Your cell phone in Italy, so easy, so difficult, so necessary
“Are you going to call the green number?”
My wife and I are in our rental car, a dark blue Fiat Panda. It’s a four-door mini that feels like a grown-up go-cart. You can squeeze four small people and half a suitcase into it. It may be small but it’s also brand new. Its suspension is tight. It motors down the autostrada just fine at 100 km/hr and squeaks into tight parking spaces in town. We don’t need much in a car. This one exceeds our needs.
Except just now it’s running on the spare tire. Earlier today, swooping in to parallel park the car in Pesaro, I slid along a curb and ripped a three-inch slash in the right front tire. I’m sure the spare is safe, but it’s also temporary. We’ll be driving the car four more weeks. The car should have four good tires and a spare. What to do? Take matters into my own hands? Buy a new tire? And then return the car at the Bologna airport next month and pretend nothing happened?
“You really should call the green number,” my wife says. “Find out what Europcar wants us to do.”
The green number is toll-free help. I can make the call. I know I can make the call.
Still, it’s the phone.
Over here I’ll look a waiter in the eye and tell him exactly what I want to eat. I’ll while away the time on the sidewalk in front of the apartment, talking to Luciana about her granddaughters. Or blather away with the guy pumping my gas. Phone talk, on the other hand, makes me nervous.
I’m pretty sure Italian call centers, unlike those in the U.S., are not located in India. When I call, I’m not required to decipher Italian spoken with an Indian accent. But that might as well be the case. There are regional differences in spoken Italian—variations in pronunciation and cadence—as well as buzzing phone connections and circumambient racket, as well as help desk staff that wakes up in a bad mood or doesn’t feel inspired by their work or gets sick of talking to dopes like me who ask them, in half-ass Italian, to please repeat what they just said for the second, third, or fourth time.
I want to be independent, but I yield to the woman who speaks Italian.
My wife makes the call. In a minute she’s got the answer.
“Don’t buy a tire,” she says. “Take the car to the airport in Rimini. Europcar will give you a different car.”
“Good,” I say. “That helps.”
She sets down the phone. “I’m pretty sure he was Roman.”
Phone fear. My mother-in-law, an Italian immigrant living in the US, was reluctant to answer the phone. (My father-in-law never answered it.) If she did, her response was brief and diversionary: Hello? Please you talk my daughter, please? When I was teaching, once or twice a year I got an Arab mom on the phone. I called looking for an Ahmed or a Hebah. “Hello,” a woman I assumed was the mother would say, and I knew immediately she had little or no English. I could hear in her voice a definite vibration of fear. I learned to identify myself, slowly. Teacher. From the college. This at least might keep her from hanging up. Ahmed call me, I would say. Or Hebah should come to class. The call would end: Yes or Okay, sometimes just a nervous snicker.
Traveling in Italy I initially avoided the phone, pretty much the way I avoided driving. The time came when I wanted to drive and I needed to make calls, to restaurants, for example. I learned a little reservation lingo. I could tell the person on the other end of the line, “Reservation. Tonight at 7:30. Six people.” Often in these calls I couldn’t understand the greeting, which is a terrible way to start a conversation. Was I or was I not talking to Trattoria Marione? Or I didn’t understand the response to my request. In Italy they say nineteen and a half rather than seven thirty, which assumes facility with Italian numbers and European time conventions. (My numbers can be shaky. I recently told someone I came to Italy the first time in 1778.) Sometimes closing the call would rattle me. Va bene. A dopo, I eventually gathered, means something like, “Okay, you’re all set, and we’ll see you a little later.”
On the drive down to the Rimini airport, I practice my explanation. I know the Italian verb “to park” and the word for “tire.” Before leaving I looked up “curb” on Google Translate but realize now that I’ve already forgotten it. At the airport I’ll follow the sign for rental car return, which at other airports in Italy is always helpfully emblazoned in English. Inside the terminal I’ll have to find the Europcar desk.
There is no rental car return sign. In fact, the airport is almost totally deserted. A long, sweeping drive leads from the main road to the terminal doors, with room in front for half a dozen tour buses to park. There are no buses, no cars, and as far as I can tell no airplanes. Along the front of the terminal I see a series of automatic glass doors. At the far end, inside the terminal, standing in front of a coffee bar, is a group of men, twenty or so, a few of them in uniforms, cops or customs officers, I can’t tell which. I park my Panda right next to the terminal and get out of the car. I would gesture Okay to park here? if someone looked. No one looks. The glass door in front of the bar won’t open. The men drinking coffee either don’t notice me standing there or they decide to ignore me. I fade down the front of the terminal, trying one door after another until finally one opens.
Inside, I toy briefly with the idea of ordering an espresso, to establish my cred, then think better of it. I tap a cop or customs officer, I can’t tell which, on the shoulder and ask where the Europcar desk is.
“There’s no Europcar here,” he says.
“What about the lot?” I ask. “The Europcar lot?”
He shakes his head, points to the desert of empty pavement out front. Do I seriously think there’s a Europcar lot here?
I tell him my wife called the green number and was told to go to the Rimini airport.
“There’s no Europcar here,” he says again.
“They moved,” a second guy says.
I ask where.
“Hey,” the second guy yells, “anyone know where the Europcar lot is now?” He gets three or four answers, all speculative, all different. Another guy in a uniform gives me detailed driving directions, with five or six turns, to the Europcar lot. I understand turn right just before the gas station, I understand drive toward the sea. The rest gets blurry. I’m about to ask him to repeat what to do after the gas station when he says, “Wait, no, Europcar isn’t there any more.”
“You’ll have to call Europcar,” the first uniformed guy says. He points on the car key I’m holding. “Just call the green number.”
I retreat from the bar, find the one door that opens, step outside, and climb back in the Panda. I take out my phone and open Google translate. Curb: il cordone del marciapede. Good grief. How long can I remember that?
A friend of mine who travels a lot overseas advised me to buy a SIM card for my iPhone. While I’m in Italy, he said, I would have total continuity of service: email, browser, Facebook, Instagram, GPS, news updates, stocks, weather, SMS. And Translate. And, of course, when I needed it, my device would also do its job, you know, as a phone.
He was right. I get out of bed in the morning and read the news. Just like at home!
Later in the day, I wonder: When does the Coriano olive oil festival start?
I can check on that.
Walking around Bologna, I wonder how many blocks we are from that wine shop on Via Malcontenti.
Let’s find out.
My wife would like to send our kids a picture of these green ravioli we’re having for lunch.
I’m on it.
Benefits galore. What I didn’t anticipate was more interaction with Vodafone Lady, the friendly, informative automated voice of the phone service we use.
For the longest time I used a dumb phone in Italy. It was a primitive model, a pre-flip-phone phone the size of a Snickers bar. It had a cheesy ring I loved. To make the phone work I bought a Vodafone card at the local tobacco shop, phoned in the 10, 20, or 25 euro to my account, had a brief (and always fraught) interaction with Vodafone Lady, and that was it. The phone was fine for the 5-10 days we were here. I placed a call occasionally, or the phone rang even less occasionally, and I answered and talked. Once or twice I had to call the Vodafone Lady and ask to find out how many euros I had left. Or as she would say il traffico disponibile.
Now, with smart phone and a cellular Internet modem, and a longer stay, I call Vodafone Lady more often. I drain the data plan on my phone. We run low on the modem data. I call to check on traffico disponibile. Vodafone Lady talks my ear off, in Italian. It sounds to me like “standard Italian,” i.e. not regional. The problem is how she speaks: fast, very fast; in a burbling falsetto voice that must be a Vodafone committee’s idealized version of your favorite Italian aunt. Listen carefully as she takes you through the 10 options in the phone chain. If there were a feminine version of “avuncular,” that would describe her. Nevertheless, when she talks, I understand next to nothing.
“What’s she saying?” I ask my wife one day.
She listens. “I don’t know.”
“But you’re supposed to understand.”
“That may be,” she says. “But I don’t. Why don’t you go to the store?”
The Vodafone store? Those people are also hard to talk to. Take Vodafone Lady, give her two days growth of beard, a couple tattoos, and smoker’s cough. Pick a number and wait. The service professionals are bored and grouchy. They probably wake up in a bad mood and don’t feel inspired by their work and get sick of talking to dopes like me who ask them, in half-ass Italian, to please repeat what they just said for the second, third, or fourth time.
When I call Europcar from my Panda, the guy on the other end of the green number speaks slowly and clearly. He gives me the address of the Europcar office, says it’s near the train station. He says they will have a new car for me. I know where the train station is. To find the Europcar location, I enter the address in the GPS on my iPhone, which would more helpful if the iPhone lady, speaking English, didn’t mispronounce the Italian street names. Her Italian is more half-ass than mine.
At the Europcar desk I’m invited to buy a new tire for the Panda. The nice lady says she can’t swap me into another Panda. Will a Twingo be okay?
The Twingo is a little bigger than the Panda, brand new, and will easily squeeze into tight parking spaces.
I’ve been driving the car a couple days when I realize it’s missing the right rear hubcap. Did I do that? I could have done that. I’m sure I didn’t.
“You should call the green number,” my wife says.
How about I call the Europcar lady in Rimini?
Hubcap, Google Translate tells me, is coprimozzo.
On the phone the Rimini Europcar lady sounds a lot like Vodafone Lady. I tell her I’m the guy who traded the Panda for the Twingo. Yes! she says. She knows me. She sounds happy to hear from me. I can picture her behind the desk, and evidently she can picture me in front of the desk. This makes all the difference in the world. We are more than disembodied voices.
“Just a second, Mr. Richard” she says. “Let me check.”
I hold the phone, waiting. In a minute, she comes back on the line and tells me yes, the car was missing a coprimozzo.
“Tutto okay,” she says. And if I have any questions, just call.
I will. I probably will.