During a recent trip to Rome, John and I stayed at a bed-and-breakfast place run by Catholic nuns. It was towards the end of May, and officially not yet summer, but it was warm. We saw a wall-type air conditioner mounted near the ceiling and therefore out of reach, but the remote control was nowhere to be found. Our room was on the third floor of the building facing the street, which happened to be a main avenue. If we opened the windows to let the breeze in, we would also be letting in the roars from the Vespas and Ducatis - those famous Italian scooters that fill Italian streets, and there was no way that we would be able to sleep.
I considered going down to the first floor lobby to ask for the remote control, or at least to let the nuns know that we found the room warm. However, I balked at the idea since I did not (do not) speak any Italian. Earlier when we were checking in, I discovered that the nuns manning the reception did not speak any English. To my disappointment, one whom I thought was Filipina turned out to be from Madagascar and did not speak any English either.
But it was warm! So I checked the little book “Italian for Travellers” that my nun-friend in a nearby convent lent me for the phrases “air conditioner” and “remote control” but no matter how many times I scanned the pages, the book contained no such words. There was only the word “caldo” for “hot,” and the word “molto” (“very”), attached to another adjective, that I could put together.
A picture is worth a thousand words, we are told, and so I took a photo of the air conditioner in the room and went down with my camera. I remarked, “It’s molto caldo in our room.” In a very stern, but low, voice that reminded me of the nuns in my grade school, she admonished, “No fumare.” I understood that to mean “No smoking,” or “Don’t smoke.” To assure her that John and I were not smoking in our room, I nodded my head and echoed what she said, “No fumare.” Since that did not lead me anywhere, I showed her the image on my camera’s LCD, and asked for the remote control, while I repeated my well-mastered phrase, “molto caldo.” She raised her forefinger and repeated “No fumare” and in quick Italian must have said something about the consequences of smoking (guessing from all the conjugations of the verb “fumare” that I heard her say). I tried to get my message across by fanning myself with my hand and repeating “molto caldo,” and “caldo molto” (just in case, in Italian, the adverb should come after the adjective). It was funny because all sorts of Spanish words- courtesy of Spanish language lessons during college days - were coming to my head in my attempt to explain that it was very warm in our room. I was frustrated and starting to fret, while she remained firm and stern. To add to my frustration that I could not get myself understood, I heard her very matter-of-factly warn me, while pointing to the smoke alarm and vigorously twirling her forefinger, “Fumare – wang, wang wang.” She said something else but all I could understand was “dormir.“ With a simple wave of her hand, while maintaining eye contact, she said softly but with finality, “Buona notte!” I guessed that what she was saying was “Go to sleep, good night,” and that was it – end of discussion. It was frustrating – not only to be unable to communicate but to be made to feel like a grade school pupil in a Catholic school. At 65, I did not think a nun could still make me feel that way. J
Resigned to sleeping in a warm room, I went back upstairs. After an hour or so, I saw that the brochure that I picked up at the front desk earlier contained the phrase “aira condizionata” which I took to mean “air conditioned.” “Aha,” I said to John, "here’s what I can show her." I also wished (maybe prayed is the more correct word) that the nun whom I encountered earlier would no longer be on duty. I walked down the stairs to the ground floor. She was there with another nun – not the smiling nun from Madagascar but someone who looked like the Italian Mother Superior. Hope springs eternal, and I pointed at the brochure and said to them “molto caldo aira condizionata . ” That was the full extent of my Italian in one go. That hope was doused quickly when the older nun said simply, “no funzione,” and all I could do was meekly repeat, “aria condizionata, no funzione.”
I had no choice but to accept defeat. Bowing slightly to the two nuns before me, I whispered, “Buona notte,” and headed back to our molto caldo room.