Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Being Italian for 10 Days

For the third straight year, Audrey and I embarked on a biking vacation in Europe. That sounds more ambitious than it really is. “Tour de Francers” we are not. We look for regions that are flat and tours labeled “active” and “easy,” during which we can plan to pedal 30-35 miles per day at a leisurely pace with frequent stops for rest and snacks. Two years ago, we rolled through Holland, biking into quaint cities such as Haarlem, Leiden, and Gouda (whose name we learned is pronounced How-dah with a guttural H; we bought cheese there, of course). Then, last year, we went to Belgium, which our guide noted was as old and flat as Holland but with the added attraction of producing more than 300 excellent beers. And we got to sample some of those beers in places such as Bruges, Ghent, and Antwerp. We also ate more moules and frites than we should.
This year, we headed to north-central Italy, where we planned to ride in the flat (or so we were told) Po River valley and the region near Lake Garda. We called it our “Shakespearean tour,” which would begin in Mantua and end in Verona. It’s a region filled with grape vineyards, olive groves, and orchards where the trees were proudly bearing kiwis, persimmons, and pomegranates, almost ready for picking.

Did you know kiwis grew like this?

We also discovered, to our chagrin, that the region is pretty hilly. I’ll write more about that element of our adventure in a later blog. You won’t want to miss it. It will include an account of my being easily left in the dust by an elderly woman pedaling with her groceries uphill. I was dying; she wasn’t even breathing hard, and she was smoking a small cigar while she rode!
Audrey and Phyllis take a break from biking
If having to maneuver the hills was the —you’ll pardon the pun—low point of our adventure, experiencing being Italian for 10 days was the high point. It’s hard not to be upbeat in Italy. The people always speak with a lilt in their voices, especially when they speak English, where they add a vowel syllable at the end of many words (skies-a, bells-a, lake-a). Even the Italian word for “thank you,” grazie, we discovered needed an extra syllable to be pronounced properly—“gratz-ee-ay,” and not simply “gratz-ee.” We began each day with a quick lesson in Italian offered by our vivacious guides, Claudio and Carlotta. We didn’t learn just words; we also practiced speaking with our hands the way Italians do.  Did you know that waving your hand back and forth in front of your forehead means “you’re crazy,” but waving it below your nose means ‘you stink”? Claudio and Carlotta also had a way of bouncing when they spoke, rocking their shoulders, heads, and hands. It became contagious. Soon many of our group were bouncing, too.

Claudio and Carlotta, bouncing and using body language

Audrey and I actually got off to a rocky start in our learning to be Italian, and we discovered that Italian waiters have something in common with New York waiters—they speak their mind, though sometimes more in their expressions than in their words. In our first two days, which we spent in the coastal town of Portovenere, Audrey and I unwittingly committed two restaurant faux pas. The first night, we ordered a fried mixed fish dish that begged (in our American minds) for some marinara sauce in which to dip the fish. When Audrey asked for the sauce, she got a perfectly blank expression from the waiter. “Sauce?” he asked. “A plate of sauce?” “No, just a small bowl,” Audrey explained. The waiter went mumbling back to the kitchen but emerged with the sauce. The next night I topped that one. I had ordered pasta with scampi. When I asked for grated cheese, I received a stare. “With fish?” the waiter, who was also the owner, asked incredulously. He brought out the cheese but looked at me funny while I spooned it on the pasta. Then he happily brought more red wine, which we made sure to drink like Italians.

We also discovered that being Italian meant looking at time a little differently, particularly historic time. Near the end of our trip, we were taken on a guided tour of Verona. In one main square, our guide pointed to a building in one corner and said it was constructed in the 1200s, the one next to it in the 1400s, and the one across the way in the 1600s. “That last building,” she said, “is much younger. It is only 250 years old.” Which makes me think of a story from an earlier trip Audrey and I made to southern Italy 10 years ago. One couple on our trip had been in the Sorrento area 55 years before on their honeymoon. They seemed surprised that the buildings and squares seemed much the same, even after half a century. In many areas of Italy, 55 years is just a blink of the eye.

Dante and a pigeon stand guard in Verona

So maybe the Po River valley in Italy wasn’t as flat as Holland. And maybe we were “forced” to drink wine instead of beer as in Belgium. And to eat pizza and pasta almost every day. And to sample several different flavors of gelato. And to pick grapes off the vine while trying to avoid the gaze of an annoyed farmer. And to speak with our hands. And to climb hills slowly in the wake of elderly women smoking cigars. And to feel a little timeless. Bellissimo!

Friday, October 18, 2013

My Day in Court
(If possible, read this with the following music playing in the background.)

It has been several years since I was ticketed for a moving violation while driving my car. However, recently I was ticketed for a stopping violation instead. As a result, I found myself in Municipal Court in “downtown” Glen Rock, my hometown. I had never been to Municipal Court before, and it is an experience.

Here’s the background behind my “crime.” (By the way, I’m not trying to minimize my guilt here, but I want to explain my side of the events.) I had driven to the town post office to mail a time sensitive letter that I felt should be mailed inside the post office rather than in the sidewalk mailbox that gets emptied only in mid-morning and late afternoon. Unfortunately, every space to park was filled—in the parking lot beside the post office and even on both sides of the street in front of it. There were two exceptions: the handicapped parking spaces. Both were empty. Would anyone really object if I occupied one of them for a maximum of 30 seconds? Certainly not, I thought recklessly. And I did the dirty deed!

Of course, in those 30 seconds, a police officer drove past my vehicle, saw me emerge from the post office, stopped, and confronted me. (Had he been hiding in the bushes hoping to spot a potential miscreant, I wondered?) “Do you have a handicap parking sticker?” he asked ominously. I cowered a little as I said “No, but. . . .” (I decided not to finish providing an explanation, which sounded weak, even in my head.)  He told me to wait while he printed out a citation. I took it and sheepishly drove away. When I got home, I studied the ticket to see what this was going to cost me, but could find no dollar amount spelled out. Instead, the ticket read “Non-payable offense.” Was this some kind of warning? Nope. At the bottom were instructions telling me to report to Municipal Court on a Thursday afternoon three weeks in the future. Just what was I in for?
Glen Rock Town Hall and Court Room
I arrived at the Town Hall a few minutes before 4 p.m., the time indicated on my ticket. I joined a long line of defendants and attorneys waiting to go through a metal detector that I knew was not there any other day of the week. Just how dangerous are those of us summoned to Municipal Court? I started to rethink my decision not to have my friend Joe, the attorney, accompany me here. How hard a book would the judge toss at me for usurping a handicapped person’s spot near the post office? I remembered that the police officer had never mentioned any Miranda rights when handing out the ticket. Shouldn’t that help me avoid jail time?
As we came inside, a clerk explained that people handed a white sheet of paper spelling out their offense (like the one I was given) should stand in the back of the room. Those with blue tickets should wait to meet with their attorneys, and attorneys should line up along the window side of the room. I took my place around tenth in line at the back of the room and carefully looked around. Frankly, I was a little nervous.

It took nearly 45 minutes for the judge to finally emerge from his chambers behind the courtroom, which doubled as the town council meeting room twice a month. Then he began talking quickly in a voice that was hard to hear above the movement in the room. What I did manage to pick out was that the order of appearance would be (1) those whose attorneys would make pleas, (2) followed by those of us planning to simply plead guilty without an attorney, (3) followed by those standing trial that evening. There were lots of people in the room. This could take some time.

I discovered that the line in the back of the room was for those who were to meet with the town prosecutor and learn just what they were pleading guilty to. (I understood that you could change your mind about the guilty plea at that time, whatever that meant.) I got my minute with the prosecutor, learned that it was a bad thing to park in a handicap space, affirmatively indicated that this was my first such offense, signed my pleas, and was told that the lawful fine of $250 might be adjusted somewhat if the judge felt kindly toward a first offender. I gave a small sigh. I was glad I had placed a blank check in my wallet; I had a feeling that they wouldn’t accept Visa here.

Then the fun began. Now those of you who think being a lawyer is a glamorous occupation should avoid attending Municipal Court. The guys (and one woman) lined up near the windows looked like they had been through a long day already, and it was just going to get longer. They also looked like they were trolling for business among the “low-lifes” holding blue sheets. One by one, the defendants and their attorneys moved to a microphone set up a few feet in front of the judge and began a proceeding.

Here is a typical one that took place over the next hour.
Attorney and defendant stand in front of judge, who explains the violation by number rather than words. Judge asks defendant for plea, which is generally guilty. Then a brief explanation follows.

Attorney asks defendant: “On the night of September __, were you driving through Glen Rock when you were stopped by a police car?

Defendant: Yes.
Attorney: And did you drop a small plastic bag containing a white powder outside your car window.

Defendant: Yes.
A: And did that envelope contain heroin?

D: Yes.
A: And did you tell the officer that your name was John Jackson?

D: Yes.
A: And is that your name?

D: No.
A: And did you tell him your age was 23?

D: Yes.
A: And is that your correct age?

D: No.
A: That is all we have, your honor.

The judge then gave out a sentence that involved a fine (greater than that I was to receive for my parking offense, I noted with limited satisfaction), plus $33 court costs, and a $6 surcharge. What the heck is a surcharge, and why was that not subsumed in the court cost or fine, I wondered? I didn’t figure that I was going to find out any answers.

After the lengthy string of blue sheeted defendants finished their allocutions, we “white sheets” got our turn. I was fifth in line. I faced the judge, agreed again that it was wrong to park in a handicap space, affirmed that I was a first-time offender, and was handed down my sentence (which also included court costs of $33 and that $6 surcharge). I was then sent off to a window down the hall to pay for my crime.

When I learned that my actual fine was significantly less than that stated by the judge in open court, I happily wrote out the check (I was right that they didn’t accept credit cards, by the way) and went on my way, a little poorer but properly chastened.

So that was my day in court. I figured that I should write about it in this blog because you’re never going to see these happenings in a John Grisham novel. That is, unless some defendant someday raises holy hell in a courtroom to protest paying that damned surcharge!

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

A Well-Run Operation
Not too many people have a good experience in a hospital. But I came close last week. Of course, I was not the person being treated, which contributes considerably to my positive feelings. But I was an interested party, so my opinion counts.

A little background. My mother, who is nearing the age of 94, has been dealing with blood circulation problems for nearly a decade and has been suffering through an ulcerated sore on one ankle for nearly as long. She had, not unreasonably, been resisting surgery on her leg for the past two years. Now she had no choice; she would either lose the leg, risk an infection that might prove lethal, or undergo an unusual bypass procedure in which a vein taken from a cadaver would be transplanted into her leg and become part of her circulatory system. (Can Halloween be far away!) Adding to everyone’s trepidation was the fact that my mother had undergone a simple surgical procedure a few weeks previously and nearly died when chemical levels in her blood went (to use a technical term) “kablooey” while she was under the anesthetic. I may never reach 93, but if I do, I hope I’m as calm as my mother seemed as she prepared for this new surgery.

My Mom and I at lunch a week before her surgery
(photo by Diane Peters)
So that’s where things stood last Monday as I flew from Newark to Savannah hoping to be on hand when my mom came out of the operation, which was scheduled for 11 a.m., but, of course, didn’t actually begin until 3:15 (more than an hour after I arrived at the hospital and nearly 5 hours after my mother and my sister-in-law Sandy had made their way there).

How do I know when the operation started? There is an electronic screen posted in the family waiting area of Memorial Hospital that lists the name of each patient undergoing surgery with updates on their status and condition. It is like something out of Grand Central Station – you know that board that rolls the names of train destinations and ETDs (estimated times of departure) and ETAs (estimated times of arrival). There are also volunteers who come around to each family with updates, and another volunteer who plays pretty good jazz on a piano that was donated by generous patrons and sits in the middle of the waiting area. I’m not sure that all hospitals provide such helpful services these days, but they should. Our small coterie of family members standing by were made to feel at ease by the attention and consideration.

Just what do you do while waiting out an operation of a loved one? Our group made small talk and ate snacks provided by my cousins Sally and Debbie. (“These come from Costco? They’re really good. Much better than the ones from the Dollar Store.”) Our spirits were high and our voices were occasionally quite loud as we tried to keep my Aunt Lillian (my mom’s 89-year-old sister who is quite hard of hearing) informed about what was happening, and as her husband Walter (my 92-year-old uncle) described his travails parking in the visitor’s garage (why is he still driving?) and finding his way to the waiting area—a process that took long enough to worry all of us, and especially Aunt Lillian. This, of course, led to a discussion of how the hospital has grown over the past 50 years from a single rectangular building to a large and very confusing complex. Ya-da, ya-da, ya-da. Anything to get our minds off the situation at hand.

I am happy to report that the procedure ended successfully. The surgeon, whom my mother described as a supremely confident man (isn’t that what you want?), came out to greet us with a big smile. After the good news was delivered, all but my sister-in-law and I left to go happily back to their homes. Sandy and I joined my brother the doctor, who has been working at this hospital for some 30 years, in the recovery room a few minutes later. (My brother is well respected and well-loved in the hospital, and that certainly added to how well my mother has been treated by doctors, nurses, and staff at all times.) My mother slowly emerged from her post-operative stupor and immediately had a few complaints. Ah, everything was nearly back to normal! The most amusing moment involved a hospital protocol. At Memorial, it is a written rule that requires all staff to ask a patient to give her name and birthdate before any procedure is carried out or any medicine is dispersed. My mother had been put through this protocol numerous times pre- and post-surgery. And she was tired of the constant repetition. So she was ready when the recovery room nurse approached her. “Do you know your name and birthdate,” my mom groggily asked the nurse, who had to think about the answers for a split second before breaking out in a smile. Yes, my mom was truly back to her old self.

A couple more anecdotes:

My mom’s hospital room was in a special wing on the same floor with the nursery. As she was wheeled into the room, the nurse assigned to her asked a number of questions and parried a few sarcastic responses. “I had already heard that you were pretty feisty,” the nurse commented. Then turning to my brother and me, she said, “She reminds me of my Nana.” I hoped that was a compliment.

The proximity of my mom’s room to the nursery led to another amusing element. Every once in a while as I walked through the hallways, I would hear “Braham’s Lullaby” come over the PA system. Was that to soothe the old people as well as the young ones, I asked my brother. “They play that each time a new baby is born, and we’ve had lots of those the last few days,” he explained. The irony was not lost on me. Hospitals deal every day with comings and goings. Then we live our lives in between, hoping we don't have to return to the hospital for a very long time.