seeds coming to bloom within the petals. A green ribbon tied the book closed. I opened it and touched the paper, which was soft and silky, like a baby’s skin.
I approached the owner, a short elderly gentleman with round cheeks who wore a smock and spectacles.
“Buon Giorno,” he said in a friendly manner.
“I’m sorry, I don’t speak Italian. Just English.”
“The book costs thirty euros.”
“Thirty euros?” I stammered.
“You are American?” he asked.
“That’s thirty-five US dollars.”
“It’s exquisite. I’ll take it.”
The man smiled. He wrapped the book in pale blue tissue paper. As I reached for the door, I said, “Good morning.”
“Buon Giorno,” he said warmly. “That’s good morning in Italian.”
He chuckled. “Keep trying. It’s good to try. We Italians enjoy it when people try.”
“Primm Gormo,” I blurted.
“Delightful,” he said as I left. “Be brave, young man.”
Retracing my steps back to the pensione, I chanted variations of Buon Giorno to myself, as if it were some Kabbalahesque formula for uncovering the hidden name of God. Then as I saw the coffee bar across the street from our door, a wonderful idea came to mind, and I cried, “I’ll bring her breakfast in bed!”
I walked into the bar, found a tray and approached the counter. People stood sipping their espressos, some played cards at tables; merry voices filled the room. The customers looked as if they were old friends.
“Buon Giorno,” said the barista. He was quite tall and leaned forward on his elbows, awaiting my order.
“Bron Gioo,” I tried.
He nodded, smiling. The people next to me looked at him, then me, and smiled too.
“Prego, prego,” he replied in a kind of acknowledgment. Prego is a ubiquitous word in Italy. I’ve heard it used as a greeting, in thanks, and as an expression of courtesy.
“Do you speak English?” I asked.
“Cappuccino,” I said, holding up two fingers, and then, pointing at the brioches, I held up four. He smiled and brought me my order. I had euros but no clue how to use them, so I gave him a wad, trusting him to give me the correct change.
How was I going to tell him I wanted to take his cups and tray out of the bar? I turned to the people next to me, asking if they spoke English, but no one did.
“Oh God, so many people,” I thought. “This is embarrassing. Well, here goes.”
“Broom Geo!” I said in thanks and made for the door, tray in hand.
“No, signore,” he called in a friendly voice.
The roomful of eyes turned toward me, making me self-conscious, but they were friendly eyes. The warm ambience tripped a switch, and the imp inside me leapt out. I walked back to the barista, pointed to one cappuccino and two brioches, patted my stomach and smiled. Then, pointing at the other cappuccino and brioches, I raised my arms in the air and pretended to embrace and kiss my beloved, as everyone chuckled.
“Jesus,” I said to myself, “I can’t stop now.” Then, picking up the tray, I started to sing, “Happy Birthday,” and again began to leave.
“No, no,” the barista laughed.
I considered the tray in my hands, the barista, the customers. Then I took out my wallet and handed it to the barista. He stared at me, flabbergasted. I walked to the door with the tray. Turning around, I walked back to the bar, set down the tray, and extended my hand for my wallet. I handed it back to him once again; his eyes lit with understanding. He nodded.
“Prrgoo,” I said.
“Buon Giorno,” he replied, joining his patrons in clapping and cheering as I left.
Nicole was in bed reading when I came in. She looked up in astonishment as I placed the tray in her lap.
“Happy Birthday.” I sat beside her, holding out my gift.
“David, this is beautiful. Thank you, honey.”
“Prreegoo, Nicole. Broom Go.”
“How did you do this?” She laughed. “How were you able. . .”
“I left my wallet in exchange for the tray.”
“Do you think that’s crazy?”
“Oh, yes!” she said. “Totally wonderfully crazy, darling!” She kissed me. “David, I want to show you Michelangelo’s Florentine Pieta. Watching your reaction will be my birthday cake.”
The barista and Nicole exchanged greetings, speaking fast, energetic Italian when we returned the tray and retrieved my wallet. And then his voice became quiet, almost grave.
“What did he say?” I asked when we were on the street.
“He said, ‘It’s nice when there is trust among people who speak different languages.’”
“At the end he sounded like he was praying.”
“Yes. He was blessing our stay in his city.”
Allen Sherman is a writer, photographer and disability rights advocate living in Vermont. He co-wrote the play, Brighter Than the Sun, which was performed throughout the state. After receiving his Master’s from Dartmouth College, Allen taught Comparative Religion and Holocaust/Genocide studies at Community College of Vermont. He and his partner, Marion Nelson, are creating an oral history of the intellectual and creative community in St. Lucia WI. Their work has received praise from The Oral History Society in England. You can visit their website here: stluciaoralhistory.org.