February 27, 2011

“Do you have to order coffee?”

It was in Italy eleven years ago that I first saw the sign for an “Internet Café”.   I wondered about checking it out but I didn’t know the protocol; did you have to order coffee?  I had internet at home but I’d never considered it to be portable.  It was set up on my home computer and that was that.

 

My friend Laurie was with me for the first week of our Italian adventure and the two of us hopped trains, boats and buses to visit Venice, Florence and Rome. Then Laurie came home to Canada to resume teaching, and the panic hit when I was alone in Rome and I was supposed to have the courage to sit outside in this whirling bussing swarm of people. I buckled down, sucked my breath in, and set off painting. It takes allot of self-confidence to set up and paint in a strange city with an unfamiliar language. The first morning, I headed down to the Campi Di Fiori Market. I loved the colours of the vegetables, the flowers and the market umbrellas and it was fascinating to watch the shoppers and the sellers. After the market was set up, the market women put on their clean aprons and began selling. Clusters of short old women in long black coats would huddle in front of the vegetables and carefully choose a tomatoe, a pepper,

perhaps an aubergine.  When the market men weren’t watching me, they were mostly sitting and chatting in lawn chairs around outdoor stoves.  Young men and women on bikes would zip up to the flowers stalls and go off with small bouquets for their windowsills or lovers.  After the first day, the market became my familiar safe haven for my morning painting. One day, it was raining and I was invited to share the umbrella and the lunch of Prospero, the Jewish junk seller. After that day, I was welcomed with Italian kisses on each cheek by my old gray bearded friend. Each day after the market was over, I again had to call on all the courage I could muster, as I went looking for a spot to do a second painting. I wandered over Ponte Sisto across the Tiber River to Trastevere or up an alley to Piazza Nivona or down a few streets to the Pantheon. Sometimes, I was harassed by begging gypsies.  Always it was hard to find a spot where I was safe from the traffic or the crowds of people, who in Italy, seem to love to press against you on all sides. One afternoon, I found my little safe spot on the base of a statue next to a sleeping homeless person.

 

Often, I passed the internet café and I always thought about how reassuring it would feel to contact my friends and family. I was quite certain though, that with only thank you in Italian,  I didn’t dare go in.

 

Midtrip, after three days of getting my courage up, I did book an evening ticket to see my first Opera.  Rome in the daytime is a scary place. Rome at night is crazy. Even crossing the street seems impossibly risky. Somehow I arrived safely at Madame Butterfly. The first two acts were boring and awful. Men arguing in song had me nodding off. Luckily, the third act was glorious as Madame Butterfly sang a haunting tearjerker and then killed herself.  All of the other days, after nine or ten hours outside painting, I struggled home to my pension totally exhausted and relieved that for a few hours I could breath normally.

 

The following year, Laurie and I went to Spain. By then, we knew all about internet cafes; no, you don’t have to order coffee; yes, you do need a way to access your email account remotely. In the past ten years, I have used internet cafes all over the world to check in with family and friends. Sometimes, I think I might have wasted some precious sightseeing or painting time sitting in these cafes at computers, sending messages about how wonderful everything is or isn’t.  However, it is these chats in internet café with my friends and family that have helped me overcome my fears and uncertainly when travelling and I cherish this connection to home. In just ten years, I have come to enjoy and rely on having instant access to more than just people. Now I am also connected to music, books, and ideas. I have become so computer savvy that I can check my email from anywhere, even before my feet touch the floor in the morning.

 

The other day a few of us were chatting and one woman said that she can no longer communicate with students by email. Apparently kids don’t use email. They only use face book and twitter. I do not have face book. I have never tried twitter.


Suddenly, I wonder if you have to order coffee?