Sunday, February 1, 2009

Gladiator Grandmas

(Published by Fra Noi, Chicago IL, July 2008)

Some people wake to a rooster crowing, to the sound of traffic or an alarm clock. I wake every morning to the shouts of my little old lady neighbors screaming “BUON GIORNOOOO!” to one another from forest green doorways or flower laden windows. Most of them are hard of hearing, so the morning conversations tend to be passionately loud, inviting each other over for coffee or talking about what the weather will be like. Precisely at 7:30 a.m., before I’m even out of bed, I am fully caught up on the neighborhood gossip and I know whether or not I’ll be taking an umbrella to work.

Now as dreamy as that sounds, there is a darker side to the Little Old Lady Club in my part of town. When things go well, they are caffeine and rumor sharing friends, but if things go a bit off track, these sweet, diminutive dames turn into the most vicious creatures imaginable. And recently I found myself accidentally stuck right in the middle of a Little Old Lady War.

It all started a little over two years ago. I had never lived in a ground floor apartment before in Italy, and was a bit concerned over the fact that an inner wall was extremely damp and growing a rather unpleasant black mold. My landlady was outside in the alley talk-shouting pleasantries with my next door neighbor, so I took advantage of the moment and asked them both to come in to get their opinion.

After a quick peek, they both laughed and told me that this was completely normal for a “fondo” like mine, a ground floor room. The building I live in is made of stone, and was constructed sometime during the Renaissance. In those days, my room was used to keep animals, and the people would live in the drier rooms upstairs. The stones that make up the walls are sitting directly on the earth, and therefore absorb moisture from the ground below. They told me there was a special paint I could buy that would seal the wall from a moisture spot like this. Then we had coffee and a quick chat, and that was the end of it.

Or at least it was, until last week when my next door neighbor came pounding frantically on my door. With the “r” of my name being pronounced like a “d,” she was screaming “Teddy! Teddy!” with frightening urgency. I ran to the door, thinking someone had fallen or set their living room on fire. Flying out the door only half-dressed, in a panic I asked her what the problem was. She looked me up and down, told me to put something on and then come over. Her smile didn’t really give me the impression that anyone was dying, so I got dressed and proceeded to her house.

Still smiling, but gesticulating wildly, she pointed to the wall that we share between our two apartments. There was a HUGE grey spot, where an obviously large amount of water was soaking through the plaster. She wanted to see the wall from my side, and so we went back to my house. Although the pattern of dampness was not even remotely similar to that in her kitchen, she determined that the problem was coming from my apartment, that a plumber was to be called immediately and my side of the wall was to be torn down.

This was not something I really wanted to hear.

I decided the best course of action was to call my landlady to ask what I should do. She went berserk and I was instructed not to do anything until she arrived. I wholeheartedly agreed. First because I just didn’t want to face such an thing alone, and secondly, because I simply couldn’t see the connection between the “normal” dampness in my apartment, and the serious problem my neighbor had. Her dilemma was obviously coming from an entirely different source, but there was no telling that to an enraged octogenarian.

When my landlady arrived and the two of them met, I was eerily reminded of the film “Gladiator.” Our peaceful alleyway turned into the Colosseum, and these two otherwise polite ladies went at each other like warriors fighting for glory and the approval of the emperor. Before me was nothing but a screaming blur of lace and jewelry. The battle raged on for several minutes before my neighbor disappeared into her house, slamming the door behind her, and my landlady still shouting and flailing, walked away down the street. I was left alone in the silent aftermath wondering what the hell had just happened.

About an hour later my landlady called me on my cellphone, and I was ordered to not allow anyone in my house, no neighbor lady, no plumber, no architect, no one. I said that would not be a problem, as I was going off to Rome for a couple of days. It was a perfectly timed escape.

After my return from a much needed break in the glory that is Rome, I was completely oblivious to what had transpired during my absence. While away, I had somehow managed to completely block out the entire fiasco, but home again, dread washed over me like the mold on my wall.

I was home only a few minutes before a knock came on my door and as I had imagined, my neighbor was standing there. I prepared myself for the worst, but then she held out a small bag and offered it to me. I opened the bag, and very much to my surprise, inside were two pairs of my underwear. As this was probably the very last thing I would have expected, I gave her what I’m sure was an incredibly stupefied look. She told me that while I was gone, some of my laundry had blown off the line, and she thought that I probably didn’t really want my “intimate clothing” just lying around in the street. Which of course I didn’t, and I thanked her for being so kind as to think of that for me. She then invited me over to her house, and told me that my landlady was there too and that I should join them.

I tossed the bag behind me into my apartment, and with a cold feeling of trepidation, I followed her. I was preparing myself to face what I was sure was going to be another frightening scream-fest, when upon entering her kitchen I saw my landlady sitting at the table eating ice cream and smiling. “Would you like some?” they both offered. I accepted, confused but comforted by the oddly peaceful atmosphere in the room. As it turns out, the problem had been a broken rain gutter that had been directing water into a small crack on the outside of the building, with its final destination being my neighbor’s kitchen wall. All had been resolved with no invasive demolition, and was now ending with three women sitting around a table enjoying each other’s company.

I thought to myself how wonderful it would be if all wars could be fought only with waving hands, and then resolved with ice cream.

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