Friday, September 24, 2010

“Mama Mia!”

One of my first real trips out of the country - My first trip to a land that did not utilize English as their primary mode of communication, was in the fall of 2006. I'd had a brief flirt with Mexico, one crazy night in Tijuana, full of piñatas, Mexican soda, and dancing. I was six, and I fell asleep crossing back into California, dragging my piñata behind as my head bobbed over my father's shoulder. I'd also been to Toronto for a few days with a church youth group, but Toronto is about as exotic as Cleveland (no offense to either great city).

Through the connections Annie (my then girlfriend, now wife) had established earlier that year, the two of us were afforded an opportunity to take a 10 day Opera masterclass in Florence. Annie had spent three amazing months in Europe that spring, and I begrudgingly went along for this return to paradise. The trip was expensive, foolhardy, and academically taxing. That being said, it was worth every bit of coin, stress, and dismay. We drained our bank accounts, took out loans from the national bank of Mom's and Dad's, and boarded the flight.

The first leg of the trip took us from the bustling cacophony of Chicago's O'Hare International airport to the militaristic order of Frankfurt Germany's tarmacs. I must say that in all of the terminals I've been to, Frankfurt may be one of the simultaneously scariest and the most comforting. The stringent order and prevalence of uni-brows, the unyielding looks of consternation on the customs officers. Even the sweaters worn by the Lufthansa crew are distinctly harder lined and sharper edged than the Cosby sweaters of the United airlines crew, resplendent with loosened red ties and pushed up sleeves. Ne'er would you see a self respecting German air employee with a button askew, from pilot to custodian. The Frankfort airport is also the only security that has ever wreaked havoc on my titanium infused bones.

On the day of our travel, the Frankfurt airport had discarded use of the traditional metal detecting gates, opting instead for use of the wand. Each individual on their way out of Germany via that airport was stopped, spread eagle like the great black bird on the German flag, and frisked with an over-sized, electronic Popsicle. Annie removed the contents of her pockets, slipped off her shoes in a post 9/11 fashion, and passed the exam with flying colors and, more importantly, a silent wand. As she replaced her footwear and gathered her belongings, I entered the gauntlet. The woman bearing the metal detector appeared as if she could deliver me to Florence herself, with one swift underhand toss. I assumed the position, frozen mid jumping jack and winced. I don't know why, but I always hold my breath as I undergo these tests. I'm afraid of failing, being seen as suspicious, and ultimately being taken into a room, strip searched, and thrown in a dank German cell.

In the three seconds it took for those thoughts to flash through my mind, the Rhineland Amazon was upon me. She wanded my left arm.


The Popsicle ascended it's alien-esque scale as it approached the titanium in my port side. It reached the climax of its frenzied pitch as it passed over my humerus, and one half of the security woman's uni-brow arched, the pupil underneath boring a hole into my frozen expression. Her gaze locked on my paltry face, she proceeded to continue the search, discovering the additional deposits of unidentified foreign metal in my right arm and my left leg. As I searched for the most succinct explanation for my alarming appendages, she searched my expression for any hint of suspicion. Once she had identified all of the zones of violation, she asked in a gruff Germanic tone

"What are these?"

"I have plates...Surgery...see the scars?"

I rolled up my shirt and pointed to the trails of sinuous tissue that scramble up my biceps, trailing around my elbow on the left side, carving out canyons in my thigh. I smiled tentatively, almost saying aloud:

"Don't worry, I wouldn't be so crazy as to implant a bomb in my arms! That'd be nuts!"

As if one who was interested in blowing up a plane would be concerned with harming his own limbs.

The woman called another security person over, conferred in terse, short bursts of German, then, without another word, she beckoned to my shoes, baggie of bath products, and the miscellaneous inhabitants of my pockets, and I was on my way.

We boarded the plane to Italy without any further misstep.

When we finally reconnected with the terrain of Tuscany, the laid back Italian lifestyle became instantly apparent. We gathered our belongings, crossed into the terminal, and made our way to the baggage carousel. We gathered our cases, then unsure of where to go next, we walked out the nearest exit, into the fresh sunshine of the sleepy Italian morning.

It wasn't until we had boarded a bus, headed vaguely in the direction which our hotel was presumably located, that we realized that we hadn't gone through customs, had our passports stamped, or even spoken to another soul in the Florence airport. From the time we were told to “Enjoy our stay” as we exited the aircraft, not another word was uttered by an airport official.

On the bus, we were not so inconspicuous. Not only were we lugging huge suitcases onto a bus already loaded with Florentine locals on their way to work, school, or the market, we were standing in the middle of the aisle, desperately attempting to slide our belongings out of the way as people shuffled on or off the tram. Sometimes a man would mutter


or something indeterminate under his breath as he sidled by. I would smile an apologetic grin and timidly attempt to return the salutation

“Sca...uhmahh, scuzahda?”

Annie would hear this vain attempt at assimilation and chuckle to herself. Living in the country for months earlier that year, her Italian was returning like scenes from an old film. She excitedly pointed out familiar waypoints along the trip, already shaping the itineraries of the days ahead in her mind.

At one stop, a train of little women in nondescript pastel habits shuffled on to the bus. One after another, we traded greetings




Suddenly one small leathery woman stopped before me. She sighed with a labored irritation, trying to decide how I expected her to pass through this unbelievably small chasm between my case and the adjacent seat. Shaking her head, she looked up at me with an open mouth that was poised to spew any number of old world reprimands, a discursive cascade of chiding admonishment. But as her eyes caught mine, the torrent of Mediterranean scolding stopped short in her throat. She gasped, took one look up and down my body, and muttered

“Mama Mia!”

And with that, she moved down the line. The first real words anyone said to me in that magnificent city. And to this day, I say the same thing about Florence.

Mama Mia, indeed.

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