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.
“Here, come watch video I take. They wrestle like animal!” He ushers me to his computer and takes a seat at the keyboard. It’s not that creepy to watch videos of sweaty, grunting men. It’s more like ESPN, repeating classic sporting events.
“With my camera I take videos so you watch, can see what you did wrong,” Massimo says. “In a few week I send you pictures, when you make wrestle, so you can never forget.”
On the internet, he finds a Korean named Jihoon and a Frenchman named Julien who will be last-minute substitutions for the following night. I discover that an evenly matched pairing is ultimately less important to Massimo than getting a replacement gladiator to Venice quickly.
The Korean is like a gorilla, at least 30 pounds heavier than me. I can’t get any leverage against the Seoul brother. Jihoon pins me. So does Julien, the French guy.
Massimo critiques my performance. “You have weak temperament,” he says. “You need to have him lock-ed with your legs.”
If my host’s grasp of English is tenuous, he compensates with extreme generosity. He lets me stay at his house for four days. The French guy cooks crêpes and whiskey bananas. On my last day, I ask Massimo for the name of his favorite restaurant. He sends me to Pizzeria ae Oche.
While I’m eating, two older women sit down at the table next to mine. They chat in Italian, too fast for me to decipher. I try to take a picture of myself with my pizza.
Noticing the difficulty I am having, one nonna offers to help.
Posso fare uno foto?
Si, grazie mille.
I hand over my camera. They detect my American accent, and I am soon the third member at their table. When I tell them I’m from San Diego, I expect they will melt with admiration for my beautiful city, as other Italians have done. But these particular ladies have a different reaction. The lady who has just taken my photo nearly spills her drink.
Ho un’amica e lei abita a La Jolla! She has a friend named Lydia who owns a business, 19.8 miles away from my house in Carmel Mountain Ranch.
In La Jolla, I come upon a sign for La Mano Masks. It’s one of those shops all crammed together on Prospect. My heart races. This is it, proof that the last ten weeks in Florence actually happened. I see my smile reflected in the store windows and think about the ladies I met at the restaurant. What will Lydia think when she finds out I ate lunch with her friend in Venice?
Carnival masks of all types hang from the ceiling and adorn the walls of the shop. Ones with colorful feathers, ones with birdlike beaks. Happy ones, sad ones. I pretend I am back in Italy.
I see a little blonde lady in the back corner, shrouded by a display. With the best Italian accent I can muster, I introduce myself. Lydia’s eyes flick up from the mask she is holding. She has a curious expression and has to tilt her head to look up at my face.
Quando ho visitato Venezia ho incontrato tua amica Rosella. Abbiamo mangiato insieme alla Pizzeria ae Oche. I tell her that I’ve come all the way from Venice, where I met her friend.
An inquisitive smile forms on her face. She tilts her head back even more. I am concerned she is going to fall over backward. Ah, Rosella! Non mi amica, mia cugina! Turns out they aren’t friends, they are cousins. My Italian needs some work.
She points toward two chairs in the back. There’s a huge window, where we can see La Jolla Cove. It’s another beautiful day in Southern California.
Lydia switches to English as two customers enter the store, a teenage girl accompanied by her father. The girl is looking for something to wear at a masquerade party. Lydia floats graciously around the store, then presents a pointed number with dangling violet ornamentation.
“Beautiful purple beads, this is popular one for the girls,” she says. But the teenager is not impressed and the father even less so, once he sees the price tag. Lydia is not discouraged. She walks them to the other side of the store and points to an elegant white mask with silver lining. No sale.
Finally, it’s an emerald mask with gold streaks that wins the girl’s heart. As the father moves toward the cash register, he sees me. I’m not much older than his daughter.
“So how do you afford to run this shop here?” he asks Lydia. “I mean, is business good?” He opens his wallet and extracts $20. I see his point. It’s hard to imagine the shop serving any purpose aside from outfitting teenagers for a school dance.
Lydia smirks at him before answering. “My husband says, ‘No more masks! I’ll give you money, but just no more masks.’ But I do just fine.” There is a faint cockiness in her voice. “I’ve had this shop for 24 years, and I am doing fine.”
She tells us that a crew from Playboy came down from Los Angeles to buy her most expensive line for a masquerade ball at the mansion. The girls put it on Hef’s tab. When Lydia asked them what else they’d be wearing, so she could help complete their outfits, they told her, “Well, nothing!”
Lydia laughs hysterically. I have a great visual of the bunnies hopping around naked, their authentic Venetian masks the only genuine thing about them.
Lydia goes to Italy twice a year and orders straight from the artisans. While I’m still hanging out with her, a few customers wander in, enthralled with their discovery. I decide it’s time to leave before overstaying my welcome, even though I am sure the concept doesn’t exist in Lydia’s homeland. I ask if I can stop by again. Of course, she says. She gives me some CDs, so I don’t forget the Italian I have learned. I drive up La Jolla Parkway, the Pacific Ocean disappearing in my rearview mirror. Claudio Villa croons through the speakers.
Città del sole e dei fior. City of the sun and flowers.
A golden retriever lies on his stomach, tongue unfurled, on the outdoor patio of my Italian restaurant. The tiny pool of slobber slowly evaporates in the afternoon sun.
“Oh, hello, puppy,” I say. “What’s your dog’s name?”
A man with sunglasses and an unbuttoned shirt coolly replies, “Enzo.”
The dog’s ears perk up, and his tongue recoils into his mouth. He eyes his master, waiting for further instructions.
The man is from Milan. Throughout his meal, I return to the table and bombard him with all the Italian I know that pertains to food. His dark-haired girlfriend is following along, but I’m thinking she got her tan in Southern California, not under the Tuscan sun.
Before dropping off the check, I offer the usual. Dolce? Caffè questo pomeriggio?
“Yes, actually, could I have a coffee?” Maybe the girlfriend is fluent after all, because she’s successfully translated my question.
“Wait,” she adds. “No, I would like a cappuccino.”
A playful smile forms on my face. In Italy, ordering a cappuccino after ten o’clock is a serious offense. A server would have a minor meltdown and quickly ask that she leave the restaurant.
It’s a quarter to three. With my best apologetic demeanor, I ask her if she knows what time it is. She reaches across the table for her black Dolce & Gabbana purse. Her pink cell phone is inside.
“Two forty-five,” she announces before flipping it shut.
I turn to the man and offer him an empathetic look. He nods toward his girlfriend.
Lei non capisce. She doesn’t understand. I return quickly with the cappuccino.
In Italy, eating is a full-blown event. In Del Mar, in the afternoon, it is common for diners to express a sense of urgency.
“Now, listen, I’m in a bit of a hurry,” says a guy with a briefcase. “Can you get this food out to me extra fast? I have to be back to the office within the hour.”
No Italian would ever say those words. During pausa pranzo — the lunch break — businesses close down for two hours, and most people go home to eat with their families. It’s a celebration.
In Florence, I am swept up in the Italian tradition. A server named Lorenzo offers me Chianti in a dimly lit restaurant.
“What you like, Remy?”
“I’m okay, but thank you.”
Lorenzo’s brother Frederico sits at my table and sets a glass in front of me.
“No, no,” he protests. “In Italy, everyone drinks with company.”
Lorenzo pushes my empty plates to the side and joins us. From the stereo speakers, chords from a bossa nova guitar float around the restaurant. The two brothers have no place to be and no one to serve. They seem genuinely happy to sit down with me and enjoy the evening.
“I want to learn how to play bossa nova rhythms on the guitar,” I tell them.
“Bossa nova is like the rhythm of life,” says Lorenzo, who sways his head to the music.
But at this restaurant in Del Mar, I’m too young to drink legally. Plus, my boss already thinks I’m dogging it when I linger to chat with our customers.
“Rem, you gotta pick up the pace here,” she says. “We can’t spend time talking to everyone. Get going!”
I see her curly hair bounce with each step as she quickly makes her way back to the kitchen. I can barely make out the bossa nova from our stereo system. It’s not part of my job to enjoy the rhythm of life.
I take an order from two ladies out on the patio.
“Caprese chicken salad and an iced tea, please.” A woman with reddish hair smiles at me sweetly and closes her menu. A blonde dining companion peers over her glasses at the listed entrées then says, “I’ll have the same.”
Folders and official-looking documents litter their table. I do not linger.
The boss is particularly attentive when I return to the kitchen. With a little too much eagerness in her voice, she says, “Did you get Jenny’s order, Rem?”
“Jenny? Who’s that?”
“Jenny Craig, the red-haired lady outside.”
“That’s Jenny Craig?” Maybe I can talk to her about getting on a program. I put on a few pounds after all that truffle pasta in Italy.
“Yeah, she comes in here a lot, but we like to keep it on the DL.” The boss is still hyper. “So don’t make a big deal out of it, okay?”
I bring out the salads and return in a few minutes.
“How’s everything tasting?” I ask.
“Good. Thank you.” Jenny and the other woman are very nice, but even if chatting were permitted, I wouldn’t know what to say. I’m fresh out of business advice.
They stay on the patio for most of the afternoon. I leave them alone.
I’m attending the annual Sicilian Festival in Little Italy. Two of my friends are getting married as part of the day’s events. We haven’t met, but we’re all couch-surfers. It feels as if we’ve known each other for more than a day.
Diana, the bride from Florida, was studying abroad in Italy when she stayed at Tony’s house in Sicily. They decided to move to San Diego. A guy named John hosted the lovebirds at his Solana Beach house, when they didn’t know anybody in Southern California. John is the best man, wearing a tuxedo at the wedding.
It’s like a Hollywood romance, except the characters are real.
The festival organizers stage the ceremony so there would be guests — hundreds of them. As the crowd disperses, I have a moment to bond with Tony. He’s one of Massimo’s boys from the Venetian wrestling mat.
Hai visitato Massimo a Venezia?
In his black tux, Tony lunges forward and flexes. He could probably pin me, too. I hear Massimo’s voice in my head, critiquing my performance. It will haunt me forever.
Tony’s parents have flown in from Sicily for the wedding. His mother is gorgeous. She’s wearing a short blue dress and has flowing black hair. I look at Mr. Tripoli with the utmost admiration. The women are probably the most perfect works of art in Italy.
Grazie mille per avete parlato Italiano con me. I tell them that I’m thrilled to speak Italian again because it’s hard to find places to practice.
Mrs. Tripoli gives me an inquisitive look. Hai mangiato al ristoranti Italiani? It seems so obvious to her. Why not eat at Italian restaurants?
I don’t have the heart to tell her that everyone speaks Spanish at mine. ■
— Remington Cox