The Pedestrian Baritone

Laurie Hall

© Copyright 2021 by Laurie Hall

Images provided by "Bari, Italy" is by L.C.Nøttaasen licensed under CC BY 2.0
                    "Bari, Italy" is by L.C.Nøttaasen. I
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Bari, Italy. Remembering it, I have an impression of broad, bland boulevards and grandiose civic buildings drenched in unrelenting sun. And the blister blooming on my ankle inside my hiking boots.

My backpack straps were rasping grooves into my shoulders and I had murder on my mind. Tugging my sweat-soaked shirt away from me, I glowered at my companion. Oh, to be in Italy in August—when Italians with sense and money have fled the sizzling heat.

My boyfriend, Bob, and I had fetched up in Bari, Italy at the hottest part of the summer of 1976, and were wearing a groove of our own into the pavement.

Like bickering hamsters on a wheel, for two sweltering days we paced the streets of Bari—from the American Express Office to the Ufficio del Telegrafo e Postale to the C.I.T. headquarters (Compagnia Italiana Turismo, regrettably pronounced “cheat”) to the Telephone Office . . . and back.

Why didn’t we just relax and enjoy the sights of Bari, like normal tourists? Looking back, I really wish we had; it has a lot to offer, including a considerable presence on the Adriatic. But we were on a mission, or rather Bob was. To be fair, our quest hadn’t seemed impossible: we were simply trying to get word from the U.S. regarding our undelivered EurailPasses. Starting out in the UK, we hadn’t thought we’d need them. We did. By the time we got to Marseilles we gave in and ordered the passes. But EurailPass recommended that you buy them before you left. There was a reason for that, we were discovering.

Bari, our last Italian train stop, was the port for catching the boat to Corfu. So while in Marseilles, looking at our eastward itinerary and calculating the glacial speed of the post, then adding a few days, we’d given our mail delivery address as the Bari American Express Office. We hadn’t noticed the tiny “(R)” symbol by its address in the official directory, signifying “Representative only.” That meant it wasn’t a real American Express office with all its customary perks—for instance, English-speaking reps. In Italy, apparently you could represent an American company for any of its services, however small (pointing to a public restroom came to mind), without the requirement of speaking . . . well, American. This side-bar office was “American Express” in name only. In reality, it was just a small travel agency, whose only English-speaking person was the manager. Who was never there.

Phrase book in hand, I inquired when would we be able to speak with the manager. My accent wasn’t bad, but vocabulary was nil; trying to explain our situation with my sorry cross of high school French and Spanish, throwing in a few presumed Italian cognates, was beyond my reach. È stata troppo complicata. Too complicated.

With the help of hand gestures (strictly friendly) and communal reference to my phrase book, we finally came to understand that the manager might be expected in at 12:30, or tomorrow, , but not between 2:00 p.m. and 4:00 p.m. as they were closed in the afternoon for siesta. Forse (perhaps) after 4:30 . . . and so on. But, con rincrescimento, regretfully, no mail had arrived for us. I flipped some pages in my book. Assolutamente? Were they sure?

We’d need to confirm with the manager.

After this charade, we stomped over to the C.I.T. headquarters where there was someone who spoke excellent English: Alfredo, a polyglot and an extremely kind man. He wrote us, ungrudgingly, numerous entreaties to deliver to his uncomprehending countrymen.

On the off-chance our passes had been redirected, we next galumphed over to the Telegraph and Post Office where we were initiated into the rites of “How to enquire (in French, Spanish or English) if there is any post for you”—at every department of an Italian post office. Turns out, there are quite a few, and we got passed along like bewildered batons to the next one. For all Americans intent on being considered well-traveled, Italian should be a required course, with International Hand Gestures a prerequisite. Please understand that among Europeans, Italians are some of the most helpful and encouraging—pointing out directions, snagging interpreters, even helping finish your stumbling sentences with the right noun. However, it would be folly to rely on their grasp of your language.

But the more cosmopolitan Germans and French had spoiled us. Now we had to improvise.

So after the post office relay inquiry, we began the ordeal of placing a paid-reply telegram at the telegraph department concerning the status of our passes. This required more translation trips to long-suffering Alfredo at the C.I.T. office. After several laps, we got the telegram sent.

Worn out and discouraged, we decided to do what Italians do: find a sidewalk café where we could collapse with a strong drink and, hopefully, stash our backpacks behind the aspidistras. If ever there was something that shrieked “Dumb Yankees!” it was my big red backpack. (Bob’s idea, like the boots.) This strategy would also put us temporarily out of range of the prying fingers of the pee-wee Capone gangs, as well as the smirks of the pocket-loungers poised outside every bistro.

Happily, we found a vacant table by a potted palm. We consulted our wallets and itinerary. Our lire were lessening and here we were—still bumbling about in Bari. At this rate, we might have to give up Sweden. Before returning in defeat to our pensione, we ordered a second round and shared some pasta.

The next day, we dared a new tactic: making a direct phone call to the States. This was in 1976, children. There were no cell phones. Thankfully, the staff at the Telephone Office also spoke some English. But we had to wait for the proper time of day to call, then wait again for an open line, get the correct money . . . which had to be converted from our American Express Travelers’ Checks, cashed guess where, to pay for the call.

We also had to keep rechecking at the Telegraph Office for a reply to our wire, which demanded another exercise in determination and shoe leather.

The second afternoon of this farce, we were plodding once more along the familiar strada to the American Express Office. Parrying snarled accusations (“Well, it was your idea!”), we ducked under what shade we could find, trying to maintain only a 2nd degree on our sunburns. Like determined birders, we were on a stake-out: sighting the elusive blue-breasted English Speaking Manager. The previous two visits had yielded niente, so our mood was black: teeth and fists clinched. Anathemas against the mercurial Italian bureaucracy were muttered.

Bored with the official face of Bari, we decided to take a detour and explore, to see where people lived, and to find better shade. We turned into a narrow side street, lined with tan, 50’smodern apartment buildings and spreading, leafy trees. Being mid-afternoon, the street was quiet and dreaming as Italians napped inside, shuttered away from the heat. The few who were out and about were mostly returning from their daily shopping, bags in hand, headed for their own siestas. The exception was a patrician Italian gentleman—dark hair brilliantined straight back from his forehead, his tall frame adorned in a delicious suit of ice-cream white—strolling ahead of us at a stately pace. Un gran signore, with no need of shopping bags.

When we came to a tree-shaded intersection, Bob and I paused judiciously as the furious whine of a small engine reached us. A Lilliputian white Fiat screamed past at Mach-5. We held our breaths as it skidded around the corner between close-parked cars, narrowly missing the man in his immaculate white suit as he stepped out from the curb. Il signore only escaped being squashed, Italian-style, by breaking from his respectable stroll into a quick, fox-trotting side-step.

Now, an American, after recovering, would either have pursued the fishtailing Fiat on foot, with threats (futile) and hand gestures (indelicate), or gotten the license number and called the police.

But this was Italy. The suave and well-accoutered gentleman simply turned back toward his retreating assailant, planted both feet in the middle of the intersection and sang out, in a gorgeous operatic baritone, an aria of elegant curses and assassinations of the driver’s character and lineage. Ascending and descending, the exquisite notes poured forth fortissimo and ended in a victorious cadenza, complete with theatrical gesture. Pavarotti had nothin’ on him.

As the final note died, an assortment of onlookers that had collected applauded vigorously. Bravo! Bravissimo! Il signor the baritone graciously nodded his acknowledgement and resumed his passeggiata.

After our dropped American jaws shut, we added our own enthusiastic applause, grinning wide-eyed with wonder and delight. I don’t know about Bob, but I wouldn’t have missed that for the world nor Sweden. Bob put an arm around me and we sighed, an unspoken tenet between us: this is why we travel. Our torment over the EurailPasses began to lose ground.

Sometimes you need the song of a pedestrian, il canto d’un pedone, to restore perspective.

Postscript: EurailPass had wisely refused to send our passes to a satellite American Express office in Italy. Instead, Bob’s parents had the passes mailed to them, then sent them to us, c/o Poste Restante, Lucerne, Switzerland, where all European languages are well-spoken.

A travel agent for 13 years, Laurie Hall, began committing her experiences to writing in 2017. Although Laurie has had short stories and Op-Eds published in the U.S. and one in the U.K., she’s still waiting for her big literary break when the big bucks will roll in and top her writing expenses. She lives in Plymouth, MA with her cat and Chief Shreditor, Sam.

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