Something happened as we drove  home the other day.

Skinniest two-way traffic in Borgunto

Returning from a routine visit into Fiesole to buy a few groceries and for Em to get a haircut, we rounded the curve just beyond the small town of Borgunto, home to the “bottle-neck capital” of Italy. To our surprise, an oncoming car flashed its headlights. It was broad daylight and we wondered, “What’s that about?  Was that a friend and we just didn’t recognize their car?” A few more yards and we encountered another oncoming car. Again, headlights flashed. “What’s going on here? Is there something wrong with the car that we don’t know about?”

Lollipop police

Then, just after the last turn off (and the final escape route) we saw them: Two police officers were randomly signaling cars to pull over for a routine check. Their style and flair in doing such a mundane task was actually a thing of beauty. They each wore the recognizable uniform of the Carabinieri, local police—navy blue head to toe, single-breasted blazer, silver braid around the red and white collar and cuffs, red piped epaulets on each shoulder, single red stripes down each trouser leg, a dramatic white diagonal sash, and black boots, where they store their little hand held “stop sign on a stick” when it’s not in use.

Carabinieri in action

We amuse ourselves by calling those ridiculous signaling devices “lollipops,” and so of course we refer to the historically significant and highly esteemed carabinieri as the “lollipop police.” Oh yes, they carry another piece of equipment at all times, a holstered pistol, which is classified as an “ordinary” weapon. But, as beautiful as they are, these dedicated enforcers of the law are far more than “eye candy.” They are the keepers of all things lawful.

We thought little of the request since we had all the necessary documents—title, registration, and international driver’s license—neatly stashed and at the ready in the glove box. We were seasoned “residents,” models of perfectly honest, part-time Italians with flawless organization skills. We had been randomly pulled over before, so this seemed somewhat routine. We soon discovered that it was anything but!  

The rule book looked sorta like this

One officer strolled over to the driver’s side window, while the second remained at a safe distance, evidently serving as the back-up “protector” just in case a fight broke out. The impressive figure at the window examined the neatly stacked documents in his gloved hand, and then without a word, walked over to his colleague. Together they looked at our documents as we watched their faces change from “cool Italians” to “puzzled police officers.” Then, after several minutes, they opened the trunk of their subcompact Fiat squad car and took out a voluminous book of rules—so massive, it took both of them to pick it up. One started leafing through the pages and then turned it over to his partner, pointing to a particular place on the page. His forehead wrinkled and eyes squinted. We laughed to each other thinking that maybe we had a couple of trainees on our hands. In previous checks, the officers had only made cursory glances at the documents. These guys clearly didn’t know what they were doing—or so we thought.

The first officer returned to our car and said, “C’è un problema. Parlate italiano?”  “There is a problem. Do you speak Italian?” Since our language skills were iffy at best, we said, “No.” We thought under-stating was the best strategy—they might feel sorry for us and let us go. 

Sidelined—our little car given a “time-out”

Without hesitation, the officer continued his explanation in full speed Italian. We clearly understood key words like, invalido, invalid, and knew that we indeed had a problem. We just didn’t know exactly what, yet. Time to call our friend and attorney, Barbara. After about 5 seconds of hearing our explanation, she asked to speak to the officer. We heard her muffled chattering and his responses. We understood quasi niente, almost nothing. The officer handed the phone back and Barbara’s instructions were clear, “You have no chance. You must pay il multo, the fine, sulla strada, on the road. And you cannot drive la macchina, the car—ancora, again. 

WHAT?!! A FINE?!! CAN’T DRIVE THE CAR?!! BUT, BUT .  . . 

A lot, but not nearly enough

Once we realized that we had to pay, we asked, “quanto costa, how much?” (Even tourists can ask “how much” but usually to buy souvenirs and pay the check after lunch). 275 euro was the reply, plus an additional 73 euro for something else, yet unidentified. Nearly 350 total! We asked, “How do we pay?” “In contante, in cash,” came the answer. 

Okay. Let’s review.

We just received a fine of over 300 euro that must be paid in cash right now. We usually have about 40-50 euro between us on a good day. We can’t drive our car to the bank in Fiesole to get the money. Our international driver’s licenses were useless. The only choice was to ask the carabinieri to give us a ride to the bank. 

The Shaq in action

At first they seem surprised, but soon realized that it was the only possible solution. So we climbed into the backseat of the subcompact Italian squad car, sequestered criminals locked in, and headed in the direction of town. One officer apologized for the inconvenience. “Mi dispiace per questo, I’m sorry for this.” Then, the other officer decided that small talk was in order, probably since they didn’t often have captive Americans on board. “Gioca pallacanestra?” We gave each other blank stares in disbelief. Then he offered in stilted English, “Bahs-keet-ball, you play?” Oh yeah . . . that question. Em is 6’5” and so it’s the single most-asked question of his entire life. (But in Italy, his height earns him the distinction of fetching top-shelf items at the grocery stores for many Italian mammas). The officer went on to say that it was his dream to play basketball—with Shaquille O’Neal. Shaq is 7’-1”. Mr Carabinieri is  maybe 5’-8” in his police boots. The idea made us chuckle but we didn’t let on—B-ball talk or not, we were still in trouble with the law. 

As luck would have it, the local carabinieri headquarters is directly across the street from Banca Toscana. Once out of the car, we headed into the bank before returning to finalize our paperwork at the carabinieri headquarters. Fiorella, our favorite teller saw the looks of dismay on our faces and immediately asked, “Che è successo, what happened?” We mumbled our new vocabulary words and phrases, “la macchina, multo, sulla strada, carabinieri.” She said, “Mamma mia! Quanto costa? She shook her head side to side, grimaced and offered her condolences with a deeply sincere sadness, “Mi dispiace. I’m sorry.”

Off to Driver’s Ed—Italian style

After making the report and paying the fine, we were told that neither of us could drive the car. The car documents showed that we had not done the mandatory revisione, which is the bi-annual service/safety check required by Italian law. Unfortunately, we didn’t know such a law existed. The car was to be parked until the revisione could be scheduled. In addition, they confiscated Em’s US driver’s license just for good measure, since we had resident status and were required by Italian law to have patenti italiani—the much dreaded Italian driver’s license. Oops! 

So here’s the riddle: Can a car, that can’t be legally driven, arrive across town for a scheduled appointment, when driven by people who can’t drive because they don’t have valid driver’s licenses?

Answer: Maybe.

This is actually a trick question. The answer is always forse, maybe in Italy, no matter what the question is.

A friendly hello, or goodbye—you choose

The two pleasant carabinieri officers kindly returned us to our car with strict orders not to drive it—except for our immediate drive directly home (that favor required some significant begging and groveling). We were under strict orders that the car was to remain parked until we were legally able to drive it again. We promised to comply as we climbed out of the back seat of the tiny squad car. Then, in one wonderful moment of total linguistic confusion, rather than saying “Goodbye,” Mr Carabinieri extended his hand, and in an effort to close on a high note of international accord, simply said, in English, “HELLO.”  Then he turned in confident military fashion and climbed back into his government-issued Fiat squad car. Their work was finished. 

They surely went immediately to Riccardo‘s bar for coffee, but as for us, our “problemi“ problems had just begun!

This is a true “Italian Moments” story that took place in Fiesole Italy in the spring of 2005.

You might be interested in another kind of “Italian car story,” except this one has a happier ending—called “True Italians.”

Our granddaughter spent last weekend with us.

Her heartfelt message

One afternoon, during quiet time, she spontaneously declared that she’d like to send her mom and dad a text. So we opened a phone and set the screen for texting. She immediately started typing and talking. It was amazing to watch her dexterity with the phone, as she narrated her intended message. It was sweet, heartfelt and emotional as she spoke, “Dear Mom and Dad, I miss you so much and send you love from my heart to your hearts.” Her little fingers danced across the keypad. Then, tiring of the meaningless jumble of letters and pretend words, she tapped the emoji button and was immediately delighted with her discovery. She quickly scattered out a smattering of images. Her joy increased noticeably. After a few minutes with many rows of tiny icons, we declared the message complete. Smiling at her accomplishment, she intuitively tapped the send arrow.

Needless to say, her parents were both thrilled and a little confused with the missive. We actually had to do a followup text to make sure they knew it was Rosie’s message and not ours. They later admitted that they seriously thought we might have sent it, which was a bit disquieting (uh, oh, we’re worrying our children now). 

Our sad-face message to Rosie

That next day Rosie went home and early that evening we received her bedtime text. She had taken the liberty (with some supervision) to send us one of her unmistakable messages. Thrilled but not confused, we rapid-fire returned a similar style text to our little communicator. We thought it was great fun to have another way to “play” together. Later that evening, we talked to her mom who told us how excited Rosie was to get our follow-up message, and that she studied each and every emoji carefully to understand what we were saying. Then, she turned to her mom and said, “They must be sad about me leaving. The very first picture is a crying-face.” 

Ah, the power of the image.

Curious, we decided to dig a little deeper into the origin of those amusing little snippets that so frequently lace and illustrate our messages these days. The word emoji actually comes from the Japanese characters forming the word “picture” or “pictograph,” The emoji idea was born in 1997, and the mother of that invention was the company, SoftBank. Erroneously, emojis were thought to have been originally “invented” in 1999 by the Docomo company, but that credit was incorrect. 

2018 Apple Poo
’97 SoftBank Poo

The dispute was finally settled—the credit goes officially to SoftBank. They were the first to create and circulate the initial “emoji set” around the globe. Those little short-hand graphics have become well known and widely understandable icons no matter what age or culture. SoftBank also claims proud authorship of the most iconic original emoji of them all: the “Pile of Poo.” It apparently expressed an essential and versatile sentiment, qualifying it as one of the original 90 emojis. Even today, after nearly 25 years, it still garners ample groans, chuckles and poignancy every time it pops-up.

Pure emotion!

People often assume that the word emoji was derived from the word “emotion.” Not so. But since they can, in fact, capture a complex emotion with condensed accuracy, those clever little symbols are pretty much ALL about emotions. They are tiny compressed Rorschach blots of colorful information with the ability to convey far more than words. They are power-packed arrows that aim straight to the heart of the matter. Emojis communicate where words often fall short. The subconscious has an uncanny way of pulling the essence from a jumble of stuff. That’s exactly what happened with our granddaughter.

It’s true. We were absolutely saddened to see little Rosie June leave, but couldn’t capture the feelings in so many words, “We hate to see you leave,” or “Come back soon, promise?” or “Call us later!” Yet, she got the real message with unmistakeable accuracy since the sad crying face was the first emoji on the text. With such directness, the “true” message was both sent and received.

How simply elegant!

You might also enjoy a related story with music called “Without Words,”

Fogged in

We awakened to a gray morning in the valley with fog just outside the window so thick you could see it hanging in clumps. Cheryl turned to me and said “Come stai oggi, how are you today?” “Sto male, I’m not well,” I said with a coarseness in my voice. It seemed that my sinus condition had worsened in the night and had reached a critical point. It was clearly time to see Francesco, our local pharmacist to ask what could be done for my deteriorating condition. 

We got dressed and went downstairs, and as was our custom, we flipped through the Italian dictionary to make sure that we had all of the words we needed to get right to the point. This was not the time for a miscue in communication—say it right one time, get some medicine, and then back home into bed.

Feeling well-prepared for the conversation, we got in the car and Cheryl drove us to Fiesole, the nearest town, where we hoped the pharmacy would be open. (We’ve been told by many shop owners that they are ALWAYS open, unless they’re not.)  I went in while Cheryl kept watch with the car, illegally parked on the sidewalk out front (that’s normal). To my dismay, Francesco wasn’t there, so I had to explain my condition to his associate/pharmacist I had never met before. I thought to myself, “My issue is rather simple and fairly common so it shouldn’t be a problem. With the season change, surely sinus issues are addressed daily.” With my confidence bolstered due to my self-reflection and recent language lesson brush-up, I approached the counter and stated my case. 

I’ll never forget that look!

I began my explanation in a pleading tone befitting someone not feeling well. I said, “Ho un’infezione nel mio seno, I have an infection in my sinus.” The look on the pharmacist’s face was one of both astonishment and confusion. Checking for possible errors, she cautiously asked me to repeat what I had just said, and so I did—loudly enough for everyone in line behind me to hear. Each customer was suddenly privy to the personal details of my condition. She then repeated it back to me in a questioning tone, with a look of slight repulsion, she began pointing to her breasts. What!?

My new best friends

Now, this really confused me. At first, as unbelievable as it may seem, I thought there was an outside chance she was hitting on me. Was I delirious? Surely, in my condition and in the pharmacy line, of all places, this could not be the case. Then, I instinctively pointed to my nose. Instantly, she was relieved about our seemingly imminent first date, and the issue was suddenly clear. There was an almost audible sigh of empathetic relief from all of my “new best friends” behind me. I turned and offered a polite but awkward smile. The pharmacist quickly prepared an appropriate remedy. I paid her in cash and gathered my gift-wrapped package (they sometimes do that in Italy and we have no idea why). I shuffled through the door, breathing a raspy sigh of relief, eager to begin administering my new healing regimen.

As I approached the car, I detected a look of embarrassed concern on Cheryl’s face. It seems that while I was inside the pharmacy, she was outside, practicing her reading skills. There was a large poster in the pharmacy window advertising a cream for breast enhancement. She had spotted the word seno and knew that I was inside at that very moment, asking for some help with my seno. Oooff. She knew before I did that, depending on the context, the word seno is unfortunately, the same for both sinus and breast (why oh why would they do that?) With 450,000 words in the Italian language, evidently, they couldn’t add one more? There was no pronunciation or even a grammar error this time. 

I’ll do better next time

To this day, I’m still troubled by the incident. Why, given the two choices between sinus or breast, did the pharmacist think that I meant breast, since I am obviously a man (I did though, at that very moment question my own masculinity). I was sure she could clearly hear the raspy nasal tone in my voice that indicated a sinus infection. Maybe I inadvertently placed my hand on my chest, giving her the wrong visual cue.

So from that day forward, I’m extremely careful to make sure my hand gestures are tightly synchronized with what I’m trying to say—just like any good Italian!

My body felt like lead. “Who are you? What do you want.”

Somewhere in the stillness of the night, I became aware that I was dreaming. Or was I?

Okay. I’ll admit it. I had a really tough day! A good night’s rest is often the best remedy when the “toughness” sets in, so we hit the hay before the clock even turned to double digits—which is really early for us. We usually see every double digit, and witness single digits again before calling it a day.

I was sure that sleep would offer me an escape from the day’s stresses—at least I hoped so. Usually deep and satisfying sleep is often a refuge. This night began with promise, but shifted abruptly shortly after drifting off. I steadied my breathing and remember the sensation of falling asleep and releasing the day’s worries. I was right on track in the beginning. I shifted my weight to the far side of the bed to give Cheryl and our little doxy Sara more space. I was hovering in twilight sleep.Then suddenly I wasn’t!  

Fast asleep

My nightmare began. I dreamed I was asleep in a long narrow room totally unfamiliar to me. All alone on a skinny single bed, I was peacefully slumbering, laying close to the far corner of the room opposite the door. Suddenly, the door opened and someone or something entered. In the darkness with dim shadows I saw it silently moving toward me. It was a pale creature, formless, yet weighty. Startled, I had the urge to wake myself from this terrifying encounter. I tried to sit up, but couldn’t move either my legs or arms. They felt like lead. Still groggy, I called out, “Who is it and what do you want?” But my voice was as frozen as my arms and legs. From my lips I heard a low guttural, creepy sound something like: “Bhough eez zhit ehhhh bwaht zhou whwanndt?” Needless to say, there was no response from the silent intruder. I struggled again to get up and confront whatever it was, but it just kept floating/sweeping toward me as if sadistically enjoying my night-time terror.

The “Entity”

The “Entity” swooped low at the foot of the bed, then circled around me moving ever-faster. Then it approached the corner of the bed close to my head. I could feel an icy cold air following its movement. I tried again and again to simply turn my neck to see it more closely, but all efforts were in vain. I absolutely could not. It sensed my growing fear and somehow hovered both behind and beneath me. Dimensions and depth blurred. In a fit of desperation, I mustered every ounce of strength, flailing in the air with my hands over my head trying to disrupt its sinister plan. In my last best hope, I took one great vanquishing swipe into the darkness.

I was jarred into semi-consciousness with the sound of a heavy steel lamp crashing onto the wood floor. I bolted upright, disoriented. At that point, the bright ceiling light came on, blinding me. Suddenly Iris was up and on high alert. She was awakened by the crash, but of course, the “Entity,” was nowhere to be found. The only source for the sound clearly fell to me. Boy, did I ever feel ridiculous!

At breakfast we gathered around the table to review the night’s events. I told Cheryl the sordid details of the intruder’s attack. Always objective and curious about dream symbolism, she matter-of-factly said that the “Something-Entity” may have represented my “Shadow” coming to challenge me. Would I control it or would it control me? My response was the same as always, to fight back. That is my fatal mistake, it seems. To disown the shadow sets up battle lines, as a war ensues that can never be won—by anyone. And, once again, I sadly end up attacking and destroying my own “LIGHT.”

Integration

Perhaps this little night-time vignette has finally made it clear. The only way for the LIGHT to prevail, is to INTEGRATE with the shadow. The power of the shadow is in its ability to provoke. If I’m not provoked, perhaps it will settle down. “Wholeness” is the only viable strategy. I finally got it! Then, I walked into town to the hardware store to get the necessary supplies to fix the broken table lamp.

Moral of the story: Rest assured, the LIGHT always wins in the end—eventually! Why not just let it happen sooner, rather than later?