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.”

Rose Louise Kleis Martlage Henneke.

Rose at home

Wow! Quite a powerful name, don’t you agree? Of course, it is fitting, since she’s such a powerful individual. She’s definitely one of a kind, and today is her 99th birthday. If you were to meet her, we think you’d like her. Oh, sure, she has a few little quirks and peccadillos, but who doesn’t? And if you were to tally the pros and cons of her life, it would be HEAVILY weighted toward the pros—thereby making her an absolute “PRO” at this messy business of living. We’re impressed with her stamina and desire to achieve the sweet age of 99, and offer our congratulations along with a few hearty compliments on her admirable style as well.

A part of the dream come true

Born on April 3, 1922, she was Alice and Will’s third child making her the lucky last one in line to get the lion’s share of abundant parental doting, with the bonus of a big brother and sister adding to the dotage. She set-out to create the best possible version of the “American Dream” (which was impressed onto everyone’s psyche at the time). Her goals were simple: deep and sustaining faith, member of a church that she cherishes, a loving husband, healthy and happy children, and of course a safe and beautiful home in the suburbs. For her, it was a fairy-tale come true, and couldn’t get any better. Even as she lived her dream, she saw her fair share of sorrow and heartache, as well. True to  the custom of the day, when troubles arose, she just prayed, shed a few tears, then propped herself back up and started in again—powered by undaunted drive and persistence which was her hallmark.

Rose and sweet daughter Sue

She always told us she was going to live to be 100. We believed her, but never quite imagined what that prediction really meant or would look like. Now we’re beginning to get an inkling. So, in anticipation of her upcoming 100th year, it seems appropriate to honor her magnificent dream as she charges forward toward achieving her goal. We sang “Happy Birthday” to her this morning and she giggled. We don’t question whether or not she’ll celebrate the next one, because knowing her, she WILL, and possibly even set a new goal. She lives life with a Master Plan—the way she wants things to turn out. In fact, we always joked that she was a “dessert-first planner.” When creating a menu for a dinner party she would consistently decide on the dessert, then make the rest of the meal play toward that end. This upcoming 100th birthday is her “icing on the cake,” and you can be sure she’s in the “kitchen” making everything just right!

Cheers!

This story isn’t just about Rose, or the magical age of 100, or the goodness of a life. Rather, it’s about the power of vision, commitment and determination. Those qualities are readily available to all of us no matter what our name, stage or age. They’re free. Please join in a metaphorical toast to all of us—our hopes, dreams, visions and goals. “Here’s to the power of positive thinking!” Mom’s will-power and the way she lives her strategy is a model for us all. That unmistakable approach and style remains simple. She merely sees this complex world through “Rose-colored glasses.” Well done and happy Birthday!

We love you!

Note: The photo of the 99th birthday party was taken by T.C. Christenberry

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,”

Life is a puzzle.

Iris the Master Puzzler at work

Our daughter Iris has earned the moniker of “Puzzle Master—Master Puzzler,” for a simple and very good reason: that girl can really work a jigsaw puzzle like no one else! She’s been known to stretch across the table to pluck a piece right out of someone else’s hand if necessary. The small cardboard cutouts fly fast and furiously as she pops them in one right after the other. She uses color and shape seamlessly, rarely referring to the box lid for guidance. Upside-down, sideways, sitting or standing makes no difference. Oh, and by the way, she ALWAYS pockets one piece to insure that she gets to make the ceremonial closing play. That’s important to her for some reason, so we all automatically glance her way when searching for the last missing piece. She protests at first, then mock innocently checks her pockets, suddenly feigning surprise. Voila!! She produces the missing piece and righteously pops it into place—definitely one of our best family rituals! 

Each day a new piece

Of course, we see a similarity in our tradition of working family puzzles and working through the “puzzles of Life.” After all, every moment of every day we locate a new piece of the “Life picture”—like an opening into the future, an inviting doorway. We carefully check for fit and color-match, experimenting and perhaps asking, “Does that look right?” Even squinting or shifting perspective can leave us with doubt as we ask the person next to us, “I can’t tell, does that piece fit or am I forcing it?”

Rainy day discovery

While on an early morning walk after an evening rain, Em spied something curious on the brick sidewalk downtown. Oddly enough, it was a single jigsaw puzzle piece. How strange! But in that instant, the lonely lost part flipped a switch in his brain. He had been working through one of Life’s conundrums—searching for a clue, a missing piece or two that would lead to a logical conclusion. Suddenly, everything fell into place. Ahh! That’s the way it magically happens sometimes.

However, we’re not all master-puzzlers and we don’t always magically find the missing piece we’re looking for. Wouldn’t it be nice if Life came packaged in a box with a specific number of pieces and a picture on the front? Would you ever agree to work a puzzle without a picture? We think not. Yet, we patiently fit our lives together, piece-by-piece with very sketchy, if not absent information, all the while knowing that we basically have to work it alone. 

The missing piece of Life’s puzzle

Let’s face it, our little puzzling metaphor has its limits, but there are still some valuable insights: 1) Even though some pieces my be difficult to find, we have to be vigilant and patient to get just the right match; 2) don’t hesitate to reach across the table if necessary when you finally see what you’re looking for; 3) sometimes we need to shift our position to get a fresh perspective; and 4) humor with some good old-fashioned belly laughter is essential. But remember that there may be a trickster among us. Don’t get discouraged—because someone may have just slipped a critical piece of your puzzle into their pocket, momentarily hiding it from view. Rest assured that eventually all of the pieces will fall right into place. 

Following is a song we wrote a few years ago about this very process, called: “Fitting Pieces.”