Thursday, March 6, 2014

Winging it

by Hannah Degner

The story of how I was once alone for like two hours

            My own ineffectuality mirrored in the appearance of these three strangers made them irritating. The boy, especially, was a little creepy. Tallish and gangling, with concave cheek cavities, blue-rimmed eyes and a T-shirt I wasn’t calm enough to notice the theme of, he could have been 15 or 25. While I was buzzed with an aimless frenetic energy that I felt surfacing in beads of sweat along my hairline, he had seemingly no inspiration to do anything but stand silently by the curbside and listen to the small, stout Italian man next to him run through his options in broken English. This boy was the easiest target of my bemused frustration. At least he had a little Italian man. I had no one.

            I had spent the previous two days with an old friend in Florence, confronted by an oppressive number of historical stimulants and summering Australian backpackers. After a very long 36 hours, I was happy to begin my journey back to the rural domesticity of my summer job babysitting on a Tuscan hillside. My destination was a lavender-fringed country house, submerged in the living thrum of bees maintaining their civilization on floral essences. 

            I emerged in the dingy train station of Arezzo, my second to last stop, and asked after the location of the commuter rail to my final destination, an out-of-the-way town called Bibbiena where my assumed family would receive me. I was told by an alarmed-looking attendant that I had just missed the last train. Arezzo was 40 rambling kilometers from my journey’s end, and if this experienced transportation specialist was scared for me, it was not an easy fix. I scanned the station for others looking as helpless as I felt and found them outside by the taxi stand.

            There were four of us. No one knew what to do, yet the presence of others was only a mild consolation. The pale, glass-eyed boy (positively not Italian) and the little man (could not have been more Italian) stood together by the curb. They didn't talk much, nor did they appear by any stretch of my imagination to be traveling together. Their disparate attire, physical contrast and awkward body positioning—side-by-side facing the same direction—disavowed any degree of familiarity. Yet, something about how close the little man stood to the boy’s side, their arms almost touching, made me sure that they were allied in some way. 

            I moved a few steps from the other lost souls when I remembered I had a phone. It had been given to me for the weekend and was free as long as I called the only other phone on the plan, the one in the possession of the family waiting for me. When I told them that I had missed the commuter, they seemed unperturbed, mostly making sure I knew I could stay in Arezzo for the night if I thought it would be easier. The gap in our relative levels of life experience was never more apparent to me.

            “No, no. I’ll find a way to get there. I’ll call when I’m on my way.”

            When I hung up, I moved closer to the most promising of the stragglers: a fortyish man with bristly blonde hair and a smart phone. He wasn’t using the phone to talk to anyone, instead he was squinting at its surface, pinching and dragging at what I recognized as a map when I got close enough to see. He smiled at me, asked me if I spoke English. What a wonderful question. He told me that he was Swedish, going to a conference in the area. We should see if we were going in the same direction. Perhaps we could share a cab.

            Knowing even the most superficial details about another person grounded me. The cloud that had settled over my brain’s procedural regions began to drift away. I looked around and noticed that a cab had pulled up before us. An amused driver rolled down the window and began waiting for one of the four staggered individuals near the taxi sign to approach his vehicle. I then remembered that I knew some Italian. I asked the driver if the Swedish man’s town was nearby; he shook his head, disappointed at some combination of the distance and my Italian. I asked him if it was in the same direction as Bibbiena. He shook his head more thoroughly, clearly almost done with me.

            “Bibbiena, Nord. Il luogo di quest’uomo è Sud.” 

            He made his Italian stupid for me. We were going in opposite directions, and wouldn’t be sharing a cab. I explained to the Swedish man, wished him luck and began regrouping my party of one.

            Before the driver entirely lost interest, I jerked forward again and bent down to his window to ask how much it would cost to drive to Bibbiena. If this cab driver estimated as conservatively as those in the U.S., I was 10 Euros short of the fare, at least. I would need to find someone to share the ride with. 

            The vacant boy was still standing next to his little Italian man, but now he was talking on the phone in fluent English flecked with an Eastern European intonation. The Italian man had noticed that I had tried to speak his language, and ushered me over to explain that he was being picked up by a family member, but didn’t want the boy—his seat companion on the train to Arezzo—to be left alone without any prospect. He was also excited to inform me that his companion was going to Bibbiena. The little Italian man and I listened indiscreetly to the boy’s conversation. Apparently someone had sent a ride for the boy, but he was too late. A sense of personality came through for the first time from his exasperation, and I found myself hanging on to his words, hoping that his ride wouldn’t miraculously show up with only room for one. When I recognized from his end of the conversation that he wasn’t going to get a ride, I mentioned that we could split a cab and the price I had been quoted. He flipped his phone closed and agreed to the expenditure. We entered the only taxi and I told the driver where we were headed. 

            As the wheels began to turn beneath me, a quick call confirmed that someone would be waiting for me at the Bibbiena train station. The relief of forward motion abated the undue trauma of the last half hour. My eyes drifted from the hands in my lap to my knees, to the knees next to mine. I remembered the other person sitting there. Conversation was inevitable, the awkwardness of its absence would be more stifling than small talk. I jumped right in. 

             My first task was to seem fairly normal as I introduced myself and explained my traveling babysitter situation. The boy considered each detail I provided as if it were perfectly reasonable, even though I had spent a lot of time back home trying to explain the circumstances under which this had occurred as a plausible summer vocation.

            When he began his story, I had a much harder time maintaining my composure. His name would translate into English as Jasper, he was exactly my age and he was from Lithuania (mental strain to put this country on a map: somewhere near Russia?). He had traveled straight from his country by train and was now on the last leg of a journey to jazz camp in an isolated location nearby where he would improve his jazz piano skills among a curiously reputable assortment of retired famed musicians and eager students. 

            “Wow. Lithuania. I don’t even…that’s so…your English is really good I had no idea…”

            For a second I was congratulating him in earnest for having mastered my language, and then I was mortified. I knew literally nothing about his country, and yet I felt moved to assess his language skills based on the authority that mine provided me. He was mostly patient with me as I struggled to backtrack from the hopeless expression of American arrogance, but I felt like he was a little disappointed. I was disappointed too. 

            He explained that in Lithuania you learn English from a very young age, as a basic subject in school. He had also watched a lot of American TV shows and movies, but said he was still learning and felt insecure about it even now. The mention of school led him to ask me about what mine was like. My shame quickly reemerged.

            Go ahead and try telling a Lithuanian student of computer science and history who writes stories in his second language and plays jazz piano with fluency that you study English at an American liberal arts college. Try describing the free-form inconsistency of a liberal arts sensibility. Try using English to describe poorly the way you conceive of your education studying works of your native language to someone you're pretty sure has a better understanding of its basic construction than you. Try doing all this on a cab you didn't expect to be in, after missing the last train.

            If you're anything like me, you'll feel quite foolish.

           As the Euro count increased on the taxi’s meter, and my awareness of just how much money I had in my wallet became awkward, I interrupted our conversation to consult the taxi driver. 

            “Quando arriviamo…no, scusi...a che ora arriviamo... no, arriveremo?”

            There was nothing organic about my Italian, I grasped hard for future conjugations of verbs, hoping to seem comprehensible enough to the driver that he would sense my real question: How much more is this going to cost? He laughed at me and answered succinctly. Luckily, Jasper knew no Italian, and seemed genuinely pleased that I could handle the logistical navigation. As far as he knew, maybe the cab driver and I had just shared a funny joke? I chuckled aloud at myself to seem like I was in on it. 

            We were never quite sure what we'd be paying, and just as we got to my stop, where the train I had missed would have let me off, Jasper got a call from someone who had been waiting for him at the Arezzo train station to shuttle him off to his obscurely reputable jazz camp. It turns out that the camp was technically nearest to Bibbiena, but quite a ways back the way we’d come. We were both embarrassed when we realized he’d have to turn back and let the meter run on. I ended up giving him all the money I had left—plus twenty pounds my dad had inexplicably pushed on me before leaving—in order to help him get back, knowing that if he hadn’t been as flustered as I was at the train station, he probably would have found the person looking for him and not joined me on an unlikely discussion of our comparative lives. Before I got out of the car, I shook his hand and wished him well. There seemed nothing else to do. The serene, dazed look on his face was the same as when I first saw him, but now I recognized it as some combination of exhaustion and anticipation for his musical enlightenment.

            I waited for my ride at the dusty train stop that I immediately recognized as my own, next to the gelato vendor that I knew to be inferior to another nearby. While the town was deserted and the sun was setting, the familiarity of my environment put me at ease. I wondered if Jasper would make it to jazz camp. The details of what he told me about Lithuania and his education began to slip away, along with the names of the musicians he would be studying with in Bibbiena. I considered how I would tell the story without them.

            My ride arrived at the train station within five minutes. We talked for the drive back to our Italian home about how convenient it had actually been that my train was late, since they were behind schedule as well. Back in my life’s context, the events of the last two hours seemed anecdotal and quirky. Stating the facts without the emotional baggage they carried, I found myself coming across as intrepid, and did nothing to dissuade this conclusion.

            “Well, actually, I ended up sharing a cab with this Lithuanian guy going to jazz camp in Bibbiena.” The implausibility of it all was intoxicating.

For what it's worth, I have since googled every combination of “jazz, summer, workshop, Bibbiena” and could find no sign of this as an event that occurred.

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