No sooner had Rich and I arrived in Italy last September when I bumped into Clemenza (who speaks no English) at the outdoor market. She invited me to play Burraco at her house the next day with two of her friends. When I asked what time, she said nine o’clock. To clarify, I asked “di mattina?” (in the morning?), to which she shook her head and said, “di serata,” (in the evening). Since most Americans consider nine o’clock on a weeknight to be the chill-out phase before bed, I was taken aback. But when in Rome ...
I went, I played, I listened … a lot. Laureta, who turned out to be a tournament player, was my partner, and she kept saying, “Ascoltami, Nancy!” (Listen to me, Nancy!) When Italians speak, they often sound angry, but she was not angry, at least not at first. She was merely animated and loud while explaining the strategies of the game to me. Clemenza and her partner, Adrianna, also chimed in from time to time. Laureta praised me when I got good cards (which was pure luck) and seemingly scolded me when I had no cards to contribute to our team. The three hours of playing a new game, interrupted by a brief snack of biscotti and prune liqueur, was intensified by the fact that not one word of English was spoken during that time.
After midnight, I drove home in our rental car and was forced to park outside the ancient walls of our town, nearly a half mile away from our apartment. Usually there’s a space right across from our front door, but not tonight. To those asking, “Weren’t you afraid to be walking home alone?” I must admit that a tidge of concern entered my mind, but it was short-lived. The well-lit medieval streets were completely empty, and blessedly quiet, although Laureta’s voice continued to ring in my ears.
A few mornings later, while having cappuccinos with Clemenza outside the café of Terme di Fontecchio, she asked if I’d like to attend a Burraco event that she and some other people were putting together. It would be held the last Sunday in September right there at the Terme, beautifully set in the Umbrian hills. She said she’d be my partner, and since she is a patient, gracious, retired school teacher, I agreed.
Meanwhile, we played cards two more evenings at her house. I asked how many people would be at the special event and she said she hoped there'd be at least 20.
Come the Sunday afternoon in question, however, you can imagine my surprise when I arrived at the Terme to find 120 people lined up to register for the SANCTIONED Burraco tournament, complete with prizes. People came from cities far and wide and, to my utter shock, they weren’t there for a relaxing afternoon but for serious competition. The place was abuzz with Italian babel, tension and anticipation. At 3:30 p.m., a woman with a microphone told us to start playing. The place fell silent. Up until this time, I’d only heard silence among Italians while they were eating.
But being rather nervous to begin with, I did. A lot. Clemenza and I lost our first round, then moved to another table, and lost there too. Finally, after four hours of play, we lost to the third table.
It was 7:30 p.m., and I was hungry, and looked longingly at the tables across the room which had been set for dinner. But no, it was not yet time to eat; we wouldn’t eat until the scores were tabulated and the prizes awarded.
While the tallies were being input into computers, we were instructed to move to a fourth table to play a non-competitive round while waiting for the results. My nerves frayed, we continued to lose hand after hand. Clemenza still kept her cool even though, by now, I had not only teetered in the unknown, but had fallen into its abyss. Where was the promised "gorgeous feeling"?
Since there’s nothing more fun than making people laugh, I sat up straighter and repeated, “Mi piacciono l’uccelli!” Now seven people laughed. They, in turn, gestured more people over and asked me to say it again. I finally realized I must be making a major mispronunciation error, but I acquiesced and said it again, much to the amusement of my growing audience. “OK,” I said. “What am I saying wrong?”
Clemenza said I wasn’t saying anything wrong. The woman next to her added, “Your pronunciation is
correct, it’s what it means that’s so funny.”
“Come si significa, ‘Mi piacciono l’uccelli?’” (What does it mean,
I love birds?)
Someone finally explained the idiom. It means, she said with a chagrin, you like to sleep around.
Now I get to laugh ... every time I look at that little ceramic bird, hard won for coming in last place.