A Key by any other Name by Elizabeth Moore
“I’ve still got the key from my hotel in Rome,” said my brother as he showed me some rather impressive ironwork that looked like it could have opened an ancient medieval portal with ease.
“What are you going to do?” I asked. “I’m guessing you’ll have to post it back.”
“I was thinking of asking Raffaella if she’d mind doing that when she’s in town tomorrow,” he said.
We were standing at the balcony window in my apartment in La Volpe e L’Uva, a farm house just outside Perugia, looking across the valley to the outskirts of the city. We were halfway through a week of Italian cooking classes with the delightful Raffa, who opened her house weekly for lessons and generous samplings of her region’s cuisine.
“You can’t ask her. Seriously, she has her hands full with classes in the morning and shopping and preparation for the following day each afternoon.” I looked at my brother who was still turning the heavy key slowly in his hand. “We’ll be in Perugia tomorrow after we visit Assissi. Let’s find out where the post office is and sort it ourselves.”
“Are you sure?” He looked doubtful.
“Well, it’s better than asking our hostess. We’ll be fine.” I nudged his shoulder and turned towards the small table, refilled our glasses and made sure the table was set. Tonight was my brother’s turn to cook and I was looking forward to one of his amazing meals.
When we decided to holiday in Italy and have a week in Umbria for some cooking classes, I decided conversational Italian might help and enrolled in an evening course three months before we left Australia. I had learned French in high school and was relieved to discover that the language followed many of the same grammatical rules. I learned the obligatory days of the week, how to ask directions, count and order food. I did not, however, learn how to ask about sending a parcel to Rome or buying a post bag. How hard could it be?
Armed with my Lonely Planet phrasebook and a handy translation app on my phone, I worked out what I needed to say to our hopefully user-friendly postal employee and ran the phrases through my head the next day while we explored the beautiful city of Assissi. The narrow walkways were gently sheltered by walls and windows sprawling their summer flowers to the cobbles below. In turn the winding alleys led us down to the Church of St Clare, the Piazza del Comune and finally the imposing Basilica of St Francis. Rain threatened and as we waited for our transport at the end of our tour and I quietly revised my phrases. I just hoped I would remember them.
As our van climbed the impossibly narrow streets of the walled city of Perugia, I managed to ask our driver for directions to l’ufficio postale and when he parked his van at our drop off point, he pointed to a rather impressive building further along Piazza Giacomo Matteotti. Three arch ways waited patiently for customers at the top of a short flight of steps, their iron grill work opened for the working day. Summer travellers sat in the welcome afternoon shade, their backpacks resting on the stone steps, maps and mobile phones offering up suggestions for further exploration of the town.
We entered and immediately noted that the gracious vaulted ceilings and cool marble flooring had made way for modern inclusions. Smart counters and efficient ticketing machines shared space with inviting posters outlining the many services on offer and we dutifully took a number and waited our turn. It wasn’t busy but it seemed that those already being attended to by staff had much business to do or perhaps a difficult postage problem to solve, and so we waited.
Finally our number was called and we walked to the counter to be greeted by a rather efficient looking gentleman who looked at us expectantly.
“Vorrei inviare un pacco a Roma,” I began. Well I didn’t want to send the package, my brother did but no matter.
“Ah,” nodded our postal clerk.
“Vorrei comprare un pachetto postale.” Yes, we needed a post bag.
“Che cosa?” well it was something like that from memory. What were we sending?
I held up the key, “Una chiave.”
He nodded. Well that went well.
And then I was subjected to what most travellers fear, where a little bit of well-rehearsed conversation is met with a deluge of the local language in return. It was rapid fire and seemed to go on and on. All I caught was Mercoledì and Venerdì, days of the week I had managed to learn during my six weeks of evening classes with the indomitable Signora Marchetti.
“What’s he saying?” whispered my brother.
Oh dear, and just when it seemed to be going so well. “OK,” I said, gathering my scattered wits. “So – hmm – if you want to send it express it will get there on Wednesday, normal post will have it in Rome on Friday.”
“Normal is fine,” my brother replied.
I turned to the staff member and smiled, “Venerdì”.
“Si, signora,” he nodded as he reached for a post bag and the necessary paperwork.
Imagine. I had salvaged enough basic vocabulary to complete the exchange despite his barrage of Italian. Context. That was it. I had managed to keep our exchange in context.
My brother filled out the required forms and handed over what seemed to be rather a large amount of money for a key on its way to Rome. As we headed back down the steps to the roadway he turned to me. “Thank you. That was impressive. I knew you’d been learning Italian but...”
I interrupted him with a gentle pat on his shoulder, “I think,” I paused on the circular cobbles, “That we should find somewhere pleasant to sit and order some wine.”
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