"Siete morti!" You're dead. Plural you. As in: all of you who depend on the dollar.
Neither the cackle nor the words—unintentionally Italian—were meant to be malicious, but as Alessandro finished his verbal sketch of the Dow Jones' decline, they just slipped out. It had been a long hour of speaking English, or more often, inserting plausible English words into Italian grammar.
So eager was he for proficiency that he had called me within an hour of my posting on a local message board an advertisement for English tutoring. His only previous lessons were action movies and The Economist.
Fifteen euros per hour? he'd asked.
"Sì," I had cringed, ready to negotiate down to 8. "Fifteen euro all'ora? Ha!" He laughed with glee and called it a deal. Though I've given English lessons for years throughout my travels and studies, I had never charged such an exorbitant sum, if indeed I'd charged anything at all. It felt like a salary in itself—and a tax-free one, too—to show up most anywhere in the world and be understood, without translators or electronic dictionaries, without years of study or painful malapropisms or the slightest inkling of how locals count to three or yell "Help!"
I've been told that, decades ago, good manners in the European tourism industry entailed a local greeting for every traveler, no matter how conspicuously foreign. I wouldn't know. My Czech friends report having received hellos upon entering shops in Prague, and my Italian classmates have been asked for their orders in English at bars in Florence. I have been reprimanded after experimenting with some lovely new word or phrase: "Miss, we speak English here."
While this kind of response makes me want to evaporate or launch into a tirade delivered in perfectly Swiss German or Chilean Spanish, it's all too easy to forget that the person with whom I am speaking has likely spent years perfecting the language I thoughtlessly babble in to enhance our mutual understanding, whereas my repertoire of "Thank you" and "Where are the toilets?" yields little in the way of stimulating conversation.
Alessandro, for one, wants to improve his English so he can travel abroad. In fact, he wouldn't mind taking his family to the United States, where things will be refreshingly cheap. His wife has her eye on Miami.
"How do you say 'the wife'?" he asks.
"The wife," I say. "Your wife," I add.
"Your knife," he (almost) repeats.
"Your wife," I say.
"Your knife," he says again.
"My wife," I say.
"My knife," says he. His phone rings. "It is my knife!" he exclaims. We have made progress.
For both of us, the communication is worth more than the currency. If a falling dollar means feeling connections rather than just fumbling around as a foreigner, then I'll take it. And say thank you—in English.
The writer traveled to Siena, Italy, as part of UNC's Trans Atlantic Masters Program.