The Gods of Very Small Things – Italy 25 novembre 2004

So far, it has been an Italy of errands.

A three-train connection got me to Viareggio about 6:30pm on my second night here, but I had barely checked in before my spanking-new 110/220 volt converter blew a fuse. The timing was especially bad because I had just stretched out in bed on top of my heating pad, which I counted myself exceedingly resourceful to have remembered to bring, trying to recover from a gruesome attack of back spasms. The back trouble was, in part, the result of a day of prone fossil collecting in the chilly vineyards of Pisan Tuscany. In the shadows, the ground was so cold that I dug with my bare fingers through thin layers of ice.

Not to worry, though, at least not about the fuse; I had a spare. The converter, however, made short work of that one as well. Drugs it was, then. I had those as well. I downed a double shot of Doan’s — or, to be specific, the over-the-counter equivalent of Doan’s that Walgreen’s makes and which contains exactly the same dose of magnesium salicylate as the more expensive brand. Magnesium salicylate, I am always cheered to remember, is what we used to sprinkle into the water, back in Marine Biology class, when we wanted sea creatures to die peacefully so they could be preserved in alcohol. The magnesium salicylate caused them to spread out their tentacles or protruberances or tubercules or claws, relaxed and in gentle profusion, before you added the lethal formalin. In other words, exactly what I wanted to happen to my back, but without the death at the end.

In the morning, I go down to talk to the albergatore, Stefano, because I’m not exactly sure what kind of store sells fuses in Italy. You’d think: hardware store. But you’d be wrong–or, at least, you’d be vague. As far as I can tell, there are at least five kinds of hardware store in Italy–one for lamps and household lighting, one for elettrodomestici (small appliances), one for automobile components, one for plumbing and related supplies, and a fifth category which I’m reserving for everything else and which is almost surely more finely subdivided beyond my ability to discern–like those pitches only dogs can hear. I’m not counting the stores for cell phones, personal and home stereos, Palms, and other types of gadgetry–“gadget” having passed into the Italian language as a noun and an adjective.

In any case, in my experience, whatever store you think might be the right one, judging by the window display, it isn’t.

But Stefano doesn’t want to tell me the correct store and he doesn’t want to give me directions. He wants to give me fuses. He pulls out a small fishing tackle box which contains quite a few different types, and gives me a fistful. It emerges later, after I’ve exploded every last one of them, plunging the entire second floor into darkness with the last, that perhaps Stefano hasn’t checked to see whether the replacement fuses are actually 0.5 amp. (In fairness, the small letters stamped on the cap ends are awfully hard to read.)

Stefano does teach me a bunch of useful vocabulary, however, which allows me to stop calling each mysterious element il coso (the watchamacallit) and to start sounding like I might be someone who knows a spina from a fusibile, a stanghetta from a trasformatore. All of this is going to be terribly useful because it is now quite clear that there is no avoiding the Odyssey of the Hardware Stores.


When I wake up the next morning, Stefano is out on his errands, but he has left me a map marked with three blue dots where the stores are supposed to be. He has written in one corner “INAP,” which for some reason I take to mean “IMAP,” and which may in fact be “IMEP,” but in any case: None of them exists anymore. I take the sottopassaggio to the north side of the train station where I find a sort of “home-improvement row.” There are all kinds of stores–tiles and varnishes and carpeting and lamps and garden supplies. Not a few seem to have electrical stuff. All of them are crowded and in each of them, of course, one person waits on customers from behind a desk, while groups of other employees go into and out of mysteriously curtained back rooms, talk on cell phones, and generally give the air of being very very very busy.

The way it is in Italy is that I could probably barge to the front of the line and ask if they have my coso. People are forever pushing ahead of you “just” to get a form or ask a “quick” question (which is never quick) or to drop something off. I wouldn’t say it’s exactly considered good manners, but it’s not exactly discouraged either. In fifteen years, I have never once heard a clerk say, “Get back in line, bub, and wait your turn.” So the behavior is, at least, reinforced.

And yet, I’m so aware of being a foreigner and of talking funny and of not wanting to seem like a big, American jerk that I wait it out, edging slightly forward when there is the occasion to do so and trying to keep track of who entered before me or after so that, in the miraculous event that someone behind the counter actually says, “A chi tocca?” (Whose turn is it?”), I can authoritatively say, “A me.”

As a result, it takes nearly an hour to learn that none of the three stores I visit has what I need. What is more, at each place the clerk professes to be completely ignorant of where such a thing could be had in all of Viareggio, which might be taken, most generously, as the desire not to give advice that might turn out to be wrong. But everyone is willing to suggest where a person might, if he really wanted to and had some time to kill and of course making no guarantees whatsoever, wander over to make an inquiry because, non si sa mai, they might know something more.

Thus, the journey progresses in small steps and, though it takes me less time to reach my ultimate destination than it took Homer, one is nevertheless detained by directions that are (always) frustratingly vague and by the rituals of grazie and arriverderci and buona sera at the end. Which brings to my mind the observation that store clerks here generally seem most delighted with you when you are on your way out. They don’t necessarily greet you like a long-lost friend when you enter, but once a few words have been exchanged, they couldn’t be more sincere in wishing you on your way as one.

It’s a drama in miniature of the Italian notion of entering into confidenza with someone, which allows you, among other things, to forego the formal forms of pronouns and verb conjugations and to move to the point where you can darsi del tu. I’ve observed that transition any number of times with respect to my own confidenze. It always gives me a little thrill when it happens, but I never seem to be able to spot the exact moment when the shift is going to take place or, more precisely, the reason why. I like the feeling that there’s a mystery to unravel. I like the idea that there are steps to traverse in a relationship and I appreciate the recognition that talking to a waiter isn’t the same as talking to your best friend. It’s simply true, but in America, we act like it isn’t.

Most of all, I like politeness. Miss Manners is right: The only reason for all these little observances is to lubricate the natural friction of human interaction.

In the end, I get my trasformatore at a small, deserted store with a nearly invisible sign that’s on a kind of oblique angle at the end of a cul-de-sac. Someone had sent me there, but after wandering for a while I despaired of finding it. And then, there it was. My Palm had nearly completely discharged, so there was the practical reason for being relieved. But I also felt as though I’d surmounted some greater obstacle.

Non sa che emozione!” I said to the signora as I paid, relating the story of the two days and the ten stores.

Ah,” she said, “Lei è uscito da un incubo.” You’ve found your way out of a nightmare.

I’d say she got it just right.


Posted on 24 November 2004, in Italy, Italian, Italians (in that order), Tales from the Road. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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