Standing outside a trailer-like building, coffee in hand and heart racing, I waited with my husband to enter the classroom for our first day of indoctrination class. No, we weren’t converting to a cult – though I do remember some ‘bug juice’ and cookies being offered during a break; we were embarking on a two-week crash course on how to survive and thrive in Sicily, Italy.
We had just PCSed to Naval Air Station Sigonella in Sicily, and I’d barely stepped outside of my little hometown for my entire 21 years on this earth. My language skills consisted of my native language, English, and my four years of high school Spanish, which prepared me to have riveting discussions with other Spanish speakers as long as they bantered on a three-year-old level about bionic flies and deodorant. Seriously, those are the only two lessons that stuck with me out of four years of study. Disturbing, I know.
Throughout these classes, our Italian guide – who resembled a supermodel – gave us the beginners’ version of the most important phrases and conversations we would need in order to deal with Italian landlords, purchase stamps and groceries, and haggle with the merchants at the open air markets. We found the most immediate use for phrases with directional terms, inquiries about the location of bathrooms, how much something cost and how to order a beer.
During the driving portion of the course, we learned a few valuable life lessons. If a pedestrian makes eye contact with a driver, it is pedestrian’s responsibility to get out of the way of the oncoming car. Speed limits are a slight suggestion, and it is more important to keep up with the speed of traffic or risk being flattened or run off the road. Italian drivers morph their one-lane country roads into two to three car speedways, and it is your responsibility to avoid hitting the car in the opposite lane AND the one in the middle lane trying to pass your timid American driving. Learning the rules of the road in Italy and earning an Italian driver’s license was part of this course and though we succeeded in earning said license, we also shaved a good ten years off of our lives in the process.
Cincia (pronounced chin-see-yah), our guide, explained Italian culture in hopes that we would not commit any faux pas during our settling in process. Our last major assignment from our fearless leader was to take a “get lost” trip anywhere on the island.
The rules: use two forms of transportation (none of us had cars yet as they were still in sea transit), choose a destination, find the local tourist information center and bring back a poster or map from that center. We were to give a brief presentation of where we went, what we did and how things went. We were grouped together with other newbies and off we went to “get lost.”
Our group chose to “get lost” in Siracusa, Sicily, which was quite a way south from our base located near the city of Catania. We took public transportation using a bus to get there and a train to get home. There were five of us working together to combine words and phrases to find out times of buses, where to purchase the tickets, how much the tickets cost, where to find the tourist information center and how to find different historical sites that we chose to see on the trip. We definitely made a few Sicilians laugh that day with our sad attempts to speak and understand their beautiful language, but lucky for us, everyone we encountered was very patient and guided us right to where we needed to go.
We saw the Fountain of Diana, ruins of an ancient Greek amphitheater, the Ear of Dionysus, catacombs, portions of Greek buildings that were in ruins, but well preserved for their thousands of years of wear, and enjoyed an open air market.
I remember being amazed that we managed to do so much within one day, not really knowing the language, or where we were, but I guess that was the point. Cincia and the military indoctrination program had designed the course to make us self-sufficient even when we were taken completely out of our American comfort zones.
Getting lost on that trip showed us that being lost is a frame of mind. When surrounded by things unfamiliar and words you cannot understand, don’t drown in panic for being lost; simply look to where you want to go and start in that direction; you’ll eventually find yourself there.