Archetypes of the Stereotype
From the second I saw the Pinecone Hand, Ernie and Hads, I knew. It didn’t matter that I don’t know Italian. I didn’t need to. I’d seen that gesture a thousand times before, from Providence to North Providence, Federal Hill to Fruit Hill.
“Ohhhh, stugots…” is what it meant.
It didn’t matter that this stugots was asking the bus driver for his help, asking him to call the police while he held the wrists of the woman who had just ripped the mask from his face and was threatening to do him bodily harm. His shift was over and he wanted to go home – and this, this stugots, was trying to screw that all up.
The fight had been brewing in our standing-room-only bus throughout the entire ninety-minute ride back from the Amalfi Coast, the woman hurling verbal daggers at the younger man about something-or-other I couldn’t understand. But it had quickly escalated when we arrived back in Sorrento and the two had stepped onto the sidewalk.
I can’t tell you how it was resolved, or if it ever was. While the other passengers pointed their iPhones, waiting to make them both viral sensations, I’d gone looking for Polizia in the nearby square, only to be distracted by two very pretty American girls asking me for help finding a nearby market for wine and cheese. I would never look back.
But what I can tell you is that moment was the final bit of evidence I needed that Italians didn’t just invent pizza – and the pizza oven – they’re also the archetype of the stereotype.
How so? Well first, that hand gesture. It’s called “Pinecone Hand” to help differentiate from the estimated 250 other hand gestures that each and every last God-fearing Italian makes each and every day – and that statistic is an undeniable internet fact.
Want more, Ernie? Italians do eat a shitload of pizza, it’s true! In Italy, nearly every restaurant is called a pizzeria. So many in fact that I googled – and this is also true – “In Italy, is the word ‘pizzeria’ slang for ‘restaurant?’”
And if it’s not called a pizzeria, you can guarantee that even the finest, highest class joints have an entire menu section dedicated to that delectable, single-dished, always-uncut pizza pie.
And they do speak so aggressively and passionately and with such animated gestures that you’re convinced you’re about to see punches being thrown. Their words sound bitter and biting and angry, but then they laugh and give a kiss on the cheek or a pat on the back and an affable “Ciao!” as they part ways in the street.
They do love to sing – anywhere, anytime, and I’ll be damned if it doesn’t seem like every last one of them can hold a tune. They love to be seen and heard. They love fashion. They love their hair. They love their cleavage. They do drink wine at all times of the day, and they do ride vespas, goddammit!
Old men really do greet one another with an “OHHHH!” and “AYYYY!” while middle-aged men, far too old to be dressed like 1990s Vinny Pazienza, do so unironically while posing outside of storefronts as if it’s the local Coin-O-Matic. I almost took a photo of one group but couldn’t tell if the guy in the mirrored sunglasses, all white track suit, gold chains, slicked-back, jet-black hair and neatly trimmed five o’clock shadow wanted to kick my ass or compliment my shoes.
On the ride to the Amalfi Coast, along its narrow, hairpinned turns – in an entirely different but also dangerously overcrowded, standing-room-only bus – sometimes inches from safety rails that appeared merely aesthetic, our driver made personal call after personal call, dialing with one hand while way-too-casually navigating with the other, chatting animatedly and loudly, interrupting his conversations only to berate passing drivers, something he would continue to do well after the “offender” was long gone. He even stopped in the middle of the one-and-a-half-lane road to have an open-windowed, hand-grasping conversation with an oncoming bus driver, talking as if they hadn’t seen each other since grade school but who had probably driven into work together that very morning.
The past few weeks had been filled with every hilariously inappropriate Italian stereotype I’d grown up with, guys, and I’ll be damned if they’re not real. So whether it’s a kvetching Jewish mom, an Irish drinking lad, a tale about hapless Poles, or even jokes at the expense of my black friends, old an new, with whom I have shared many serious conversations about racism and equality in recent months and years, yes, even you have traits we can and should be able to chuckle about – and that’s coming from a pasty white middle class Irish German who likes to think he’s woke, which is a treasure trove of humor unto itself – because we all need a little more humor in our lives, and we all need to be able to laugh at ourselves from time to time, but maybe more importantly, we need to be able laugh at other people, because it’s much funnier that way. So if the PC push to take away our right to make fun of entire ethnicities for a few cheap laughs continues on its current path, well all I can say is that you’re going to have to pry stereotypical humor from my cold, dead, pineconed hands.
– – – – –
Meanwhile, after getting back to nature in Slovenia, my trip to Italy was mostly a return to playing tourist, the storied canals of Venice putting me smack dab in the middle of a sea of humanity for the first time in a couple of years. Besides reminding me that I hate tourists who aren’t me, it also confirmed that cruising its waterways by taxi or gondola is something that absolutely has to be done once in your lifetime.
If you read my last entry, you’ll remember that I’d given up a sweet apartment in Venice’s posh San Polo neighborhood thanks to pressure from Jeff Hull, future author of The Adventures Of A Hero Named Pud, to add Lake Bohinj to my journey. So it isn’t that big of a leap to say he also owns some of the responsibility for the place in which I ended up staying in Venice.
In Florence I would see the stunning Statue of David at the Accademia Gallery, visit its famed Cathedral, and walk the vast collection of masterworks at the Uffizi Gallery. I would stroll along the Arno, crisscross its bridges, and pass by Art History sculptures casually on display in outdoor squares throughout.
From Florence I went to Siena, prodded by my brothers and mother who knew that the simpler, slower pace of this gorgeous little Tuscan town would be more my speed. Don’t get me wrong – I’m loving the art and the history and wonders, and wouldn’t do it any other way, but I feel much more at home and in my element in a less chaotic place. There I would do simpler things, like walk to the Campo each morning where I would read and write and enjoy a couple of cappuccinos – not to mention being the recipient of a little Prosecco early one morning, courtesy of a group of elder gents. What started as one at one nearby table became two, then three of them, then two tables worth. When one of them popped the top on their bottle, the cork flew high up above my head and bounced off the concrete wall, falling on the cobblestone sidewalk between all of our tables. As an offering of apology, where one was certainly not needed but in the end very much appreciated, I was included in their toast, to what I don’t know, perhaps simply being alive on a wonderful morning in Siena, Italy. I could certainly toast to that.
I had lunch each day – an enormous slice of spinach pizza accompanied by a glass of Bocelli wine – with the owners of a little café at the end of my Old Town cobblestoned street. And I ate dinner at a little restaurant right around the corner from my front door. I did tour the Duomo and City Hall, filled with art and frescoes and historic artifacts, but that was the most I would play tourist in this lovely little town. I easily could have spent a month here.
Rome was, well, ROME! In all its jaw-dropping glory. There I shared a four-room AirBnB on a cobblestoned street in its Old Town with three young women, all long-term residents from outside of Italy. The hockey guys would of course find those accommodations spectacular, as did I, at first, until I realized that it meant the odds of getting access to the only bathroom (especially since one of my flatmates also had three friends visiting from Germany) were about the same as getting a tape-to-taper from The Plumber.
But the Colosseum, Forum, Pantheon, Sistine Chapel, and the breathtaking St. Peter’s Basilica, to name only a few of the sights seen, made it all worthwhile.
From Rome I would travel to Pompei, where I would tour its eerily preserved city with my new friend Faisal, hike to the rim of Mount Vesuvius with my new friend Corinne, and walk to the waterfront with my new friend Pipito – the latter of whom, I must admit to you both, is of the canine persuasion, but we can talk more about that when I get home.
Pietro and Pipito
On my way to the beach I was suddenly met by a little dog. He ran up to me, then turned and walked alongside like were were just a boy and his dog out for a stroll. A few blocks in I would pantomime to a local woman who spoke no English, and she would pantomime back, and when done I felt fairly certain that little Pipito was a neighborhood regular who knew exactly where he was.
We would walk the length of the beach, he often taking the lead by several hundred yards. When I sat to watch the setting sun, he busied himself around me, coming and going, sniffing and investigating, then coming back for a pet and hello.
And then suddenly he was gone. We were quite a ways from where we’d met, and it was time for me to start back. I looked, whistled, called, and would repeat it all a few times as I retraced my steps down the beach, and up the long alleyway to the neighborhood houses. Down one street, around a corner, then up another street. It was about then that I passed a gated home from where I could hear young kids playing inside, and then, all of a sudden…
I would say my goodbyes and walk on, assuming he’d been called home. I was happy to know he had young kids to play with. About 200 yards away I heard what sounded like someone pedaling a bicycle toward me from behind, only to discover it was the sound of Pipito’s nails on the concrete as he went whizzing past, then turned, ran back and stood with his front paws on my thighs, his tail wagging. We would walk along again, with me wondering if this meant he’d be joining me for the next 9 months. Around a couple more corners, the road split. Pipito went left. I went right. But not before he stopped and turned and stared as if we were in some cheesy movie, then he turned away one last time, and we both walked on toward our own adventures.
By the time I decided to go to Sorrento, it was with the expressed intent to do a whole lotta nothin’, and immediately upon arrival I extended my stay from three nights to five.
At the urging of nearly the entire Hanna family some months ago, I would take the aforementioned trip to Amalfi, the coastal cliffside route through Positano offering stunningly beautiful views. But I would pass on a boat trip to Capri, as well as a few other tourist offerings, opting instead to simply enjoy daily walks along the cliffs, taking in sweeping views of the islands, Naples, and Mount Vesuvius across the Gulf of Napoli. In the marinas below I would spy schools of boiling fish and fishermen, jetboarders, and swimmers, walking down to its beaches and piers on a couple of occasions. I would grab a cappuccino and relax on benches or at cafés, dropping crumbs to pigeons like and old man killing time before heading home to shake an angry fist at passing school children.
I shopped and cooked and did laundry and at night I streamed shows and listened to the everyday lives of my neighbors through my open courtyard windows. A birthday party. Kids laughing and playing after coming home from school. I began to look forward to hearing the same four Italian songs played once each day by one neighbor, along with the occasional, impromptu singing by another. I was even treated to a good old-fashioned, hot-blooded Italian couples’ fight, complete with ring-banging smacks on a wooden table and, eventually, another neighbor intervening to implore them to please shut the hell up. Just as it should be.
When I had my fill of wine and felt the urge for a beer, I would visit The Horse Shoe Pub just around the corner, an Irish bar owned and operated for 33 years by Luigi and Maria. If there was any question of their heritage – and short of legal blindness, that was impossible – it would immediately be dismissed by Luigi’s welcoming of the evening’s college girls with his live rendition of That’s Amoré.
I even got a long overdue massage, guys. It wasn’t quite a Jill Sarmento Therapeutic Massage, but my road-weary feet, legs, back, and shoulders are forever grateful to Georgia and Spa Ulysses.
During those last few days in Sorrento, and then aboard the 10-hour ferry crossing from Brindisi to Igoumenitsa, Greece, I had plenty of time to reflect and be thankful for where I’ve been so far, what I’ve seen, the people I’ve met along the way, and the ones who have helped make it all possible. This was all around Thanksgiving, after all.
Family, friends, Mom, not to mention Jason and Rachel and Grayson, who entered into a very odd arrangement that allows you both to watch over our home – and them – while I’m away.
I have been sent good and grateful vibes in the form of poems, prayers, and astral thoughts through spiritual eyes from dear friends old and new. I get tons of messages and updates – and thank god for WhatsApp. And I’m amused almost daily but the goings on of a child terrorist whom I will refer to here only as Cookie, because if I’m being honest I’m afraid of her.
And I am of course thankful for the two of you, who I miss and think of often, especially when I see other cats – and dogs – along the way. For dealing with such an odd arrangement, with my up and leaving after 9 years together, replaced by two complete strangers moving in with an enormous, defenseless, clawless, soft and probably very delicious bunny rabbit, whom neither of you have killed and eaten yet. For you and that and everything and everyone above, thank you all from the bottom of my heart. I hope you all had a joyous Thanksgiving holiday with family, friends and loved ones, and wish you all a fantastic holiday season ahead.