Italian Lessons at Sea

My ship steamed out of Barcelona in the late afternoon. I had reserved a bunk in a four-person cabin aboard an overnight ferry to Genoa. The four-bunk cabin is the modern equivalent of steerage: the least expensive available passage that doesn’t involve sleeping on a deck chair under an open sky.

The ship was a monstrous hotel-floatant, a little bit Vegas, a little bit Pasadena. The decor was what one might expect from a cruise ship that catered to the elderly, all soft pastels and subtle knit patterns, but the passengers were mostly young and boisterous, especially the hundreds of tattooed Hell’s Angels who had driven their motorcycles onto the ship earlier that afternoon.

When I reached my shared cabin, which resembled a university dormitory bedroom without windows, I found a young man named Carlo lounging on one of the bunks, reading a Spanish translation of Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. We exchanged pleasantries in Spanish, and, although his idiom was more like South American español than Spanish castellano, I assumed he was a Spaniard.

We hastened to the cantina because Carlo was concerned that “Los Ángeles del Infierno” would bankrupt the ship’s supply of cerveza within fifteen minutes of departure. The ship’s porters had, luckily, taken appropriate measures: there was no shortage of cerveza.

The cantina, a chintz-festive chamber at the ship’s bow, was populated by the aforementioned international cast of Hell’s Angels, along with a smattering of bemused civilians. There was a small stage on which two ladies were singing to a pianist’s live accompaniment while reading lyrics from a teleprompter built into the floor. The ladies were the cantina’s MCs, tasked with dragooning passengers into performing this odd form of karaoke.

Carlo spoke neither English nor French, thus our conversation was squeezed through the narrow portal afforded by my villainous Spanish. Carlo, it turned out, was short for Giancarlo; he was an Italian who had learnt Spanish while working in South America, now on his way home to Turin after a short vacation in Barcelona.

I was hungry for Italian vocabulary — this was my first visit to Italy and I was completely innocent of the language — and I began to query Giancarlo about phrases and idioms. It was thus that he taught me the basics of Italian in Spanish as we steamed across the Mediterranean listening to a chorus of European Hell’s Angels singing selections from the Frank Sinatra songbook in broken English.

This entry is part of my journal, published June 28, 2003, in New York City.