America is a Different Country
Two old Italian women were confused about where they were going and were arguing about it. They were sitting together at the back of the people mover. The first one, who was wearing a black shawl and a red jacket, was adamant they were heading toward the C and D gates, which was not where they wanted to go. She was admonishing the second woman, who was wearing a blue blouse, a white skirt and several brightly colored rings, for getting so hastily onto the people mover. She was also asking, aloud and to everyone in the people mover, in Italian, Why anyone would have designed an airport this way? Were people stupid?
The airport was large and very busy, and a number of terminals were set off from the main building. The airport was building an underground rail system that would connect all the terminals, but the project was behind schedule, so everyone had to take the people movers from the main terminal to one of the auxiliary ones. The people movers themselves looked ungainly and illogical: a body like a double-wide subway car set high on a dump truck chassis with enormous wheels. The interior of the people mover was carpeted, with bench seating covered in the same material as the carpet. The carpet had an intricate geometric pattern of little blue chevrons in parallel lines atop a field of red and gray interlocking squares.
The two women weren’t going to the C and D gates. They were going in the right direction, and I wanted to reassure them.
I cleared my throat and said in Italian, “Excuse me, but you’re going the right way.”
The women looked at me in surprise. I still spoke Italian with the awkward grammar and funny, robotic pronunciation of a foreigner, but I knew enough to be conversational.
“Parla?” the second one, the one in the blue and white said. She used the formal with me, even though I was much younger than her.
“Un po. Di dove sei?”
“Genoa, in Liguria. E tu?”
“Seattle. Ma ho vissuto a Roma per tre anni.”
The woman in the red said she hated Rome. The woman in the blue scolded her. I said, No, I hated it too. I was there for school, and then for a job. They smiled and nodded.
Other people on the people mover were looking at us. I thought they might be impressed. The old women poor hearing—the one in red kept cupping her hand to her ear—and I had to half-shout most of what I said to them.
They were going to New York to visit the woman in blue’s daughter, who was having her first child. I wished them congratulations. The woman in red smiled, but the woman in blue frowned.
“She is no married,” the woman in blue said loudly in English. A few more passengers turned and looked at us.
“L’America é un paese diverso,” I said, as gently as I could. The woman in blue scowled at me, and stopped speaking almost entirely. The woman in red tried to re-engage her friend, but it was impossible. I had offended her. I tried to apologize, but I lacked the vocabulary to do so in a convincing, emphatic manner. Instead I used a more conversational phrase usually used when talking about bad restaurants or long days at work.
“Fa schifo,” I said, which meant, loosely, “that sucks.” It didn’t make things any better.
The people mover arrived at the terminal. The woman in blue got her things together quickly and walked toward the exit. I got my bag and helped the woman in red up, and then walked with her into the terminal.
Neither of us could find the woman in blue when we got into the main area of the terminal, and the woman in red became angry. She said they were going to miss their flight, which was leaving in only a few minutes.
“Ho detto la cosa sbagliata,” I said.
“She is stupid,” the woman in red said in English. “She is very… determine?”
“Stubborn,” I said.
“Yes. Good. Stubborn.”
“Dami il tuo biglietto,” I said. The woman in red handed her ticket to me. I realized that, throughout the course of our entire conversation, I had forgotten to use the formal with them. They hadn’t seemed to mind. I looked again at the ticket. Their gate was close, just a few hundred feet away.
The woman in blue emerged from a Cinnabon holding an enormous iced coffee, which seemed even larger in her stubby, ring-adorned fingers.
“Lucia!” The woman in red said flatly, holding up one hand and snapping. It struck me that an American woman would have waved her hand, raised her purse, or shouted. But the woman in red merely snapped and Lucia saw her.
“Scusa per me,” I said in Italian as Lucia approached.
“Ah,” the woman in red said, dismissing me, but I insisted.
She looked at me and finally nodded.
I thanked her, and waved at Lucia, who was still slowly approaching. She was kind enough to raise her coffee to me and then the two women made their way through the terminal together toward their plane.
Willie Fitzgerald is the co-founder of APRIL, an annual festival of small and independent publishing in Seattle. His work appears in Hobart, City Arts, Poor Claudia's Ten Sources, and elsewhere.