Earlier this week I was rushing out the door to get to the post office on base before they closed. I had randomly-shaped boxes piled so high that they were towering over my head, and my only immediate goal was to make it to my car before they toppled over. Seconds after I placed the tower of boxes on my car’s roof I heard my name.
“Jessss-EEE-ka! Ciao, Jesss-EEE-ka!”
I whipped around to see my eighty-year-old Italian neighbor hobbling outside with a cane assisting her in one hand and a red pouch in the other.
“Ciao, Rita!” I said from the other side of my car, silently praying she’d get the hint that I was on my way out.
It’s not that I wouldn’t love to have a conversation with her, it’s that we don’t speak the same language—at all. I know un po Italiano (a little Italian) and she knows zero English, but still rattles off in her native tongue extremely quickly despite my efforts in asking her to slow down (lento, per favore). Unfortunately, my prayer went unanswered. Instead of leaving, she started telling me something very important, but I could only catch a few words here and there.
“Due (due-eh, which means ‘two‘) ;eeghie chiave (key) a; eihvnie aeavuiqp aperto (open) eighee via (street) a;kje buecae aeasge awegea. Ah, no capisce (ah, you don’t understand).”
In her little red pouch were about a half dozen keys. She kept opening them and pointing to our gate. Then she’d jabber the same thing again in the foreign language. I quickly tried to look up words in my pocket dictionary, but her words slurred together too fast for my brain to comprehend what she was trying to say.
For awhile I thought she was talking about locking our gate (we come and go often, so we don’t necessarily lock it every time—Dear Robbers, please don’t steal our stuff), but when I did the “locking motion” with a key she shook her head and started saying something else.
Our “conversation” lasted about five minutes, which is a long time when you don’t really know what the heck is going on. I smiled and nodded for the first two minutes or so and then gave up, realizing I couldn’t fake understanding. In the end she gave a long sigh that ended with a smile.
Her smile gave me a sense of relief and I told her I was sorry (in English, because I really need to learn how to say it in Italian) and started inching away towards my car. I hoped that “backing up” was an international sign for “I really need to get going now, but it was lovely chatting with you.”
Backing up worked and she politely said “Arrivederci, Jesss-EEE-ka” with a smile.
I echoed her “arrivederci” and started driving away. At the gate leading into our shared driveway I took caution and locked it as I left, still not sure if that’s what she was asking/telling me.
Fast forward to the next day. I was leaving—around the same time as the day before—and I heard the all-too-familiar “Ciao, Jesss-EEE-ka” come from my neighbors house. “Oh boy, I thought to myself. I bet I wasn’t supposed to lock the gate yesterday.”
“Lei come sta (how are you), Rita?” I asked her.
“Non bueno (not good)” she replied, and then used hand gestures to tell me that her leg hurt. I noticed, while she pointed to her leg, that she had her red pouch again. This time, though, she opened it and handed me two keys and pointed to the gate again. I took the keys and without using any words this time (thank goodness!) she shooed me towards the gate.
And that’s when our entire conversation the day before clicked and made complete sense. In front of me was a mailbox, but not just any mailbox: a mailbox with our name on it! I think Rita saw the light bulb flash on inside my head when I put two and two together, because before she went back inside the house she smiled, waved, and yelled “Arrivederci, Jesss-EEE-ka!“
We now officially have the keys to our very own mailbox, all thanks to a very broken conversation with my Italian neighbor!