I was only three weeks into my Peace Corps training when my host family invited me to a funeral. Funerals are never easy, but this one was particularly awkward. I didn’t know anyone, and my Spanish at the time was muy mal. Mourners were saying things like, “He was such a kind and honest man; he was a gentle and loving father; and he represented the very best of our unique Andean culture.”
I wanted to contribute something, but I didn’t know what to say or even how to say it. I racked my brain for an appropriate condolence. Finally, I came up with the generic, “¡Qué pena!” or “What a pity!” Instead though, I blurted out, “¡Qué pene!” I was only off by a letter, but it made a world of difference. I said, “Yeah, and he had a huge penis!” The somber procession erupted into raucous laughter.
Two years earlier, I had had a similar experience – an experience that also taught me a valuable lesson about the importance of language…
My junior year in college, I spent a semester abroad. I was a history major and my dream was to study in Rome. I wanted to walk in the footsteps of Julius Caesar, Marcus Aurelius and Constantine the Great, read Virgil, Catulus and Ovid from the famed Seven Hills, race around the Circus Maximus like Charlton Heston in Ben Hur, and stammer like I, Claudius in the sibyl’s cave…
So, I took off a semester, took on a few extra jobs, and saved up enough money for the trip. Unfortunately, when I arrived in Italy, the dollar collapsed against the Lira like the Roman Empire to the barbarians. I ended up living off plain pasta and boxed Frascati. So much for bread and circuses!
In the morning, I studied ancient history, architecture and art. In the afternoon, there were classes in Italian and Greek, but I skipped those. I figured six months wasn’t long enough to learn a new language. And besides, “When in Rome…”
One weekend, I squirreled together enough cash to join friends on a quick excursion to Florence. We’d check out the Uffizi, gawk at Michelangelo’s David, and drink Lambrusco on the Ponte Vecchio. We left on Friday. By Sunday, I was as broke as a plebeian. I couldn’t afford another night at the hostel, so I spent the rest of my lire on a train ticket back to Rome. My friends would return the following morning.
As the train left the station, a porter came by to punch my ticket. I then closed my eyes and went to sleep.
When the train came to a stop, I looked out the window and saw a sign that read, “Uscita.” I didn’t know the town, but I assumed it was on the way to Rome. I thought I had taken the express train, but apparently I hadn’t. I closed my eyes and went back to sleep.
A few minutes later, the porter woke me up to stamp my ticket again. When I handed it to him, he said, “Scusami, Roma was a backa der.” He pointed over his shoulder.
“That was Uscita,” I corrected him.
“No, uscita meansa exit,” he said in broken English. “We now a go to Napoli. It a costa mora lira.”
“My dispach,” I said, “but I don’t have mora lira.”
“It’s mi dispiace,” he corrected me. “Come a dis away.” The porter escorted me to a detention car at the back of the train. In Naples, he transferred me to a proper “debtors’ prison” in the station. I was thrown into a cell with about ten other deadbeat travelers.
“Trying to make light of the situation, I turned to my fellow inmates and declared, “I’m Spartacus!” To my surprise, no one repeated the line. They obviously hadn’t seen the classic film by Stanley Kubrick.
I then tried a bit from The Life of Brian, and asked, “What did the Romans ever do for us?!” After a long uncomfortable pause, I said, “All right, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh-water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever really done for us?” Again, there was nothing but crickets!
An old man, obviously feeling sorry for me (and my disastrous comedy routine), handed me a loaf of stale bread and some hard cheese. “Grazie,” I said. I then quipped, “This is no dolce vita?!” The old man just shook his head.
Over the next two hours, I plotted my escape. Like Steve McQueen in Papillon or Tim Robbins in The Shawshank Redemption, I was determined to win my freedom! I asked the “warden” if I could use the bathroom. There, I discovered a tiny window used for ventilation. I knocked out the frame and squeezed through the hole. On the outside, I ran for a train heading in the other direction and hopped on like a hobo. (Hopefully all tracks, like all roads, led to Rome?) I ducked into a bathroom, locked the door and sat on the toilet. Whenever anyone knocked, I grunted and heaved like a hippopotamus in heat. When the train stopped, I bolted out the door and ran like the fugitive that I was.
I then hopped on a bus heading toward the university. At the next stop, an inspector got on, something that rarely happens in Rome. I took out my monthly pass, only to discover that it had expired about five hours earlier. He kicked me off.
Walking along the Tiber as the sun slowly climbed over the Seven Hills, I thought to myself, “This was no Roman &%#@Holiday!”
When I finally arrived at the dorm, my roommate was already back from Florence. “What the hell happened to you?” he asked.
“I missed the exit for Uscita,” I confessed.
“That’s molto brutto,” he said.
“Sì,” I said.
That afternoon I sat in on my first class of Italian for Beginners…
Folwell Dunbar is an educator from New Orleans. He knows how to say “what a pity” in Spanish and “exit” in Italian. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org