Sometimes the basics of another language are all you need.
My husband, Joe, and I board the train in Naples behind a pack of uniformed, fully armed carabinieri, images of the Italian Wild West, Michael Corleone and Tony Soprano dancing in our heads. We picture the potential for some seriously illegal transactions on this particular itinerary: Naples bound for Sicily.
Our train travels down the boot to its toe and eventually on to Taormina, our Sicilian destination. The trip will take seven hours including the two-mile ferry trip to the island across the Strait of Messina. We discuss the merits of building a tunnel but it makes no seismic sense, our guidebook says; the earthquake-prone region categorically rules out the possibility. But then we read the real reason is that organized crime controls the crossing and they like the status quo.
We stop at Villa San Giovanni at the western tip of mainland Italy. She boards the train with great flourish and an oversized valise. Joe and I are in deep conversation about the logistics of our arrival in Taormina and simply say, "Buongiorno," after helping her hoist her bag onto the rack overhead.
We finally arrive at the terminal where they split the train into two and roll the cars onto rails in the ferry's cargo hold. This impressive engineering feat can take some time and during the process, our carriage loses power (no lights or air conditioning), adding an element of the sinister to the experience. Joe, a ship engineer, ever interested in anything marine, goes off to observe the transfer logistics. I stay in our darkened train compartment to chat with the 30-something young woman sitting across from me. Once it's just the two of us, she asks brightly, "Dove alloggia lì Sicilia?" She wants to know where we'll stay once we arrive on Sicily.
"We have a hotel in Taormina," I reply, "the Bel Soggiorno." And just like that, we establish an understanding for the conversation that ensues. She will speak in her melodic Italian and I will respond in English, each of us knowing just enough of the other's language to understand but not speak.
She gushes that she loves the Bel Soggiorno, telling me the views of Mount Etna are spectacular and the terrace looking over the sea is so romantic. "I'm happy to hear that," I respond, "because our room is only $80 and I was afraid it would be a bit dumpy." "Oh no," she tells me in Italian. "It's just that it's early March and rates are very low."
Her name is Carolina, the Italian version of our daughter's name, so I like her right away. She's of that breed of seriously overweight women who don't behave like they're heavy: she's confident, has perfect makeup, is dressed to the nines in bright colors, wears high-heeled suede boots, and carries herself with panache. She knows what to do with what she has, maximizing her assets, as the Italians like to say, in true Italian bella figura style.
Our conversation is a particularly satisfying lopsided exchange because we manage to share so much in spite of our Italian-English volley. I fill her in on Joe's and my gap year traveling through Europe, she teaches me the lovely, lilting Italian pronunciation of Sicily (Sicilia--See-CHEE-lya) and I explain the geography of the States. Like many Europeans, the two places she is most anxious to visit are New York City and California. She asks if she can see them both in a week. I smile, draw a map on the back of her ticket and explain just how far apart they are, suggesting she needs at least three weeks to see them properly. "It's almost 3,000 miles from New York to San Francisco," I tell her and California is a big state. She responds with a laugh, "Allora, mi prendo tre settimane!" Then I'll take three weeks!
We leave the train for a quick look at our passage across the water, but the wind is fierce, kicking up whitecaps, and we quickly return to the dim warmth of our compartment. I learn that Carolina lives in Naples - she's a native Neopolitana, who works in an art gallery -- and is headed for a long weekend in Taormina to visit her boyfriend. She makes the trip once a month and he travels north with the same frequency to see her. I ask if she thinks she'll marry him and she tells me with a wink that she hopes they'll get engaged this weekend. "Bravo," I respond with a giggle and a clap and then ask about a luna di miele - a honeymoon. Before I finish asking, she says, "Capri," accent on the first syllable. "Andiamo a Capri."
I mentally say a quick thank you to my French and Spanish teachers over the years. Knowing these two Romance languages paved the way for this delightful conversation in Italian.
Joe finally returns to his seat once the train is reconnected in Messina for the final leg of our all-day journey. After another twenty minutes, we descend with Carolina onto Taormina's platform as she drags her bright pink, hard-shelled suitcase, the travel of choice of so many young Italian women, behind her. She kisses my cheeks, turns and waves, warbling, "Goodbye," and I call, "Arrivederci!" She embraces her beloved and then ducks into his red sports car. I follow Joe to the taxi stand, imagine a honeymoon on the horizon, and soon we're winding up the hill to the Bel Soggiorno.