I’ve often heard it said that to truly understand a country, you need to live there. I agree completely with that sentiment, and yet it’s a little difficult to carry out. I’ve reached a rather advanced age, and have only managed to live in 6 countries so far. And so I resolved to visit people who lived in other countries to make their authentic experiences my authentic experiences.
My brother and his family have lived in Northern Italy for almost two years. I booked my ticket and began to dream of the authentic experiences I would have over my Christmas holiday. Authentic pizza, authentic spaghetti, authentic wine, perhaps a pair of authentic shoes…
My brother picked me up at the airport in Milan. His car was an Alfa Romeo, low to the ground and bright yellow. Awesome. I settled in, feeling like every heroine in every silly romcom set in Italy. It wasn’t until we pulled onto the highway that I realized just how small the car was. Large cars and transport trucks from dozens of different countries surrounded us. My brother drove like an Italian, gesticulating wildly while swerving in and out of traffic, waiting until he was millimetres away from the car in front before pulling out to pass. I felt like I was in a bumper car, or as the Brits more aptly call them, dodgems.
Next on the list of things tourists don’t see was the local petting zoo. In actual fact, it was a working farm with a few random animals. One enclosure held goats, sheep, chickens, geese, rabbits, and emus. Overly friendly emus as it turned out. One cheeky emu ate the mitten right off my niece’s hand. As we led my tear-stricken niece away, I wondered if the emu would lay woolly pink eggs for the next little while.
A few minutes of playing in the Trojan Cow soon had everyone smiling again. And then it was time for another authentic Italian experience: hot chocolate. Oh my. Hot, sweet, and so thick it had to be eaten with a spoon. Perhaps I should reconsider living in Italy…
The next morning, I woke up with a stiff neck. By dinner time I couldn’t move my head. Time for another authentic Italian experience: the ER, or pronto soccorso.
My brothers very kindly came with me to act as moral support and translators. After so many years in Asia, I was used to being immediately recognized as English. It was strange to no longer be visibly foreign.
Relatively quickly, I was called by the nurse.
“Venga!” she told me, looking harassed.
Venga? Wasn’t that a pop group from the 90’s?
“Follow her!” my brother hissed, prodding me. Oops.
We entered the emergency room, and sat on a bench. I looked around, amazed. Although there were curtains available to pull around the beds, nobody had. Clearly privacy wasn’t an issue in Italy. I would have rubbed my eyes had my arms been able to reach that high. I thought for a moment we had stumbled into a dinner party. Everyone was dressed to the nines. Two elderly ladies tottered by in heels, pearls, and matching sweater sets; Prada and Gucci bags hung carelessly over the edges of gurneys; and even the gentleman beside us with his arm wrapped in a blood-stained towel appeared to be wearing Armani.
Needless to say, I was not sporting anything Italian. In fact, I wasn’t even sure I was wearing shoes. I couldn’t remember putting them on, and I couldn’t bend my neck far enough to check. I knew from the sympathetic looks I was getting that I still had snot smeared across my chest from the lovely cuddle I’d received from my niece earlier. And my unwashed hair was haphazardly pulled back with a large green and yellow polka-dot bow belonging to my other niece.
Were Italians just naturally stylish? Did their mothers pop them into Versace onesies the second they were born? Or had they dressed up to come to the ER? Even the medical staff was stylish. The scrubs seemed to fit better than any scrubs I’d ever seen, and the nurse who had brought us in had been sporting make-up and false eyelashes that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a trendy nightclub.
I was sent for X-rays, and I admit I was relieved to be met by a perfectly ordinary-looking man. He told me to take off my glasses, and then proceeded to give me instructions on how to properly align myself for x-rays. At least I think that’s what he said. And since he took my glasses away, all I saw of his explanatory gestures was a big blue blob with little pink blobs waving around.
“Does he know I can’t see him?” I asked, glancing towards where I had last seen my brother. “And that I don’t have any idea what he’s saying?”
My brother explained my predicament in Italian, and the x-ray man sighed heavily. It was a sigh that spoke of a lifetime of disappointment and despair. A sigh that told me he’d rather carve his own heart out with a spoon than explain to me in English how to arrange myself for optimum x-ray results.
“You. Here,” he muttered, forcibly putting me in place. “No move!”
“Don’t move!” my brother translated helpfully.
Finally we were brought by another heavily made-up nurse to see a doctor. I tried to pay attention but I was mesmerized by the giant panettone calendar behind his head. He seemed disappointed that I had nothing more serious than a pulled muscle, and sent us away with a long list of drugs.
We left the hospital thinking the adventure was over. And yet, the joys of deciphering the prescription awaited! “Sirdalud 2mg x2” Right. Siralud was the medicine, but did I take 2? Or did I take it twice a day? And what was it exactly? There was also powdered codeine that fizzed like an anti-acid, and tasted awful. But again, how much should I take? And when?