Dinner the other day went well; the hardest part turned out to be the dessert,
which was to be decorated with whipped cream and red currants just before
serving. It was so hot, though, that the ice cream would begin melting while
I filled the pastry tube with whipped cream, and the whipped cream wilted
if it sat on the counter for any length of time. This led to an elaborate
dance with complicated steps: fill the tube, put the whipped cream in the
fridge, remove dessert from freezer, decorate, return the dessert to the freezer,
I need to get a bigger pastry tube if I ever do this again.
Anyway, we all survived despite the pantworthy heat. As predicted, Tino partook only of the pasta with grilled tomatoes. He also brought a box of Baci Perugina as a hostess gift, which was greatly appreciated on my part (although they were soft and gooey and needed a rejuvenating stay in the refrigerator before we could actually unwrap them).
After everyone had left and the dishes had been cleared away, I was sitting
at the computer (playing The Sims, of course), when
Dario called to me from the living room. "Come in here, quick! There's
something on TV you've got to see!"
I ran, but all I managed to glimpse was a shot of an island in the middle of a clear blue sea, with a Rome telephone number in large type superimposed along the bottom of the screen. It looked like an ad for a tropical timeshare, but before I could figure out what I was supposed to be looking at the scene was replaced by a topless woman walking along the beach to advertise suntan lotion (a commercial my male acquaintances tell me is very effective, except for the fact that most men I know don't use suntan lotion. They just approve of the advertising strategy.).
I looked questioningly over at my husband. "What, exactly, did you call me in here to see?"
"It's that show you keep talking about," he explained. "They're going to be doing it here, too, and they're calling for volunteers. It's called Sopravvivere."
I've only mentioned it once here in the journal, in a sidebar no less, but if you ever peek at my weblog you know I've been following along with Survivor with great interest (although recently I've been a bit sidetracked by my Russell Crowe addiction). I read the message boards over at Mighty Big TV [now Television Without Pity], and eagerly await the recap of each episode. I don't know if I'd actually enjoy watching the show, but I'm fascinated by the social interaction, the strategies adopted by the various castaways, and how it all plays out to determine who stays and whose torch is extinguished each week. Tamar wrote an entry the other day that does an excellent job of explaining why this show is so compelling.
So now there's going to be an Italian version. While I'll be interested in seeing how it develops, I have a hard time imagining any of the Italians I know participating in something like that. I just don't see any of them as willing to give up their precious local food for a month, not to mention living in a state of precarious hygiene and having to (gasp!) wear mismatched or soiled clothing. I can't reconcile my view of the Italian psyche with a show that entails voluntary hardship of any kind; most of the people I know would bring something like an espresso maker as their luxury item.
This brought to mind an experience I've been wanting to recount for some
time, now. An experience that involved a business trip with the archetypal
Italian, attempting to survive in the wilds of the north-central US and even
a hair-raising jaunt to the Canadian jungle. Since it exemplifies many of
the reasons why I can't see Survivor being much of a hit around here,
now's as good a time as any.
It's a long story, so settle back into a comfy chair, pour yourself a cup of coffee or other beverage of choice, and get ready for a tale of adventure.
Many years ago, in 1994 to be exact, I acquired a new "client"
(quotation marks to be explained). I was already getting bored with translating,
and wanted to branch out... but wasn't quite sure into what. I was
doing some work for a US manufacturer of beauty projects, helping them to
set up a distribution network here in Italy, and thought that perhaps I could
do a bit more of that kind of work. My Pagine Gialle ad was thus expanded
to include the deliberately vague description of "international consulting",
just to see what happened.
Rudy happened, as it turned out.
He called me up one day, out of the blue, having come across the aforementioned ad. "Just what kind of services, exactly, does that include?" he inquired. I managed to come up with some appropriately vague but confident-sounding description, and he told me he was interested in meeting.
We met. He was just starting out in his own business, armed only with a cell
phone and lots of ideas. He was breaking new ground in Italy, he informed
me, bringing in an industry heretofore unknown on the peninsula; he himself
had learned of it through his previous job at a large conglomerate, which
he had left when he realized the potential development of this new area. He
wanted to become the Italian licensee for three or four related firms, all
based in North America, and he needed help with approaching them, negotiating
the contracts, and handling relations with them.
Sure, I could do that! (Really, it wasn't exactly rocket science.)
I dutifully worked out a contract with him, that required an up-front payment of 2 million lire, a percentage of the value of the contracts closed, and an hourly or monthly fee to cover everything beyond the initial negotiations. It was a nice little contract, all modesty aside. I should frame it as a lesson in the worthlessness of paper when confronted with reality.
I read everything I could about the new industry, so that I would be able
to discuss it at least somewhat intelligently. I made contact with the US
and Canadian firms. I put together drafts of licensing contracts to use as
a baseline, cribbing shamelessly from the hundreds of such contracts I'd translated
over the years. We organized a schedule of meetings with all of them, starting
with the most important of all in Minneapolis and ending near Toronto. It
was late spring, and he wanted to make sure our trip took place before the
high season rates kicked in.
Meanwhile, I still hadn't seen a single lira. Rudy explained that, for various complicated Italian reasons, his best friend/accountant was nominal president of his budding business, and with tax season in progress he hadn't had a chance to sign the check. I was promised that it would be forthcoming very soon, certainly before our trip.
When the time came to leave and I still had received no money, I hesitated.
I didn't really know this person, and was setting off on a week-long overseas
trip with him, after having worked for about a month with no pay (squeezing
it in between translations, of course). We were seriously broke at the time,
and while he was of course paying for my travel expenses, I was worried about
the days of certain income-producing work to be lost. On the other hand, if
I managed to close these contracts for him, it would more than make up for
what I could earn translating.
Of course, I went.
I was very nervous the whole time. Not so much about the work aspect,
but about the money. We flew into Minneapolis and checked into our decent
hotel, ready to meet with the Important Folks the next day.
At that meeting, I discovered that much of what he had told me about them was just plain wrong. I also discovered that he knew just enough English to be dangerous, and had a habit of breaking into the conversation at just the wrong moment, with just the wrong remark.
I was stressed out by the end of the morning, and Rudy was getting on my
nerves in a big way. Despite it all, the negotiations were proceeding pretty
well. The Big Guys took us to lunch... at an Italian restaurant. A chain restaurant.
They thought it would be a nice gesture, giving him a taste of home.
Instead of appreciating the sentiment, Rudy became obnoxious. He refused to even look at the menu. "I don't even want to imagine what these Americans can do to ruin good pasta!" he proclaimed. He sneered at the fact that each table in the restaurant was graced with a bottle of Blue Nun instead of a good, Italian wine. He insisted on ordering a steak, even though it wasn't even on the luncheon menu, because he argued that steak was the only thing Americans knew how to cook properly.
Our hosts, as you can imagine, were mortified. Aside from the execrable rudeness of such behavior, I did not think this was the smartest way to treat people from whom he wanted something.
We spent two and a half days in Minneapolis (eating at every steakhouse in town thereafter), and came away with a signed contract. Not at the terms he had hoped for, but since the situation was not at all as he had originally described it to me, it was still a damned good deal (also fundamental to the very existence of his budding company: without it, he had no business). I was feeling pretty pleased with myself. And even more annoyed with him.
Our next stop was Chicago; the Canadian firm we would be visiting near Toronto at the end of our trip had a booth at a major trade show in town, and it was an opportunity to briefly meet them and see their product in action before the actual contract was discussed. Plus, Rudy wanted to look around at the show to see if there were any other interesting products on display.
This stopover was low-key, and the Canadians were quite charming company.
They took us out to dinner that night (for steak, of course), and we chatted
about this and that. I tried to make sure Rudy's mouth was full at all times
so he couldn't come out with one of his uncouth comments. All in all, the
visit went smoothly.
Or so I thought.
We had flown from Minneapolis to Chicago, but then rented a car and were driving to Erie, Pennsylvania. I did all the driving, at his insistence, because "you know the rules of the road here". That was a lot of driving, and I was exhausted and sick of being cooped up in a car with him for hours on end. As soon as we checked into the (very nice) hotel, I went for a walk. I skipped dinner just to avoid having to talk to him any more than necessary.
The meeting in Erie was unremarkable (another contract in the bag), and then it was back in the car for another long drive, across the border this time. An endless drive, including the joys of Cleveland at evening rush hour. We finally made it to our hotel in the middle of nowhere, and checked in. I showered and sat on the bed to relax for a moment. On a whim, I flipped through my belongings, chuckling at myself for my travel paranoia: on plane flights, I check for my ticket and passport compulsively every few minutes. As we'd been driving since Chicago, I hadn't done so in a couple of days, but I felt the urge to reassure myself that I would be going home soon. It was Friday evening, and we were leaving Sunday; I couldn't wait.
They weren't there.
I checked through my bag, my suitcases, the inner and outer pockets of everything. In an increasing frenzy, I tore through all of my jackets, slacks, skirts, and anything that might conceivably have a pocket, even a hidden one. All in vain, my ticket and passport had disappeared.
Since our friends Uli and Brenda live not far from where we were, we had arranged to meet for drinks at the hotel. I was a nervous wreck by the time they arrived, smoking like a fiend in the hotel bar and doing my best to ignore Rudy, who kept repeating how stupid I was. Believe me, I already felt stupid, and talk about your pot and kettle... They took one look at me and whisked us away for dinner, even though they'd already eaten. When I was still agitated after a pleasant meal, they invited us (both!) to stay at their home. Rudy accepted with his usual lack of grace, grumbling about having paid for hotel rooms that went unused.
Although Uli made a Herculean effort to fix things, there was nothing to be done, especially with the disgrazia having happened on a weekend. I had very little cash with me, and didn't own a credit card. Uli loaned me his so I could buy another ticket, which is perhaps the most generous thing anyone has ever done for me, but first I had to sort out the passport situation. This meant I needed to go home to St. Louis for an unplanned visit. At least my mother was happy about it.
We met with the Canadians on Saturday (closing a contract), I purchased my ticket from Detroit (where we were to drop off the car) to St. Louis, Rudy did a little shopping for his family, and we retired for our last night in Canada. At least, I consoled myself, I would be done with Rudy for a while after the next day. Little did I know, the real survival test was yet to come.
We drove away from the little town in the Toronto hinterland early Sunday morning. I, of course, was at the wheel. We found the highway and set off at a nice clip, which gained a new note of urgency once we realized there was a time difference, and we had an hour less than expected to make it to the airport for our respective flights. Still, there was no real hurry, we had plenty of time.
Then the car began to shudder and swerve alarmingly.
I was taken by surprise, and surprised myself even more by reacting appropriately and managing to pull over onto the shoulder without incident (aided by the fact there was no traffic on the highway at 8 a.m. Sunday). We had a flat tire.
We unloaded our luggage from the car trunk to get to the jack and spare. Said spare, of course, being one of those nearly-useless Big Wheel-type thingies. Rudy informed me that he had never changed a tire before, in a voice that implied he expected me to do it. I, however, had decided it was time for him to make some use of himself on this trip, and played clueless.
He was quite upset that there were no gloves provided in the vehicle. "My Volvo has a pair of black leather gloves so you won't get your hands dirty if you need to change a tire," he whined. I simply shrugged, then watched in fascination as he prepared to do his mechanical work.
The man was wearing jeans, sneakers, and a polo shirt: not exactly fancy attire. Nonetheless, he couldn't bear the thought of kneeling on the asphalt and perhaps soiling his perfectly pressed denims, so he unpacked one of his shopping bags and spread it neatly before the wheel. He then proceeded to use two more plastic bags as impromptu gloves, still muttering under his breath about his Volvo. As I watched him struggle with the jack and wrench, I thought to myself that the bags were more of an impediment than they were worth, but kept silent.
A traffic cop ambled along, chuckled at our plight, then kindly told us there was a Wal-Mart not too far away where we should be able to purchase a tire. He didn't know what time they opened, nor was he even sure they were open on Sunday. "That's your best bet, though," he drawled as he drove away, probably still laughing to himself.
Rudy kept wiping his brow and his neck to clear the perspiration (wouldn't
want him to sweat in that neat polo shirt, would we?). It was a sunny and
warm late spring/early summer day, and the poor man had never changed a tire
before. Life was tough.
It soon got tougher, though, as a single, tiny black cloud arrived directly over our heads (I'm not kidding!) and it began to rain. The sun was shining all around us, but we were directly under the downpour.
Hijinks ensued as I hurriedly tossed our luggage, strewn about the shoulder, back into the car trunk to keep it from getting soaked. Meanwhile, Rudy shouted in terror that he was going to be crushed under the vehicle if I loaded it up. I could only hope, and kept working.
I then repaired to the interior of the car to get out of the rain. To pass
the time, I decided to leaf through our rental contract, to see what it said
about such incidents. It was then that I learned we were specifically prohibited
from taking said rental car out of the continental United States, into either
Mexico or Canada.
To keep this very long story from being even longer, we did eventually manage to purchase a tire at Wal-Mart, drive to the border, avoid having the border guard ask for travel documents (one of my fears), and get to the airport in time. When we took the car to the rental lot, Rudy once again demonstrated his annoying habit of speaking inappropriately, and boldly told the attendant that he had been forced to purchase a tire and wanted reimbursement. I lashed out in Italian. "Are you a total idiot?" I asked him incredulously. "The bill clearly shows that we purchased the tire in Canada, and we weren't supposed to be there!" He didn't want to let it go, but I had barely enough time to make my plane, so I headed for the airport shuttle. After a few moments' hesitation, he grudgingly followed.
There's a lot more to this story, of course: the adventure of renewing my passport and coming home is a tale that bears telling, as is the rest of the Rudy-as-"client" story. Another day, I'll get to those.
Rudy is a real person, but he's like a walking caricature of most Italians
I know. He embodies the same fastidiousness and cultural narrow-mindedness
that I see all around me. So you can see why I have a hard time envisioning
them on Survivor.
Hell, maybe I should apply: if I can survive Rudy (and I did), I should be golden.