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Lee Capristo
Director of Publications
Anne Arundel 100

What Rameses Taught Me

Written by Jeffrey Hammond, Professor of English and George B. and Willma Reeves Endowed Chair in the Liberal Arts

Last fall, I taught a creative writing course at St. Mary’s Alba campus in Italy’s Piedmont region. Sleepless and exhausted when my flight arrived in Turin, I was met by the school’s driver, a large, friendly man whose rapid-fire Italian lay entirely beyond my grasp. With the Alps looming to the north and Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” blaring on the car radio, we began the drive to Alba. I stared in a daze as cypresses, vineyards, and tile-roofed villages zipped by in a rolling landscape misty with fog. After being dropped off at my apartment and finding myself too wired to take a nap, I decided to explore the town.

It was Saturday night in the middle of the annual Truffle Festival, and Alba’s narrow, medieval streets were packed. Visitors come from all over the world to celebrate the region’s prized white truffles, which are more expensive, ounce for ounce, than gold. Jet-lagged and groggy, I inched my way through dancers, jesters, and musicians – all in medieval garb – along with the thousands of tourists who were watching the performers and gazing at shop windows filled with merchandise by Gucci, Armani, and Prada. Surrounded by Europeans dressed in such fashionable black leather, I felt very large and conspicuously American as I lumbered along in my black jeans and tweed sports coat.

When Midwestern reserve meets European revelry, the impact can be disorienting. By the time I reached Alba’s main square, with its 12th-century Duomo aglow in brilliant light, I was reeling from sensory overload. I entered a news kiosk to escape the crowd and get my bearings, but a man inside snapped Siamo chiuso! – “We’re closed!” I then watched as five middle-aged women in traditional black dresses critiqued the fashions on display in the Luisa Spagnoli window. An elderly couple strolled arm-in-arm past a gang of teens who were wearing Goth makeup and smoking. When a girl wearing a “Georgetown Hoyas” jacket yelled something angry-sounding to her boyfriend, the elderly couple shook their heads and smiled.

Overcome by the swirl of unfamiliar speech and the press of the crowd, I was starting to feel like a poorly cast extra in a Fellini movie. As I stumbled back to my apartment and fell into bed, I wondered if I would ever feel at home in this exotic place.

*       *       *

In fact, after a week I began to relax and enjoy myself, thanks in part to an ancient Egyptian pharaoh. The role of foreigner does not come easily to an ex-Ohioan schooled in middle-American normality. Before the trip I had memorized a few phrases and some basic Italian grammar, but not nearly enough. As a result, I stumbled awkwardly through everyday tasks: buying groceries, ordering dinner in restaurants, finding bathrooms. Blurting two-word questions and pointing at objects like an infant, I conveyed my constant confusion with a hapless smile that made my face hurt. It was if I had become two people. When I was teaching, I was my usual self. The instant I left the classroom, however, I became a big, stammering baby. Additional disorientation came from the fact that this was a trip through time as well as space. The streets followed the patterns of an ancient Roman town, and many of the buildings were centuries old. Often I could make myself understood only by pronouncing Latin words with an Italian accent.

As a child I had been fascinated by ancient Egypt. And Turin is home to the renowned Museo Egizio; given my childhood passion, how could I not spend my first free day visiting the largest collection of Egyptian artifacts outside of Cairo?

After a chaotic train trip and halting attempts to get directions, I entered a museum that I had heard of all my life but never expected to see. All embarrassment melted away, however, as I stood before a colossal statue of Rameses the Great, seated on his throne and holding the traditional shepherd’s crook that symbolized the pharaoh’s protection of his people. I had seen countless pictures of this statue as a child – and it was as a child once again that I looked up at the pharaoh’s serene face. Va bene, Rameses seemed to be saying: it’s all right to feel like a child in a strange place. Wasn’t the pharaoh also in a strange place, far from his beloved Nile and being gawked at by oddly dressed people speaking languages that didn’t even exist when he ruled Upper and Lower Egypt? As I checked for guards and briefly touched the statue’s foot, I realized that if Rameses were to leave the museum and wander through Turin, he’d have trouble getting directions, too.

*       *       *

The Alba college staff took over where Rameses left off. Dino Bosco, who teaches the Italian class, and Daniel Blair, the resident assistant, patiently explained local customs. Dino, director Giuseppe Nova, and secretaries Simona Bellavalle and Giulia Giancristofaro taught me a great deal about Piedmont history and culture. Daniel went the extra mile by elucidating the mysteries of the washing machine in my apartment.

My students also eased me into the Italian scene. Observant and helpful, they had already been there for a month and knew the ropes – especially how to adapt to the slower pace of life. In Italy, appointments routinely allow for a 15- or 20-minute delay. What’s more, Alba’s citizens don’t walk: they stroll. An American walking at normal pace looks like a person fleeing a fire.

Most of all, my students had learned to appreciate the leisurely rhythms of the Italian meal. While Americans are accustomed to large portions of a single dish, Italians eat small portions of many dishes – all at a relaxed pace. And since most restaurants have only one seating per evening, nobody rushes you in order to free up a table.

Every meal was a gourmet experience. After all, the “Slow Food” movement, with its stress on local and seasonal ingredients, was founded by Carlo Petrini in nearby Bra. It was in Alba that I finally learned to notice what I’m eating. For someone who has always judged food by its quantity, this was a revelation.

If I ever return to Alba, I’ll learn more Italian beforehand so I can be a better guest – and less a big baby. And while I hope to speak more quickly, I look forward to eating more slowly. Despite the terrific food, I actually lost weight during my stay. Though the constant walking helped with that, the main factor was learning to slow myself down to an Old World pace that Rameses the Great might have recognized. Still, I’ll bet that he never ate as well as I did.