February 28, 2013

Cashing in

A few mornings ago, while pulling out my wallet to pay for a cappuccino, I came to the dismaying realization that I had absolutely no money left.

Of course, that’s not entirely true. In reality, there was a little wad of several fifty-Euro bills tucked between my Visa card and my bank card, the Visa having laid nearly dormant since my arrival in Rome and the bank card useless except as a means to withdraw still more fifty-Euro bills from the ATM. The problem was that any attempt to use one of those bills to buy something costing less than, say, forty Euros in total had proved to be an exercise in frustration and rejection rather than an effective commercial activity, effectively rendering the bills themselves almost worthless.

I’m not quite sure what it is that makes Italian shopkeepers react so negatively towards large bills. It’s almost as though they’re scared of reaching into a specific section of their cash registers, or worried that accepting a fifty-Euro bill now means possibly not having enough small change to give to someone else at some unspecified point later in the day. Try sliding a fifty across the counter to pay for your lunchtime panino, and you’ll find it handed right back to you along with a not-so-apologetic claim of “non è possibile!” and a request for more exact change.

And so I’ve begun to adapt: I hoard small change, which will be doled out in exchange for cornetti and bus tickets and endless shots of espresso. The twenty-Euro bills are strategically used in a way that’ll maximize the number of highly-versitile five- and ten-Euro bills returned as change, and – because very few things in day-to-day life here cost anywhere close to an amount justifying a larger bill – the fifties are continually pushed to the back of the wallet, where they’ll languish, unused, until one day…

…I reached into my wallet to pay for the cappuccino and realized that there was no more change left, no more small bills to use up. Even scrabbling around at the bottom of the purse, a dark wasteland which at times can yield truly amazing amounts of cash, barely resulted in enough coins to cover a caffè. It was inevitable – the next purchase was going to have to break a fifty.

This was where the strategic planning always came into play.

I could not hand over the fifty in the forno, where the formerly sour-faced cashier and I have formed a sort of tentative friendly bond based on the way she always laughs at how I buy the exact same thing every morning then always pay for it with a one-Euro coin; she slides the ten cents of change towards me before I’ve even had the chance to dig my wallet out of my purse – and sometimes, before I’ve even had a chance to place my order.

I couldn’t use the bill at the bar, because, well, I like their coffee and their cheerful morning banter too much to throw a wrench – or an over-valued piece of paper – into their cash register. Besides, if there’s one thing you don’t mess with, it’s the place that produces your morning dose of caffeine.

Also off-limits were the market (where any amount larger than ten Euros sets off a chain reaction of one vendor walking over to another to try to hunt down the correct change) and the grocery store (where, as far as I can tell, the only hiring criteria they rigorously adhere to is perpetual grumpiness).

In the end, as I have before, I used the fifty-Euro bill to buy a ball of mozzarella di bufala costing all of €4.50 in the tiny little cheese shop just off Campo de’ Fiori. Because at that cheese shop, there’s a lovely little old man who sits behind the cash register, carefully counting out change all day long with a big smile plastered on his face while his family handles the cheese selection and slicing activities. I suspect that he might not remember quite everything, otherwise he might not be so quick to hand me a stack of ten-Euro bills in exchange for my fifty. But whatever the reason, he’s always still smiling while the cash drawer slides shut, and I’m smiling as I saunter out of the store with my newfound purchasing power, and all is once again right in the universe – well, at least until the next trip to the ATM.

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February 15, 2013

In viaggio

My taxi driver took to the early-morning roads like they were a cobblestoned racetrack, careening around fountains, hurtling over potholes and streaking past Rome’s parade of monuments fast enough to blur them all together. We roared up to Termini with exactly ten Euro on the metre; the driver smiled smugly as he handed me my suitcase, no doubt thinking about all the speed records he had just broken.


Termini at 6:45 on a Saturday morning felt like it was wrapped in a foggy, tired haze. As usual, I arrived with far too much time to spare, so I wandered into a bar and lingered over a cappuccino and a cornetto for as long as possible – sipping, then staring off off into space, then slowly sipping again. Around me, people threw back inky shots of espresso before disappearing onto trains.


Observed on the train: A pack of American backpackers stuffing a pile of luggage into the overhead bin, sweating after sprinting down the platform and complaining loudly about the early morning departure time. One of them pulls a bag full of beer bottles out of his backpack; the others exchange high-fives and exclamations over how “epic” their journey is going to be. Fifteen minutes later they’ve all fallen asleep, slumped against the windows and draped sloppily over the tables. Silence descends over the train carriage.


As always, I started off the trip with the best of intentions. I opened my laptop, positioned it on the table in front of me, then promptly became engrossed in watching the Italian countryside streak by at 250 kilometres an hour. First there were suburbs, blocks of apartments intersected by highways and railway lines, then hills dotted with vineyards and villages and punctuated by long, dark tunnels. I’ve taken trains on this exact route several times before, but never so early in the morning, and never enough to get tired of the way the scenery changes: By the time the train reached the outskirts of Florence, the view had become decidedly Tuscan.

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February 10, 2013

Linguistic blunders

It was this afternoon, while placing an order at the panificio, that I discovered I had been mispronouncing the Italian word for “onion” for the past five months.

Cipolla. It’s a simple enough word – short, no tricky “r” sounds to roll around on the tongue – but I had learned it wrong from day one, read it wrong straight out of the textbook and burned that incorrect pronunciation directly into my brain before putting it to almost daily use at markets all across the city. Five months’ worth of onions. Five months’ worth of awkward mispronunciation. Even now, as I type all this, I’m still saying it wrong inside my head. CI-polla? No, Ci-POL-la.

The correct pronunciation was revealed to me by a woman wearing gigantic, dark sunglasses. We were crowded up against the counter of Panificio Bonci and it was my turn to order; I had been eyeing a slab of pizza bianca topped with copious amounts of onion. The word had barely left my mouth before the lady in the sunglasses turned sharply towards me, and I could sense that behind those dark lenses, her eyes were narrowing.

“Ci-POL-la”, she hissed, her lips twisting into an expression of distaste as though it physically pained her to hear me butchering her beautiful language.

Ci-POL-la”, I repeated dutifully, feeling disconcerted. How was it possible that nobody had corrected me before now? Not the guy at the farmer’s market this morning, who had cheerfully dropped a handful of onions into my shopping bag, not the lady at the fruit and vegetable stand that I frequent at Mercato Trionfale… no one. Were it not for the lady in the sunglasses, I would have continued my mispronunciation, driving the wrong sounds deeper and deeper into my brain every time an onion popped up on my grocery list.

And this, of course, begs the question: How many more Italian words am I habitually butchering, all the while blissfully unaware of the way I’m mangling the Italian language?

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Verbalized: Past participle, past tense of ver·bal·ize (Verb) 1. Express (ideas or feelings) in words, esp. by speaking out loud. 2. Speak, esp. at excessive length and with little real content.