Once a week, I
force myself to turn on the television. Something might be happening out there,
and I might need to know about it. My fleeting desire to be informed, however,
is often squelched during the first minute-and-a half of TV commercials, which
Italians appropriately call ‘spot’. By the end of minute two, I often find
myself snapping off the TV and stomping out of the room, yelling something
crazy like ‘I don’t WANT to rent my phone line from a bunch of scary MONKEYS
who wrap themselves up in the telephone cord!’
of scary, last week’s most frightening advert declared the virtues of
Mediobanca, calling it ‘the bank that tells you the truth.’
I need is for my bank to start being honest with me. And if they are serious,
I’m taking my 11 euro out of there and hiding them under my mattress. Because
frankly, I can’t think of anything worse than Mr. Mediobanca popping out of the
ATM screen, bearing the banner of sincerity: Whew, you’re really broke,
reasonable pledge like ‘We promise not to remind you’ would have made a much
more effective ad campaign, or so I thought until I arrived at my latest
‘Listen, I wanted to ask you a favor,’ Stefano, the hotel manager, said
when I stopped by his office to sign my registers. ‘We have guest books in
English that we put in all our rooms. I thought maybe you could correct the
mistakes. One day, in your free time, I mean,’ he smiled then and with arguable
charm said, ‘I’ll offer you a drink one evening in exchange.’
drink? I fumed. Yes. A
very strong drink, indeed.
Seeing from my
expression that I was somehow not parched enough to provide three days of
gratuitous labor, he tried to rectify his mistake, ‘Or else dinner…’
it would be if chilling responses would creep up my spine and inspire merciless
comebacks made to measure. Unfortunately, though, I’m much better at
spontaneous speechlessness, after which I spend several days ruminating what I
should have said until I can’t tell the difference between my mind and my
stomach. Has Stefano, I wonder now, ever tried offering the plumber a dinner
date in exchange for his services?
As it was, I
grappled for graciousness. His suggestions were not sleazy, just wrong. Stefano
is not a bad guy. Nor was it his fault that countless people have asked the
same sort of question innumerable times. Or that many have been granted the
favor they expected. That I was on the brink of ‘basta’ had very little to do
‘I would be happy to correct the book’ I told him, only slightly more
curt than usual. If the bank could be honest, then so could I. ‘I don’t correct
grammar in my free time. If you send me the text, I can quote you a price.’
Then, I gave him a smile to soften the sourness. My response was met with blank
but genuine surprise.
had never occurred to him that translation is labor, not leisure. Nor had he
considered that writing is a skill, not a pastime. The fact that I love it
actually increases its value rather than cheapening it. Poor Stefano had been
tricked by the myths. He’d bought into the commonly held notion that language
proficiency equals effortlessness and that ex-pat native speakers are dying to
dispense language favors with a promiscuousness that goes beyond enjoyment.
this: those who speak a language don’t necessarily know how to teach it or even
translate it, and if by chance they are blessed with either of these rare and
worthy professional talents, then, guess what? They want to be paid.
And do you
know what else? Most of the money grubbers in this world do not make their sordid
millions in a country where piecemealed professions are the order of the day.
Thus, for those who climb the rungs of freelance effort in Italy, it is not
greed that makes earning money attractive.
attractive because it buys groceries. And yes, there are times when ‘Will work
for food’ is not so far from the truth, but, pay us and we’ll do our own
shopping, thank you very much.
Stefano shimmied away from a professional commission the way a boy drops down
from his bedroom window via drainpipe. ‘Never mind,’ he said, lowering his
eyes, ‘I thought it would be something quick.’
about it,’ I told him, reaching out to touch his arm the way Italians sometimes
do, as a form of reassurance. What I was comforting him about, I’m not quite
sure. Perhaps it was just to say that despite misconceptions there could still
be a good feeling between us-because, like I say, in the larger scheme of the
universe, I quite like the guy.
That’s the fatto bello, by the way. You can like the guy and still
refuse to do the favor. Because a manager whose company owns three four-star
hotels and a restaurant that made Michelin, does not, in fact, need your
charity. And although this realization may seem painfully elementary, it has
taken me half a decade to see it and the other half to actually believe it.
I’m a slow learner. But now I know. Business-related favors frustrate me. And
that is, in fact, the main reason I wasn’t going to write this story. When I
can’t keep frustration out of my life, I prefer to keep it off my paper. It’s
not so much as a form of repression as a way to create empty space in which to
silently breathe. Still, I’m never really allowed to keep quiet for long. Some
messages must get written. Resist and the Fates will push your circumstances to
the limits of believability. Only once you’ve given in and produced the piece
they’re pulling for are you allowed to return to safer realms.
On Sunday, I
received a text message from a student of mine, a communist entrepreneur who
changed his name to Vladimir when he was 13 years old. It was 9am. His
message read, ‘I know you’re not interested in these things, but do you want to
translate for free for an American deserter? He’s speaking in the piazza
Um … I think
that would be a no. No. I do not like that Sam-I-am. But thank you for the
sign. It’s all much clearer to me now: this article has just got to get
In Italian, one says patti chiari,
amicizia lunga. Clear pacts,
long friendship. Well, let’s make our pledges soon, shall we? So that next time
the Mediobanca man gets an inkling to buckle down and be honest, we can all do
our own part to spread the sincerity. In the world of language-related
freelancing, ‘summer’ means ‘famine’ and ‘autumn’ stands for ‘urgency’, so work
must be for pay and favors should be saved for friends. Weirdness and kindness,
on the other hand, are both delightfully common and deliciously free.