My Italian Language Barrier (Or Why Italy Has A Phone With A Safety Button)

IMG_0138My dream vacation had always been Italy. I landed in Milan in 2001 and started my journey. My lack of Italian language skills did not deter me from enjoying a cruise on the famed waters of Venice; or finding the David in Florence (both the fake outside the Palazzo Vecchio and the original secured safely inside the Accademia Gallery). Then, it was time for Rome, a major European city where an American could easily get by on English. Or so I thought.

I arrived at the Sunset Roma Hotel as the afternoon sun shone brightly over the Eternal City. The former mansion dated back to the 1870’s and had become a luxury guesthouse renovated to provide all the modern conveniences. The hotel was located on a quaint, but narrow, Italian street with alimentari, or small grocery stores, on each corner, and was far enough off the beaten tourist path to make me feel like I was experiencing the real Italia.

Francesco was more than a hotel clerk manning the front desk. He was real Italia. With his jet-black hair slicked down to his smooth, olive complexion, Francesco could have been the poster boy for Italy. His grandmother owned the hotel, but he and his family handled the day-to-day affairs. Francesco’s English was far better than my Italian as he welcomed me.

“Your key. If you need anything, please call on me,” Francisco said.

“Grazie,” I replied and within minutes found myself walking into my home away from home for the next several days. Clean white walls reflected the light as it penetrated the windows. Dark wooden beams crisscrossed the ceiling. They appeared to create a fortress of protection. I looked out the window and my eyes were drawn to one of Rome’s most famous sites, the Colosseum.

I fell asleep in the comfort of my room. When I woke, I decided to call a friend of a friend who would show me the beauty of Rome. I picked up the telephone next to the bed and began dialing the number. Immediately the tone told me I had not done something correctly. I tried again and I heard the same ear-piercing negative tone. I decided to call Francesco for help. I only had to hit a button marked “Front Desk” to reach him.

“Francesco, I can’t get the phone to work properly. I’m not sure what I’m doing wrong.”

“Very easy,” Francesco replied. “Two buttons. On/Off. Safety.”

“I’m looking, but I don’t see those buttons.”

“Yes, two buttons. On/Off. Safety,” repeated Francesco.

I looked all over the phone. There was nothing special about it. It was a typical black hotel telephone and never had I heard of a telephone having an on/off feature or a safety feature. “I’m sorry, Francesco. I don’t see it.”

“Where are you?” Francesco asked.

“I’m next to the bed,” I said.

“Ah, go to the bathroom,” he said.

“Ok, one moment,” I said. I placed the phone receiver on the bed and walked into the bathroom. A small white telephone was next to the toilet. I hadn’t noticed it earlier, but perhaps it operated differently than the telephone next to the bed. I picked up the receiver in the bathroom. “I’m on the phone in the bathroom. I still don’t see the buttons,” I said to Francesco.

“No worries. I will come up, “ Francesco said.

I walked back into the bedroom and waited. A few minutes later Francesco knocked and I opened the door. “Ciao.”

“Ciao,” said Francesco. I turned to walk toward the phone next to the bed, but Francesco walked into the bathroom.

I followed him into the bathroom and saw Francesco holding the hairdryer!

“See. Two buttons. On/off. Safety,” he said.

I laughed. “No. No. Il telefono,” I said in my best Italian. “Il telefono.”

“Ohhhh! Il telefono!” Francesco said and burst into laughter. He held out the hairdryer and said, “Phone. Phone.”

I would later learn “fon” is a French slang word meaning hairdryer that the Italians use. Francesco showed me how to use “il telefono” correctly. In the Eternal City, I found myself eternally grateful for Francesco’s kindness.

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