On my first day in Italy, sometime in July 1980, I decided that the little sheet of tourist phrases I had been given wasn’t enough, so I set out to find a bookstore and buy an Italian-English dictionary. (This was Gaeta, a beautiful little tourist town about 100 km south of Rome on the west coast.) I found the bookstore, but horrors! — it wasn’t self-service. All the books were behind an imposing front desk, and I’d have to make my wishes known to the clerk, a cute girl about my own age (18). She looked at me with bright and friendly eyes and asked something in Italian, presumably “May I help you?”
I stood there like an American tourist in a foreign town with my mouth silently going, “yom yom yom” and wondering what to say. Thankfully, a lightbulb soon went on above my head, and I began trying to twist the word “dictionary” around in my mind and figure out what it might sound like if it were Italian. Taking a wild plunge and trusting to luck, I said, “deet-see-oh-NAR-ee-oh.”
For once, fortune smiled on me. That’s pretty close to the Italian for “dictionary”.
The impossibly cute Italian girl’s eyes lit up even brighter and she said, “Ah! Dizionario!” and disappeared into the stacks. I stood there trying not to look like a tourist (although with my “NAVY” t-shirt, it was probably obvious I wasn’t from there). She returned relatively quickly and brought the world’s most massive Italian-English dictionary. This made the one-volume Webster’s unabridged look like Strunk & White. Okay maybe I exaggerate some. But it was 8 inches thick if it was an inch, and approaching the height and width of an unabridged dictionary.
I opened it. THUNK. I began to flip through the pages, several at a time. FLIP. FLIP. FLIP. I looked up and smiled at the Italian teenage goddess so she would know I hadn’t forgotten her. She smiled back. Once my heart congealed, I was back to work. FLIP. FLIP. FLIP. FLIP.
Finally, I found what I was looking for. Looking up from the massive book, I said, “Piccolo! Piccolo dizionario!” and held my thumb and forefinger in the universal symbol for “really small.”
“Ah, piccolo dizionario!” she echoed, and smiled even more charmingly. Once again she disappeared into the stacks. By now I was sure the entire store was surreptitiously watching me, although when I looked up they were always cleverly pretending to go about their business. Soon the impossibly cherubic Italian girl returned, this time bringing back a handy 3″ x 5″ pocket sized Italian-English dictionary.
“Grazie!” I burbled. I paid for the book (fortunately the tourist phrase sheet I had been given explained how to count up to 50 million so I understood the price — which was much less than 50M — when she asked for it), smiled once last time at the world’s cutest Italian teenage girl, and went happily on my way.
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