Posted by: 4initalia | September 3, 2009

Signs

Uh oh. My little pretties, the sand in the hour glass is running down, and a big bucket of cold water is about to be sloshed all over my cackling persona. Work? I can’t go back to wooork. Things are going so well here, with the cappucino, and the gelato, and the infinitely fascinating forms of pasta and Italian shoe design. Only four more months till splashdown, and I’m not ready for re-entry.

All right, there are things I miss about American suburbia. On a good day, our shower spits out a few drops of cold water; for long stretches nothing comes out at all. I could cry harder than the trickle that comes out of the showerhead, and on some mornings, I do. The water in the kitchen tap, if left to fester in its own juices, is the acrid yellow of a mosquito coil, and the coil tastes better. So we lug all of our drinking water in sixpacks of two-liter bottles, from a convenience store around the corner. Our apartment toilet has all the feral charm of a freshly-dug pit. We have not progressed all that far from bathing in a stream and carrying our water in buckets. It’s like camping, with tile.

Mornings are tough. But then I make a cup of tea, and look out over the sun-soaked clay roofs of Modena, and I’m thrilled to be here.

We left Modena for sixteen days. We started with a visit to friends in Hull, in Northern England. To get there, we rented a car and drove two and a half hours, entirely on the wrong side of the road. After a while, you get used to it. I wonder, if you drove for two hours on the wrong side of the road in the US, you’d get used to that, too.

On the way to Hull, I remembered why I haven’t driven with Andy in seven months. Besides that we don’t have a car here:

Andy believes that changing lanes requires him to ignite the rear license plate of the car in front of us. He gets so close that our license plates set off sparks. Only when he sees an actual flame leaping past the hood will he lurch the wheel and careen into the next lane. On a day with a lot of lane changes, the kids can roast an entire pack of marshmallows on the front grill of our car.

I was perfectly comfortable with this level of terror when my sweetie upped the ante. On the drive to Hull, between lane changes, Andy would suddenly stomp on the gas pedal, thrash his legs, and bellow in pain. We’d surge forward into whatever direction the flailing led us, and when my screaming stopped I learned that he had a leg cramp.

Andy gets cramps only when he’s driving. We can sit on the couch, chatting quietly, and out of nowhere, nothing happens: his leg is fine. In the low hum of a restaurant, just when I least expect it, he’s as still as a country pond. But in a speeding car, with people on all sides of us driving in the wrong direction, he’s yelping and stomping the gas pedal like Jed Clampett at a hoedown. I love a relationship full of surprises.

I reached Hull with my vocal chords hanging in shreds. The next morning, for brekkie, we had English muffins. This disturbed me. Brits have given perfectly innocuous things perfectly adorable names: sausage and mashed potatoes are “Bangers and Mash,” leftover vegetables are “Bubbles and Squeak.” But for some reason, no one bothered to come up with a good name for toaster muffins. It’s not as if the United Kingdom didn’t have good writers handy, they had Shakespeare, and Dickens, and a pack of Bronte sisters. But when they got to naming muffins, they put in no effort at all. With all the credit they get for literary excellence, they should get a few demerits for that.

We left our friends to drive to Wales. It was the height of summer, so of course it was cold and raining. In Wales, August is just another opportunity to wear thick wet fleece, but in flirty tropical colors.

We stopped at Shakepeare’s birthplace, and Stonehenge, and Liverpool, at a museum dedicated to the Beatles. Fab, those four. Then we drove to Leeds, where the weather forecaster describes the day’s cumulo-nimbus activity in colors ranging from white to black. “”Light gray cloud in the morning, followed by dark gray clouds in the afternoon. Tomorrow, rain.” British landfills must be full of the cheery sun magnets sold to television meteorologists all over the world.

In spite of the weather in the UK, it was a relief to be in a place where I could read all of the signs, although most of the time I didn’t know what they meant. In the hallway of our British hotel, a glass door held the words: “Only for emergency evacuations. Not for hotel guests.” I guess we’ll have to fend for ourselves, then. Other signs said: “This door is alarmed.” “This fire extinguisher is alarmed.” I’m a little alarmed now, too.

Many of the clothing stores had “Sale!” signs in their windows, with the usual mannequins. But most of the shops also displayed a placard that said: “Sale continues inside.” What was that about? Do British people assume that the sale applies only to the items in the window? Where else would the sale be held, if not inside the shop?

Retail signs are dangerous only if they advertise prices up to seventy percent off. But when you’re driving on the wrong side of the road, clarity is key. The most frequently-used British highway sign said: “Give Way.” I found this confusing. Give way on what, exactly? Socialized medicine? Pointless spelling differences? (Okay, I’ll give way on theatre, they do have Shakespeare. But Colour? Centre? No, I’m not yielding on those).

Give Way was the clearest of the bunch. What on earth do they mean by “Discontinuous Emergency Refuge For Two Miles?” “Que After JCT?” “Works Unit Only?” No wonder British drivers all started going the wrong way: they were trying to escape the highway department.

In Wales, signs warn of road hazards, but Welsh sounds like a spoon caught in a garbage disposal, and looks like a game of Scrabble when you didn’t get any vowels. Welsh warning signs are shaped like tall triangles, with a large exclamation point at the peak. The reason for alarm is printed in the middle, in Welsh and English. You’d better catch the English version, because “Yr Wyddgrug Moldnear” does not tell you what to watch out for.

For many miles, roadside signs warned us to be on the alert for daerafochen, bilingual badgers. I wondered what that was all about. As we travelled the Welsh byways, would we be set upon by annoyingly persistent rodents? How would that play out? “Saaay, are you going to eat that yyllwwsyws?” I suppose a polite refusal wouldn’t suffice, because they’re, you know, badgers.

You can buy a computer program that will teach you to translate Welsh road signs, at http://www.interactivestreetworks.com/w_signs.html. But I don’t think it will help you to avoid actual Welsh road hazards; the program’s dictionary has no word for ‘badger.’

We spent the rest of our vacation in the South of France. The Cote D’Azure. We visited Clare, my mom’s cousin, at her villa. Clare’s mother and my grandmother were sisters, and together we explored our family history. We mapped our shared genes in a scrawl that spread like fan coral across a notebook page. For every name, a story, some inexplicably tragic: an aunt with schleraderma, a sister who lost one new husband to cancer, and then a second to war. Clare answered the door when that dreaded telegram came: how do you tell your sister, who has two small sons, that she is a widow? For the second time?

Clare went to grad school at Stanford, where she met and married a man who was knighted. They live in London, surrounded by their five beautiful and brilliant daughters and grandchildren. She was a young wife in the 1950s, an American who married a Brit and never looked back. Her road was revolutionary. The hours we spent over that notebook are some of my most precious memories of this year.

We’re back in Modena. I can read the signs, and they all say “It’s almost time to go home.” So every morning is precious, and every cup of cappucino brings me closer to Costco. What more is there to say?

Yr Wyddgrug Moldnear.

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Responses

  1. Hey Andrea!!
    What a wonderful adventure you guys are having. We are happy for all of you.
    We just moved back to our offices in Boettcher and we are not quite yet back to normal and classes are starting soon.
    How is Annalise doing?
    Bianca started school 2 weeks and a half ago and she is liking it so far. Isabella is growing fast; she’ll be 18 months old next week. yes!!
    We hope to see tons of pictures when you come back.
    say hello to Andy and the kids!!


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