Benvenuta in Italia, A Short Story
Jolting awake with the thunderous sound of a loaded 747 kissing the runway, Caroline begrudgingly opened her eyes and silently cursed airplanes for inhibiting sleep. As she slowly collected her thoughts, the captain’s voice boomed through the speakers with a resounding “Buongiorno e benvenuti a Roma!” Good morning, and welcome to Rome! The captain proceeded to announce the time and temperature, and Caroline drowsily realized she had finally touched down in Italy.
How had she fallen asleep so quickly between the landing announcement and the actual landing on the tarmac? At her age, international travel shouldn’t be this physically taxing for another few decades yet. While passengers in the forward cabin pulled carry-ons down from overhead compartments, Caroline reflected on how she’d waited eight endless months to be back. She’d been prepared to leave a company she liked, a career that was growing, to spend time here. Coming back had seemed so instinctive, so inevitable. After going on an archaeological excavation outside Tuscany nearly a year ago, returning was all she could think of. There was an incredible pull toward the country and she couldn’t pinpoint where it stemmed from.
Disembarking the plane, she suddenly wondered if Italy would be everything she remembered and fantasized it to be. And you’re only now wondering if you’re doing the right thing?? said a voice inside her head, Little late for that. Making her way toward baggage claim, she felt her phone buzz a message. It was Marco.
Are you here!!?? I’m so close but the traffic is so bad. Mi fa impazzire.
She could hear the Italian lilt through the words on her screen. Through the text exchange that kept her entertained as she waited for her suitcase, she learned the streets were flooded and traffic was horrendous. Great, she thought, already this encounter is off to a great start. Flight delay, traffic, flooded roads. Is this an omen? What if, after a year of virtual friendship, it turns out we don’t click in person? Granted, she wasn’t here for him; but he was the one who’d found her a home and a host family for her entire stay; it would be rude to simply dismiss him if they somehow didn’t get along.
Since their serendipitous meeting via online language exchange, the two had somehow become each other’s confidants – a curious fact considering they had never met in person before. This will work just as well offline, Caroline rallied, It has to.
Despite the qualms, she felt calm. The excitement hadn’t yet sunk in that she was going to spend two whole months in Italy. A delayed reactor, she was still pulling herself together from the grueling flight from Guam. Coming up to the airport’s exit doors, she paused. An unappealing blast of crisp February air had burst into the unheated hallway, and she thought it best to wait inside until Marco was closer. Unfortunately, this also welcomed the constant stares and approaches of eager cab drivers who knew she wasn’t a local. She’d clearly come from warmer climes: not only was she not wearing a heavy coat like everyone else, but her naturally caramel-hued tan had also been bronzed to the color of flambéed bananas (at least, that’s the analogy that worked in her head) after spending two months in the Pacific.
Growing weary of the gawkers, she decided to exit the doors and brave the cold. She was wearing knee-high boots and three layers under a thin leather jacket; surely, she’d fare just fine?
Stepping out into uncharacteristically cold air for Italy this time of year, she suspected she’d have to buy warmer outerwear. It was chilly outside, but at least she could escape the cab drivers. They would pay her less attention out here, surrounded by other people, right?
Wrong. Within a minute, she was approached by yet another driver hoping he’d hooked a naive tourist. She was going to disappoint him.
“You need taxi?” he asked in a heavy Italian accent.
“Tutto bene, grazie,” she replied, “Sto aspettando mio amico.” All good, thanks. I’m waiting for my friend. If she was going to hone her Italian-language skills, he was as good as any other native speaker to start practicing with.
“Au, parla italiano!” he remarked.
“Solo un poco,” she quickly replied, tensing with anticipation for the onslaught of Italian he was about to unleash upon her.
“Your accent is good,” he continued in English.
She exhaled with relief.
“You stay in Rome?”
“You study here?”
Caroline chuckled, shaking her head.
“How long you stay in Rome?” he persisted.
“A couple of months,” she replied hesitantly, wondering where on earth Marco was. This stranger had distracted her from the cold, but now she needed a distraction from the stranger. She realized he had asked another question and was awaiting a response. “Sorry, what was that?”
“I ask what you do tomorrow” he continued, undeterred. “There is a good coffee place near centro….”
It was difficult enough to process what the driver was saying – made even more difficult by a noticeable presence that had appeared and was hovering some feet away. She knew that face well; it was the same one she practiced her Italian with. It was the same face that left her video messages, mostly in Italian – messages that she’d been forced to replay over and over because he spoke too rapidly; her Italian was not yet that fluent, and she could only grasp a few phrases at a time. Yes, she knew that face well.
Her thoughts progressed through a rapid succession of observations: Oh. He shaved. And got a haircut. Huh. Turns out, my language-exchange buddy cleans up nicely. Tall too. Surprise! Actually, he’s a lot more attractive in person. Not bad for the welcoming committee….
“…Maybe you meet me?” the cabbie repeated hopefully.
Caroline wished he would leave her alone. He’d already interrupted her first encounter with Marco. Though maybe it was better that way…she really shouldn’t have been admiring her friend the way she was.
“Ciao!” she greeted Marco exuberantly, smile beaming. She hoped it was enough to discourage the incessant cabbie, whom she finally turned to and said: “Sorry, I’m busy tomorrow.” Busy with my cute Italian tutor, she added silently, forgetting her resolve to keep things strictly friendly.
The driver finally took a hint and suddenly turned apologetic toward Marco. As soon as he stalked off, Marco swiftly enveloped Caroline in a bear hug.
“I thought he’d never leave,” he said about the cab driver, “I felt like I was the one intruding!”
After he handed her a bag of cremini, one of her favorite forms of chocolate, they walked side by side down a ramp and across the street. Approaching a row of cars that forced them to walk single file, Caroline let him lead the way; this gave her the chance to further study her welcoming committee. She verified that he was, indeed, much more attractive than she’d expected. All 6 feet of him was clad in black and gray, and loading her luggage into his car. This day was improving at a pleasantly rapid rate.
Animatedly wending their way around flooded streets, any reservations about whether or not they’d get along in person blew out the window. Caroline was surprised at how easily she laughed, and how it didn’t feel awkward at all. Actually, she mused, it feels like catching up with an old friend. The Italian drew her in with sincere brown eyes, an easy grin, and adorable dimples. She thought, Welcome, indeed.