by Marcy Gordon
It was an emergency in a foreign tongue.
Last year I decided to improve my scant knowledge of Italian and enrolled in a three-month intensive course at the Universita per Stranieri in Perugia, the world renowned language school for foreigners in Umbria, Italy. As part of the total immersion method, your first lesson starts in the basement of the university during registration week where you wait in line for hours with confused and disoriented people from all over the world—China, Japan, Germany, Taiwan, Russia, and Spain—with only one language in common—Italian.

While waiting in line for a permit of stay, I helped a completely bewildered Australian couple decipher their enrollment papers and informed them that they had been standing in the wrong line for the last two hours and then directed them to the registrar’s office. Later, in another endless line, a girl from Japan wearing a Marilyn Manson t-shirt and a Hello Kitty backpack told me that Hello Kitty was “in-ten-sho-no-lee i-row-nic.” Any previous doubts I had about Hello Kitty’s intentions were now cleared up.

After negotiating the chaos of registration I received my student ID and could now eat for cheap in the student canteen as soon as I found out where it was. As I asked for directions, I noticed the Japanese girl, and the couple from Australia I had helped earlier, watching me intently. I set off for the cafeteria and all three followed me. I immediately jaywalked across four lanes of speeding traffic figuring I would lose them but that only set in their minds that I was brazen and well versed in Italian culture. At the next intersection they caught up to me and I confessed I had no idea where I was going, only a vague sense of the general direction. The Australians said they didn’t care where we ended up—they were just relieved to be with someone who spoke English.

They followed me down a steep dirt trail that led all the way from the top of the Marcato into an underground storage area where once our eyes adjusted to the dark we found three Ethiopians smoking a joint and unloading crates of lettuce from a service elevator. The three fellows quickly unloaded the remaining crates and left without a word. We decided to take the service elevator back to the top and as soon as the elevator doors closed we discovered there were no control buttons on the inside. Then the lights went out and the elevator began to move DOWN! Hello Kitty girl began to squeal like a pig to slaughter, which in turn caused the Australians to start laughing hysterically. When the doors opened we found ourselves deeper in the bowels of Perugia than seemed possible. Armed with my flashlight and some matches from the Aussies, we found a stairwell and climbed our way up towards the light. Six flights later we reached the top of the market, just a few feet from the dirt path where we began, and coincidently only a few yards from the cafeteria entrance. The Aussies, blessed with a robust sense of humor, appeared to have enjoyed the whole experience, but the Japanese girl seemed positively pissed. I guess she missed the non-intentional irony of the situation.

Over lunch I learned the Australians were both in their mid 60s, and had come to Perugia from Melbourne to take one month of beginning Italian. Despite the fact they were speaking English, their heavy accents made it challenging to understand everything they said. She introduced herself as Grace and he gave his name as something that sounded like Attha. I thought it was African or Abo, and all through lunch I kept calling him variations on it like Attar or Atho and at one point I called him Aphid, like the bug. But it was not until Grace wrote down their names and phone number that I realized his name was Arthur, not Aphid.

Grace and Arthur told me the apartment they rented near the school had a kitchen full of pots and pans and other cooking utensils, but no dishes, cups or eating implements of any kind. I joked that they should just borrow some items from the cafeteria to which Grace replied “Capital idea!” and Aphid immediately began stuffing cutlery and plates into his backpack. After the heist, we decided to meet up later that evening and go to the movies. Grace and Arthur thought it would be a good way to immerse themselves in the language and culture without actually having to speak to anyone.

Much to our surprise the movie was not in Italian but in Korean with Italian sub-titles. The film, from South Korea was calledLa Moglie Dell’Avvocato, The Lawyers Wife…not the avocado’s wife that Grace thought it meant. Anyway, talk about weird; it turned out the film was basically porn disguised as a highbrow South Korean soap opera.

From what I could piece together the story was as follows: Hojung is the frustrated wife of Mihjang, a successful lawyer who disses Hojung and takes up with his secretary. Seeking revenge, Hojung gets involved with a very young guy—Wohung—who lives in her building. But things get complicated when Mihjang and his lover are killed in a car accident and Wohung’s father discovers that his son is seeing Hojung and all hell breaks loose. I think it was a comedy. Aussie Grace thought the name of Hojung’s lover was “well hung,” which it did sound like and makes you wonder about the South Korean sense of humor. Arthur, a.k.a Aphid, slept through most of the show and spent the rest of the time pondering the possibility of swiping a stack of cold drink cups from the concession stand to augment their ill-equipped kitchen. I suggested he might as well take the popcorn maker too while he was at it, but he didn’t think he could fit it in his backpack.

We continued to meet each day at the cantina between classes and fell into the kind of accelerated intimate friendship that is often forged among strangers when traveling far from home. The next week we saw another film, this time in German with Italian sub-titles. Once again the story line seemed to be just the sheerest of veneers to host an all out porn fest. It was rather surprising that all the films were distinctly adult in nature. I asked my host family about all the peculiar foreign films I had seen. They exchanged worried looks and explained delicately that the particular theater I’d been to was not exactly mainstream, but the “art house” for experimental films. I told Grace and Aphid I got the impression from my host family that we had been frequenting the local porn theater. Grace and Aphid were unfazed. Nothing rattled them. Aphid said it was all part of being Australian, that as a rule they tend to stay calm and not stress on the little things. I called their philosophy and attitude towards life—avoiding a frightening behavior—coined from a poorly translated fire emergency poster I saw in the cafeteria that read:


I believe it meant “Relax, Stay Calm, and Don’t Panic.” Grace and Aphid always exuded an easy relaxed air that I admired. But heck, they were on an extended vacation, with nothing really to worry about. Or so I thought.

Two days later things changed. At 3 a.m. I got a frantic call on my cell phone from Aussie Grace.

“Please come right away, it’s an emergency,” she said. “I’ll explain when you get here.”

Grace opened the door looking quite distressed and weary. Aphid was sitting hunched in the corner with a dishtowel in his lap.

“What is it? What’s wrong?” I asked.

“It’s Arthur it’s…oh, how to say this…its the prasta,” said Grace.

“The what?”

“The prasta.”

“The pasta? He ate something bad?”

“No, not the pasta, the prostata.”

“Are you speaking English?”

“Yes, yes!” said Grace.

“Oh Good God Grace,” said Aphid. “Just tell her.”

“Tell me what?”

“It’s me little Joe…it’s stuck,” Aphid said.

“Your what? What the hell are you talking about?”

“Grace, give her the box,” said Aphid.

Grace sheepishly handed me a carton.

“It’s Viagra,” Aphid said. “I took it several hours ago and…well…it went up but now it won’t go down.”

I burst out laughing and Grace started laughing too. Aphid just moaned.

“Oh my God, I’m sorry,” I said. “But what the hell do you want me to do? You Aussies are a kinky bunch. I’m not that kind of girl you know!”

“Oh please, be serious!” said Aphid. “We need you to read the box for us or help us call a doctor. We can’t possibly explain this in Italian.”

“Okay, okay, let me see the package. Where did you get this stuff anyway and what were you thinking?”

“It’s not that I need it,” said Aphid. “We thought it would be fun to try—you can get it in the pharmacies here.”

“Yeah right, I guess those foreign films put some ideas into your head.”

Grace started laughing again.

“Marcy pleaseeee…” begged Aphid.

“You know I have to say that I’m really disappointed with you, this is so irresponsible, experimenting with drugs…and on a school night!”

“Please Marcy, read the package…”

“Okay…uh huh…uh huh…hmmmm interesting. All right then, lets try this—Aphid, stand up and put your hands over your head and stretch your fingers out as wide as you can.”

“Will this help? Does it say to do that? What will this do?”

“Nothing, but you’re always complaining that this flat needs a proper hat and coat rack—well, now you’ve got one.”

Grace exploded with laughter.

“Oh please!” said Aphid. This is not a joke, what does it really say?”

“I’m not a hundred percent sure but I think it says something about drug interactions and remaining calm. Gently you have to avoid to assume a frightening behavior.

“What?” said Aphid looking puzzled.

“Never mind, it’s a translation thing…”

Grace continued to laugh.

“Look Aphid,” I said, “You need to relax. Grace, can you heat up some milk?”

“Warm milk? For what, a compress of sorts?” asked Grace.

“Oh jeeze no, I just thought it might be relaxing for him to drink.”

“Oh right—brilliant—good idea,” said Grace. “And then maybe we can give him some soothing thoughts—you know power of suggestion and all that—it could be beneficial for him to think of things that are not sexy.”

“Things that are not sexy? That sounds like a Jeopardy category—I’ll take things that are not sexy for $500!”

Aphid groaned and held his head in his hands.

“Well let’s give it a try,” said Grace. “Arthur dear, try to relax and concentrate on our words. I’ll go first…how about…ducks?”


“Yes, ducks.”

“Okay how about…porridge?” I said

“Oh yes, that’s quite good, that’s not sexy at all. My go. I’ll say…flannel.”




“Tongue depressors.”



“Oh sorry,” I said. “But I’m getting kind of hungry.”

“Knee socks,” said Grace.

We fired off words as if we were in the speed round of some demented game show. But before I could give my next soothing thought, Aphid stood up and screamed—“For God’s sake this is ridiculous! Besides, actually I quite fancy knee socks. But nonetheless, I would like to go to hospital now.”

At the hospital Grace and Aphid stood silently behind me as I tried to explain the exact nature of Aphid’s problem. Although I was supposedly a level two Italian student, my vocabulary was not equipped to convey all the details accurately. I couldn’t recall the word for penis or even a slang term, so I made up words as I best I could to describe the situation:

Il poinger non va via. E va su e sopra ma no va giu.

Che cosa?” What? asked the admission clerk.

Lui ha un grande problema con sua pee pee. Lui bisogna aiuto.He needs help.

I wondered if there was an international signal for “erectile distress” and what it possibly could be. In desperation, I resorted to hand gestures and began an elaborate pantomime. My impromptu floorshow caused a sensation and everyone in the admissions area started laughing at what can best be described as a sort of Martha Garhamesque piece on fertility rites gone horribly awry. Eventually a doctor who spoke English was called down to see Aphid. Il Dottore took Aphid away and gave him some kind of shot and il grande poinger retreated.

Grace and Arthur returned to Melbourne with the majority of their dignity intact. But I was left to negotiate the streets of Perugia on my own, still too embarrassed to walk past the hospital for fear of running into anyone who might recognize me from my performance. I was trying very hard to avoid a frightening behavior, but it was going to take some time.
Marcy Gordon operates a marketing and publicity consulting firm—Bocca della Verita—which provides marketing services to travel guidebook publishers. She is a contributing editor to the new Authentic Tuscany series published by the Touring Club of Italy, which she also co-designed and developed in less than perfect Italian. Ms. Gordon spends unequal parts of the year in California and Italy. She is a graduate of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communication with a degree in Advertising and Marketing.

About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.