Almost Lost in Translation

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!


  1. But the biggest lesson is that you shouldn't trust Italian mail!!! Maybe I'm just bitter.

    What an adorable story though, you'll pick up the language soon enough!

  2. Dear God that is what I miss least about living in Italy! I would have many conversations over the 3 years with our landlord who mixed her Italian with Albanian. I learned a lot of Italian but it would throw me off every now and then when she would do that. I loved living next to Italians though we learned a lot of ins and outs of Italy and our daughter even learned Italian by just playing with the neighbor boy.

    P.S. When we moved in to our house, Housing & the Shirt (at the time) told us NOT to put our name on the box outside because it's giving away that your an American (by your name). You will still receive mail there (like any speeding tickets or if you have your Telecom bill sent there)

  3. @hannah – your bitterness makes me laugh!

    @jusika it's actually what I love about Italy. I love not being able to understand and then having it all come together. Different cultures and languages, while frustrating, are beautiful. As for our name on the mailbox, we really don't mind. Besides, the way it's written you can hardly even see what the name is. If it becomes a safety issue, then that's another story, but our neighbors know who we are.

  4. Ha! There is a nice old lady down our street that tries to converse with me sometimes and I can only pick out about 25% of what she is saying. I always feel so bad.

    However, I'm sorry is one of the first things I learned, just because I knew I'd be apologizing often for not knowing Italian (and obviously I'm still nowhere close to fluent) Just remember, Mi dispiace (I'm sorry). 🙂

  5. I LOVE this story! Your neighbor sound like a really nice lady!

    The way she says your name reminds me of the way Nana and Tia would say my name.

    I look forward to reading more stories about you and your neighbor! I hope you are able to learn from her, not just Italian, but much more!

  6. I love Rita! I hope to hear more stories about her in the future, and I hope her leg is okay. Your mailbox is so cute, too!

  7. Haha! That's hilarious! I love it! I hope one day we get to live in a foreign country. I'd love to ACTUALLY be immersed in a foreign language to hopefully learn it, not just to make a grade in school–we all know that was long gone the second the class was over.

    By the way…I'm not sure if it's just me or not but your photos, etc. on your header are completely gone!

  8. hehe such a cute story and what a sweet neighbor you have. I have found in our 4 years here it doesn't really matter if you speak the language well or not. As long as you just try even a little that is what breaks the ice and lets the smiles flow and good nature come out in strangers.

    I find a lot people never really tried or give up. In my experience when you try they also try in good things come. even if you only realize what the conversation was about days later.

    I think your attitude towards it all and your outlook is great. I think by the time you leave here you will be chatting away with Rita easily. hehe

    Love the story.

  9. oh and like Melissa sai. New Girl.

    Mi Dispiace is how you say I'm sorry. I use it quite a bit. Mi dispiache non parlo bene …I usually get a what are you talking about you are speaking great italian..mostly because my pronunciation is great due to speaking spanish fluently. So I get a lot of confusion lol.

    anywyay its pronounced.

    Me-deese-pee-ah-chay something liek that lol

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