I come home from Florence with $26.40 in my bank account. I need a job, preferably at an Italian restaurant, some upscale place in the Gaslamp where I can speak the language occasionally. I find a blind listing for a serving job on craigslist. I apply, even though I don’t have much experience. The restaurant ad gives an email address, and I submit two résumés — one in English and one in Italian. Two days later, I’m wearing a white shirt and a black apron.
All the cooks are Mexican, and I am the only one in the restaurant who doesn’t habla español. I can’t even tell them I need lemon sauce on the chicken picatta. This cracks them up.
Buon giorno, Italiano! Their sarcastic greeting rattles around the kitchen, along with the pots and utensils. Another server is in the kitchen. She has been particularly cold to me during my first shifts. Trying to be nice, I ask how she’s doing.
“I am fine, thanks,” she says flatly.
Out of habit, I blurt, Prego. You’re welcome.
She looks at me with contempt. Any chances I had of turning her are lost. If she disliked me before, she loathes me now.
“Enough,” she snarls. “You can stop. We all get it. You speak Italian.” She leaves, balancing a chicken Caprese on her arm.
A cook named Pedro observes the carnage. His stained apron follows the contours of his bulging gut. He smirks at me.
¿Que pasa, Italiano? I stare at him blankly before managing a weak smile. That’s all I can offer the Mexicans in the kitchen.
My infatuation with Italy began at Rancho Bernardo High School, in Mr. Rowan’s honors humanities class. To appreciate how hard it was for Michelangelo to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, my teacher told the whole class to hit the carpet. We were flat on our backs, staring up at grainy photocopies of The Creation of Adam taped to the undersides of our desks. We each had an eight-color Crayola palette and a paintbrush.
While all my classmates are looking extra-hot, wearing their authentic university sweatshirts in the June heat, I am filling out paperwork to attend Mesa College in the fall. My plan is to stay home and save money so I can study abroad in the spring.
Before I fly off to Florence, I visit some friends in San Francisco. I hitch a ride back with a driver named Jack. In the front seat is Tobias, a guy from Germany, but his English is pretty good, though his personal hygiene could use some improvement. Tobias smells like sweat and marijuana.
“I’ve been traveling around the world, since I’m not interested in fulfilling my mandatory military service to Germany,” he tells me from the front seat. Tobias looks like an owl, his brow accentuated by the heavy frames of his glasses.
Even in the spacious interior of the Scion xB, the gangly German has difficulty turning around to converse. He bumps his head on the ceiling, and his knee pokes Jack. Driving with one hand while holding a joint with the other, our chauffeur doesn’t seem to mind.
Tobias takes a hit. As he exhales, he says, “I am coming from Berkeley, where I was living in an anarchist vegan commune for some time. But now I want to come to San Diego.”
I look out the window, but there is nothing to see, just agricultural flatness. The iPod hooked to the radio is playing really bad punk music. Tobias is the only entertainment for the eight-hour drive.
“I want to learn how to sail, so I am going out in the ocean on a fishing boat for one year,” he explains. “I need to be out on the sea, but I get terribly seasick. I’m a couch-surfer, too. When I lived in London, people stayed with me all the time.”
Everybody in the car is amused by Tobias, but I am truly impressed. I want to be just like him, minus the weed and body odor.
A few weeks later, I’m in Florence. My flat is located on Via dei Tavolini, in the center of the city, next door to where Dante is said to have lived. I can see the Duomo from my bedroom window. Michelangelo couldn’t have painted a better picture.
School is only four days a week, so on Fridays, I use my TrenItalia pass to travel. I’ve never been to Venice, so I do a couch search. There are tons of seedy Italian men who only want to host girls. I find only one exception: Massimo. He’s the Tobias of Northern Italy. The guy has hosted more than 580 people, but that’s not all — when people couch-surf at Massimo’s, they wrestle. He schedules guests based on their weight so the matches are fair. His profile gives a statistical breakdown of all the grappling.
I wrestled for a day in high school. I didn’t like it because I’m just not that aggressive. But I need a place to stay during spring break, and I figure it will be an outrageous adventure to crash with the Italian Hulk.
Massimo is cheery, muscular, and bald. He quickly ushers me inside so I can put down my backpack and “be relax.” I recognize the place immediately from the pictures on the Web. The Dojo-looking cupboards take up an entire wall. There’s a blue sunken-in couch and a computer. Wrestling mats cover the floor.
“Where are the other two people I will be wrestling?” I ask. In an email, Massimo said there would be a Hungarian and an Argentinian.
My host’s cheery grin fades. “The Argentine is son of bitch and not show up,” he says, squinting at me. “The other one, Hungarian, was here but left.”
I get a sinking feeling in my stomach. I weigh 130 pounds. Massimo outweighs me by 100 pounds, easy. If I am the only fresh meat, it’s going to be a long evening. He seems to sense my apprehension.