Words and Pictures:
I came into this big world kickin n’ screamin in a small town down in the Ozark mountains of Arkansas, though it would be said by more than some that to call Berryville (pronounced Burrrvle) small is nothing short of an overstatement. As far as the eye could see, hill after hill, a dense forest of slender trees curtaining the sporadic clearings of farms and homesteads of what we called “the sticks.”
In one of those clearings was a chicken farm, and on that farm there was a young boy… who’s life was soon to change… The sticks acted as a Natural wall of sorts, separating Cityfolk from the Countryfolk, a concept that was conveyed as a comparison of Greedyfolk and Honestfolk. My closest neighbour being 12 miles down a dirt road, I grew up in relative seclusion.
Now, Carroll County is famous for Walmart & the Klu Klux Klan… the only real comings & goings were those of the occasional tornado. .. so you can get a gist of the cliché Ford pick-up trucks, moon-shining-Hill-Billies, and no scant measure of White Supremecy in the region. The racist bigotry proved to be an even bigger seclusion from any kind of foreign influence, a cultural wall that to scale would provide a glimpse to the mosques, amphitheatres, and bazaars far away in the distant lands that the people on my side of the wall branded as savagery, heathenry, unclean.
Yet I longed for the dirty savagery. Or at least a different view of life.
As luck would have it, and I suppose with some amount of gratitude to the fates, I was offered a Get-out-of-Jail-Free card. A chance to venture out into the world and explore the places that to me had been the stuff of books… maps in an encyclopedia, colours in travel books and heroes riding camels.
This Get-out-of-jail-free card came in the form of an airplane ticket, a poster board slip of liberation.
Even the drastically creative mind of a teenage boy, though,couldn’t imagine what was waiting on the other side of the wall. The sound of tires screeching as the plane bounced off the tarmac woke me from a day dream.
Fiumicino Airport was an urban jungle, a crisscrossing of travellers and natives. I made my way through a melange of Italian, Chinese, Spanish, German and French….. this way and that, my eyes and ears jumping from one person to the next in a joyous confusion of wonder. This was Rome. This was ecstasy.
This was a new forest of a different quality, the slender trees of the sticks had now become a thicket of travelling foreigners, so dense you couldn’t see further than ten feet and got lost if you weren’t paying attention. The rolling hills had turned to cobblestone streets and antique temples and churches, squirrels and song birds had become hordes of pigeons, and mopeds whirled by like the grazing deer of that wild forest now so far away, so far away and yet here it was… just in a different tempo.
It took me roughly 10 minutes to realize I’d been staring at a group of Italian girls chitchatting over a map. Olive tanned skin bathing in the blazing Roman sunshine, dark hair like silk moving in the wind. Out of their mouths poured a sweet melody that seemed to cling to the air around me. Their sentences were verses to a song, enticing me out of the culture shock that kept me stiffly where I stood. Even the seemingly monotone voice over the station intercom, which announced arrivals and departures, took on a somehow significant feel .
The bustling station denizens began to fade into the background of my mind, as everything but this melody of laughter and chitchatting began to sound more and more muffled. Having just begun my journey out of the shire; this yet to be nurtured wanderlust whispering softly in my ear, beckoning my indulgence in the rapturous symphony of its cultural nuances, leading me directly over a portly Italian’s Leather suitcase and onto the station floor.
Yet there on the cold marble, staring up at the ceiling between the Italian man’s bickering and the Spanish girls’ giggles, this culture shock faded into an epiphanous longing for discovery… A vice destined to iron out the fine wrinkles in my character’s fabric that were left-over from the small-town-closed-minded-ness. Mandolins replaced fiddles, and Southern drawl was an accent of Latin influence. Life took on a different tune… I would call Italy home for the next few years, diving as deep into its culture as I possibly could, driven by an unquenchable thirst for adventure, for the unknown. For a taste of a world beyond the sticks.
To satisfy this appetite, though, I knew I had to break the language barrier blocking my way. Learning Italian didn’t really feel like a new language, just a new way of putting sounds together to convey meaning. Unlike the limitless songs of English, I found that Italian speakers are more like conductors. It involved the whole body; the disposition of shoulders and a few simple hand gestures could communicate a message far across the room much more efficiently than one could by sound. I learned to communicate with my whole body, my whole mind, to communicate with my soul.
In 3 months I could speak with the locals. In the mornings I would walk down the small alleyway that led to Sergio’s Café from my tiny apartment. He had the local grandmothers make all of his pastries to feed the flocks of patrons who enjoyed his espresso in the morning, much like the pigeons on the tattered cobblestone piazza outside. This congregation would slowly turn from the pre-work crowd to a throng of old men, who had awoken late in the morning before heading down for an Amaro and a round of Tre-sette, the popular Italian cardgame.
One particular morning I was invited over, amid the raucous pensioners gesticulating like madmen in bursts of laughter, enjoying the fraternal taunting towards their fellow gamblers.
This would be the real test of my new language, and yet it was here that the rabbit hole that is the Italian language would go even deeper.
They taught me that the game had certain sayings that differed from accent to accent (which are more their own independent languages than actual accents), sayings that certain players might not recognize just based on where they were born and taught to play, though everybody knew the game.
Even deeper they taught me that the card game itself had a language of hand signals and facial expressions that allowed others to communicate the hand they were dealt to coordinate their play with other players, a language also characterized by nuances in origin and upbringing. The game was a cultural explosion of communication.
A flashback of my grandfather’s bluffing face behind a stack of poker chips as he taught me ‘Hold ‘em’ and ‘deuces wild’ made me smile, as I let out a small cough from my cigarette that scared a pigeon away from the table, apparently that meant I had an Ace.
I learned more than just Italian this way; I learned what it meant to be Italian. I learned a language that I would never use outside that rickety coffee stained table, whose sentences happened daily but never meant anything if not amongst that archaic card game.
Months later I sat at that table having cleared out my fellow gamblers for the lunch bill, the only verbal communication between us being that of jaunting and boasting and the inevitable conversations about what we were eating, what we ate yesterday, and what we’re going to eat tomorrow. I had a huge grin on my face, realizing how different life had become. Ready to embrace whatever this juvenile adventure had to offer.
Serendipitously, at that exact moment, a friend walked over with a coffee and pastry in hand, without saying a word he grunted hello as was the local dialect.
I could see the Alitalia aviation standard out of his pocket as he sat down. With grandiose performance he pulled the plane tickets out of his pocket, slamming them open in front of me. I stared down and back up at him, then again back down at the two tickets. Next stop Catalonia.
“Eh si Eh…. Barcellona”