A Close Encounter of the Italian Kind


Marie and I, newly arrived in Florence, Italy, were strolling on Borgo Ognissanti and turned the corner to use public toilets at the Excelsior Hotel. Home was still a mile away and we’d had too much coffee at the Bar San Marco. I warned her, “Just walk right in as if you belong here and don’t speak Italian,” which was fine because she had a terrible American accent, anyway.

Before we could reach the first hotel doorman, I heard, “Scusa, Bella, ma vuoi mica prendere un café?” Some man was saying, “Excuse me, beautiful, but would you care to have coffee with me?” Scruffy and sharp-featured, he was the sort of person our Florence family warned us to avoid.

We’d arrived in that medieval city after a just few weeks in another medieval city, Siena, where we’d spent weeks honing our language and cultural skills, mostly by dating charming and disingenuous young men looking for an American wife. Seven pairs of junior year students from five women’s colleges were placed as paying guests with Florentine families consisting usually of a no-nonsense matriarch and her unmarried sister, adult children, separated (no legal divorce available in Italy then) brother, or—rarely—a husband.

Marie and I, junior-year-abroad students, lived with the Chellinis. The ruler of their modern post-war four-bedroom apartment was La Signorina Clara.  Her older brother, Gastone, an aspiringly divorced Anglophile down to the patches on his tweed jacket’s elbows, had his own suite of rooms.

After unpacking our steamer trunks and having lunch, or pranzo, Marie and I gathered our keys, sweaters, cameras, and sunglasses for a stroll up the Arno. Dressed in 2-inch stacked heels, nylons, and pencil skirts, we were the essence of early 1960’s American youth. Before we could leave the Chellini’s flat, we heard a warning from la Signorina: “You are pretty americanine, American.girls. If the rude young men we call pappagalli [parrots] bother you, tell them you’ll call a policeman.” She gave us a stock phrase to memorize and call out, if menaced.

Agreeably, I repeated the phrase. Marie shrugged and said, d’accordo, O.K. When Signorina Clara was satisfied that we were well armed against the hordes of trolling lotharios out there on the sunny streets of Florence, she opened the door and wished us a pleasant tour of the city.

Back to that Signor “Scusa-Bella:” Marie pulled my sleeve and said, “Quick, let’s get into the hotel,” but outraged that this person had violated our personal space and our tranquil walk by attempting a pick-up, I raised my voice and threatened him with the stock phrase. “Va via o vado chiamare un villagio!” I shouted with an angry tremor in my voice, meaning to say, “Go away or I will call a policeman.”

Scusa-Bella’s puzzled squint demonstrated that my threat may have been stupendous yet somewhat odd. Hearing my repeated threats and assessing that the situation needed immediate interference, a uniformed traffic policeman arrived and stood between us and Scusa-Bella.

I greeted him and said to Marie, “Ecco, il villagio.” Both the policeman and the pappagallo shrugged and looked around. With some sort of idiomatic phrasing that seemed to work, I complained that Scusa-Bella was harassing us—I say “seemed” because the pappagallo slunk away, and the policeman cupped one fist inside the other and shook them at us while pleading that we should just ignore this sort of person. And, Signorina, he suggested in Italian, you threatened to call a village, not a vigile, my job. So much for fluency on my first day of a school year in Florence, Italy.

After that day, no one ever tried to pick me up again. Blame my dark hair, my greater fluency as the year progressed, or maybe that scowl on my face whenever I walked on the strade and viali, the streets and avenues. Poor Marie’s experience differed. She looked like Doris Day—a bouncy, chirpy blonde Hollywood star of the period. Marie had no end of problems with buttocks-pinchers and lewd remarks. She did marry a young man from Siena, however, someone she’d met during our first weeks there.

Many months after our encounter with amorous Scusa-Bella, Marie and I were sitting at our usual tiny table in a Piazza San Marco café with two other women in the program. I looked around the smoke-filled room, filled with university students, and spotted Scusa-Bella. He was sitting at a tiny marble topped table, too, with some American girls not in our group. In Italian-accented English he was ordering the girl closest to him to fetch another espresso—no per piacere or per favore, Bella, no “please” or “do-me-the-favor.”  He had found his mark and dropped all pretense of being well-bred and polite. She loved the brute.

Marie and I looked at each other. My coffee went up my nose and I coughed. Scusa-Bella looked at our table. I relaxed when I realized he didn’t recognize me. Until my last visit to the café in May, he was always there and always with a different girl. Mr. professional pappagallo.




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