Commentary and Philosophy Non-Fiction posted June 19, 2016

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Hate is a universal language

How to Get Lost in Italy

by Sis Cat

March 2010. My partner, his sister, and I vacationed in Siena, Italy, a medieval city with maze-like streets atop a mountain. We arrived from Rome by train and rented a student apartment. Even though we had a kitchen, none of us wanted to cook. Hey, we were on vacation and we planned to eat and drink our way through Tuscany.
Several hours after we arrived, my stomach grumbled. I said, “You guys want to go out for Italian? This guidebook says that Osteria Babazuf is two blocks from here.”
My sister-in-law, busy with her crossword, said, “Nah, I’ll eat some cheese and crackers later.”                                                     
My partner yawned. “I’m tired from the train trip. Let me take a nap first, and then I might go out for dinner.”              
I didn’t fly six thousand miles to spend my first night in Siena stuck in our apartment with my iPhone. I craved food and adventure. I offered, “Guys, how about I bring back take-out?”          
They said, “Sounds like a plan.”                                                        
I grabbed my iPhone compass app. I grabbed my map. I grabbed my book light to read my map. I left the apartment and entered the night.
Do you know how a city appears one way during the day but another way at night? That happened to me in Siena. I didn’t recognize the streets I had walked during the day. I turned and turned my map, but I couldn’t gain my bearings. I didn’t know where I was. In medieval cities like Siena, they place street signs high on the walls of buildings at the corners of each block, but I walked with my head down to my map and iPhone app. I didn’t see the signs above. My book light couldn’t see them either. That restaurant must be around here somewhere. Maybe the next block.
I reached a lit intersection and discovered I had walked a mile downhill from the restaurant! Did I write the phone number and address of my apartment before I left? How do I dial my phone in Italy? Do I want to pay the international rates? If I called my partner, “Hey, I’m at the corner of Via Camollia and Via Giuseppe Garibaldi,” would he find me without a car? You know the stereotype about men’s reluctance to ask for directions? Well, I didn’t speak Italian well enough to ask for directions.
I panicked and ran. I found myself running outside the wall of Siena. That wall stood fifty feet high and twenty feet thick. I searched for a gate back into the city.

As I ran, I remembered experiences in Italy, where Italians viewed me not as an African American tourist, but as a Muslim or a North African. As I ran, I remembered the time, my partner, who is white, left me on the station platform to watch for the train while he went inside to buy tickets. A group of young Italian men glared and cursed at me. Their faces contorted into Venetian masks. I didn’t understand a word they said because I couldn’t speak Italian, but I felt what they said. Hate is a universal language. You can tell when people hate you. 
I ignored them, but they increased the volume of their verbal attack. For a split second, I feared they would throw me on the tracks.
My partner returned with the tickets. When the pack discovered we were an interracial gay couple, they howled. The gang tossed the grenade of homophobia into the combustible mix of Islamophobia and Negrophobia. Did they just step towards us?
The train arrived. The doors opened. I yelled to my partner, “Get on the train! Get on the train!
Once inside, I spoke gibberish. I didn’t understand a word I said. I stared at the door at the end of the car. I feared the men would burst through to finish what they started on the platform.
Flash forward years later, or perhaps the same trip, I ran along the walls of Siena in the middle of the night. The thought occurred to me, “Andre, if you run into men like the ones you had encountered on the station platform, they will kill you. You need to get off the street.”  
Up ahead, cars drove through an entrance into the walled city. If I followed them, they would lead me to the center of Siena. I quickened my pace. A sign pointed towards the Piazza del Campo. Behind red taillights, I ascended the mountain. Whenever people clustered on one side of the street, I walked the other. I became Othello’s shadow. I knew what would happen to me if I met the wrong people at night.
The medieval skyline opened to Il Campo—the scallop-shaped piazza that the Sienese cover with dirt twice a year to hold the Palio horse race around the track. I tilted my head back to squint at the marble crown atop the long, red brick shaft . . . No, it's not what you think. It's the Torre del Mangia, known in English as the Tower of the Eater, speaking of which, that reminds me of the purpose of my errand. Now that I knew my location, I knew how to find the restaurant Osteria Babazuf and my apartment two blocks away.            

This photo of Osteria Babazuf is courtesy of TripAdvisor
I walked down an alley and turned a corner. The frosted doors of Osteria Babazuf glowed across the street. I ran towards them and entered. My glasses steamed. Christmas lights hung above the counter. I spoke to the aproned man behind the register, “Ho . . . um . . . fame. Mangia.”
He pointed to a scrawled sign. “Pasta con filleti di cavallo.”
Cavallo? Isn’t that horse?”
Sì, signore, cavallo—horse.”
“Do you have anything else besides horse?”
No, no, no, no, no, cavallo.” The man kissed his fingertips.
“Okay, I’ll have the pasta with horse meat.”
He served me containers of pasta and salad and I grabbed some bottles of water. I walked two blocks to my apartment which I hadn’t seen in ninety minutes. I skipped up the steps and turned the key. My partner and his sister said, “Andre, where have you been?”                       
“Well, I took a wrong turn and got lost, but I’m here now. I brought back food.”
They licked their lips. “What did you bring?”                       
“Well, I brought some pasta con filleti di cavallo.”
Cavallo? Isn’t that horse?” 
My sister-in-law said, “Nah, I’ll eat some cheese and crackers later.”
My partner said, “Well, I’ll join you.”
That night, we ate our first meal in Siena. For those who are interested, horse does not taste like chicken. It tastes like beef. For the rest of our stay in Siena, I joked, “Whichever horse loses the Palio ends up in this pasta.”  
I realized how I got lost in Italy. I had turned left when I left my apartment instead of right. But if I had turned right, sure, I would have sooner found a meal not served on the menu at the Olive Garden, but I wouldn’t have a story to tell you. Sometimes, you need to go without the maps and the apps. Sometimes, you need to lose yourself in a city or in a community to find yourself. And sometimes, the best adventures in life are unplanned. You see, I didn’t become the person I am today by following maps.


Non-Fiction Writing Contest contest entry


"How to Get Lost in Italy and Find Your Way Home" is my script for a story I performed live from memory at the Story Showdown in Oakland on June 23 where it placed third and won me $50.00--my first cash won at a storytelling competition. It also placed second in the FanStory Non-fiction Contest. I am honored by the wins of this story. Thank you for your support.

An early draft included a line about a mass shooting. The recent shooting in Orlando, Florida, at a gay nightclub prompted me to delete the line and add more observations of the Islamophobia, Negrophobia, and homophobia I experienced in Italy. In the interest of time (because I would lose an audience vote for every minute I am over), I reduced the number of observations to focus on the train station incident.

Despite an incident that haunts me to this day, I would still return to Italy in a heartbeat. I love the people, the culture, the history, and the food. I am mindful that because of the recent terror attacks and the influx of refugees from the Middle East and North Africa into Europe, fear and suspicion of people who appear to belong to those groups has increased.

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