As a young man I yearned to be suave. It was my goal and I was making some progress by watching David Niven, Rex Harrison and James Bond movies.
I came to realize suavity is not a physical characteristic or an accumulation of skills, but an instinctive attitude enabling one to always claim the limelight. Sadly, my suavity quest ended dismally years ago on my first trip to Italy.
I’d spent hours studying the history, customs and language of the country. I wanted to be the calm, urbane person in my tour group who moved smoothly through Italy as if it were my second home.
I came to realize suave pretenders don’t stand out. They stick out. I learned this early in the tour where I was too often the proverbial sore thumb. During those two awful weeks I left a trail up and down the Italian boot of raised eyebrows, noses and a few fists.
As a take charge person I assumed the responsibility of planning the day to day details of our small party’s itinerary. The ensuing debacle was as much the result of faulty communications as it was a complete suavity crash.
I had no idea my grasp of Italian was so faulty. It sounded good to me. Even the members of my tour group said my delivery had a ring of authenticity with the arm waving and all. But gestures are no substitute for intelligibility. After rechecking my English-Italian dictionary later I was able to piece together and explain the more embarrassing episodes.
There was the hotel dining room fiasco when I tried to ingratiate myself with the headwaiter to get special treatment for my group. My friends must have assumed, like me, that Guido and I were having a friendly chat, but I subsequently discovered from the dictionary that I was saying to him, “Good night, Madam. When is your name? Please see that my friends get good crazy.” And he was replying, “Sir, you are standing on my foot.” I suavely informed my group that I’d made arrangements for VIP treatment.
That was Sunday evening. No waiter came to our table until late Tuesday when we were scolded for bringing sandwiches into the dining room. I tried to explain we hadn’t been served for two days and we were quite hungry.
The dining room problem was a minor glitch compared to the railroad station episode where I tried to manage the details of our side trip. The station was a beehive when we arrived during the commuter rush hour. It was my job to book passage for my party of six on a fast train to Venice.
Before I knew it, I’d spent many thousands of lire and held six tickets that I couldn’t read. A kindly old Italian gentleman noticed my quandary and offered to help. “Your tickets are for a special non-stop train to Venice,” he said. “It is an excellent train that will arrive there this afternoon. “
“Bene!” I said. “Just what I wanted.”
“Not so bene,” he replied “That train left ten minutes ago.”
In the next half hour, the Italian railway system and I exchanged considerable amounts of tickets and lire. At one point I had tickets for an express train, but no guarantee of seats for the six-hour ride. During a critical communications breadown we were booked on a boat train to Sardinia.
Believing I’d finally solved the problem I hustled my group off to the express platform while I searched for a luggage porter. The porter and I arrived with the bags just on time. Not on time for me to board, unfortunately, but on time to wave goodbye to my friends who appeared bewildered to be leaving without their suitcases.
I was suavely confident that I could solve that problem. “Enjoy Venice,” I called to them. “Arrivederci!”.
The porter tugged at my sleeve. “No Venizia, Signore. Your friends are going to Vienna.”
“Oh well,” I shouted suavely to my departing friends, “Auf wiedersehen!”