“OK, then,” I say, agreeing to let him take me in the scant few Italian words I know. “Like they say in Sicily, Amu ninni.”
I have no idea how this phrase actually translates into English, or if it’s one word or three or how it would be spelled. In fact, I don’t know if anyone in Sicily actually says this anymore because the dialect there is dying, or even if they ever did, because I didn’t learn it in Sicily. I learned it in the kitchen of a railroad apartment in Lawrence, Massachusetts. But I know how to use it. It means something like, “Let’s go,” but only something like.
But this man, old enough to be my grandfather with his sun-darkened face, gleaming bridgework on his teeth, has heard this phrase before. And hearing it come out of my mouth garners the exact same reaction that all Italian people have when they hear me, an American, and a youngish one at that, speak a dead Italian dialect with a Boston accent.
It cracks him up.
He talks to me nonstop for the next 45 minutes, the whole way between Golfu Aranci and Palau. He clicks on the meter and says, “Here, you can watch this while we go. It’s set to the regulation fare for Sundays and holidays, which is more expensive than usual. For years, a lot of guys here didn’t turn on the meter and they charged all kinds of extras. Fifteen percent for bags. Twenty percent for Sundays. Fifty percent if you were traveling after midnight. And it was just terrible. There were arguments all the time. Everybody trying to scam everybody. I always used a meter and I still use a meter.”
He pauses for a minute.
“I’m honest,” he says. “That’s why I’m broke.”
To my complete shock, I understand almost everything he says. I can even chime in every once in a while to answer his questions, but I have to stop myself every time, to sort out the Sicilian words from the Italian ones.
“How did you get to Corsica?” he asks, and the word “Bacca” makes it to the tip of my tongue and stops, because I know now. They laughed at me in Sicily when I used it.
“Traghetto,” I say, finally, after a solid minute of silence, my brain processing slow and clumsy.
All the while, I watch the meter click up at an astonishing rate. After twenty minutes, it’s double what he originally quoted me and I’m petrified. It is so much money — a week’s worth of lodgings. Ten full meals. In America, it’s a month’s worth of groceries. I’ve been scammed in cabs in Europe before, and it always feels the same — like a horrendous failure, punishment for North American naiveté. But this time I wasn’t scammed. I asked for a quote. But maybe he lied.
I’m confused by what’s happening, and I get quiet as the landscape changes, as we follow twisting mountain roads and incredible rock formations like something out of a cartoon. The rocks, tumbled into their places, into their bizarre geometric shapes millennia ago, have been worn smooth by wind and water and geological catastrophe. They stand on their heads, tipped over onto each other. I wonder if the price on the meter might actually be worth it.
“They used to film Westerns here,” he tells me, and I immediately see why. “But then they paved the road and all that stopped.”
“A paved road just doesn’t look like Dodge,” I say out loud in English. When he asks me to translate, I don’t have the words, so I tell him that it looks like Arizona.
He delivers me to the door of my hotel in Palau, not to the center of town, like I expected. He even hefts my bag — the ridiculous 50 pounds of it — up the stairs to reception.
I pull out my wallet, prepared to count out every single bill that I have, to suck it up, to give myself the Travel Philosophy Pep Talk when it’s done.
He asks for half of what was on the meter.
Less than half. In fact, he asks me for €5 less than what he originally quoted me in Golfu Aranci — the price of about a 20-minute ride to the next town. We’ve come much, much farther than that.
Tears well up in my eyes.
Something I have become very aware of lately: Somebody up there watches me. And watches my back. And sends me angels literally every single time I need one.
I cannot afford to do what I want to do, which is give him exactly what was on the meter. The regulation rate for Sundays. But I can’t, so I tip as much as I can and smile and wave and make it abundantly clear that my faith in… something… just got a little stronger.