Sunday, July 13, 2008


I didn't realize that my trip to Italy was going to include its own goodwill ambassador in seat 16A. Straight from central casting, Tina is a middle-aged Italian mother, 4'8" tall and wide, with a pink digital camera and black security belt hanging as jewelry from her neck. She has stretched her body right across 16B.

"I think you're in my seat," I say.

"Ohhh I was hoping this would all be to myself no such luck!" she yells. "We're goin to be squeezed in her like two sausages tonight!" My face strains mightily under the conflict of two muscles, one trying to wince and the other trying to stop the wincing. I must look slightly brain damaged.

"Allllright, come sit down then!" she offers, generously. "My name is Tina. What's yours?"

I panic. My brain searches vainly for some reason, any reason, not to tell her my name. My name would be only the beginning of the end of my privacy. But how do you withhold your name without looking like a complete ass? I give it up with the best brain-damaged look I could put together.

"Glad to meet ya!"

Born in Sicily, Tina is a chef and the mother of twin girls. She moved to Philly over 30 years ago, but hasn't returned for nearly half that. Her brother-in-law's name is the same as the author of a book I was carrying, and I am also his age. I learned that I was therefore brought to Tina, by God's order, through the intervention of an angel. Not some abstract angel, mind you, but a real God's-orders-delivering angel. "It's fate!" she shouted. Then a beat. "You are a Christian, right?"

Frantically flipping through a magazine, I hoped reading would stave off the unending torrent of words. But there was so much more to learn from Tina. For example, that I should vote for John McCain, because Michelle Obama is not proud to be an American, and thinks the disabled should get jobs. That violence has never been worse and that kids today have no respect for the elders. That the country was going to collapse under the weight of gas prices and the subprime mortgage crisis, and that the dollar would continue to fall against the euro for some time to come.

"But don't worry, I'm not here to bug ya all night! I have a book about purgatory!"

"Oh, Dante is perfect for this trip," I offer meekly.

"It's not Dante it's real!" she exclaims to her audience, which now includes -- by my estimation -- rows 14 to 19. "People go to purgatory! It happens!"

Her audience chuckles amiably. I stare at the back of the seat, wondering if I might be saved by The Rapture.

"Sometimes I think I'm in purgatory!" she continues. "Lord the pain I'm in!"

Tina has a few health problems. She has diabetes, gout, severe asthma, sleep apnea, and fibromyalgia. She also suffers from claustrophobia, depression, and anxiety attacks. She has a pinched nerve, a ruptured disc, and a bunion. She is carrying medicines for all of these. We discuss each medicine in order and their associated side effects. I worry that in Italy I will be declared her common-law primary care physician.

The plane still has not departed.

When it finally does, Tina grips my hand. "Oh Lord, save this plane!" While she prays for us, I pray for the in-flight entertainment system to load. "What kind of movies would you like to watch?" I ask plaintively, any affirmative response offering the potential for sweet silence.

"Aw I dunno the smut on TV today!" Tina can't work her entertainment system anyway, and after 30 minutes of enlisting me to help, she gets up to move around the cabin. (Better for her gout.) I am shocked to watch The Golden Compass entirely uninterrupted. In fact, Tina has never returned. Maybe The Rapture has captured the holy, but the pilot and flight attendants are corrupted by sin? I turn around and head for the bathroom, but there is Tina, ten rows back, hovering over a shell-shocked couple.

"Oh Michael you must come meet Angelo and Joan!" She turns back to them. "Michael is a professor!"

Angelo and Joan look at me with E.T. eyes, begging voicelessly for mercy. Having had a taste of freedom, I am not about to be charitable. "Time for the bathroom, Tina!" I say, almost mirthfully, as I squeeze past her.

In the bathroom queue, I am cornered by a young man who turns out to be Angelo's nephew. "So Tina's sitting next to you, huh?" he says with some kindness. "My wife is half-Sicilian, and Tina knows her brother! All she does is talk, but she's a nice lady."

Actually, it turns out that Tina knows about half the plane. Not that she is actually traveling with any of them, but Philly's Italian community seems to be pretty tight-knit. And they have Tina pegged. As I walk down the aisle back to my seat, fellow passengers look at me with all the pity they can muster. So many people have a cocked head and pinched half-smile, you'd think I was being sold at a pet store.

Tina is back in her seat. "The flight attendant made me sit down!"

Tina pulls out her medicine bag and plucks out a bottle of Purell. She squirts a glob on my hand, involuntarily. "Um, thanks," I mutter. She pulls out a Dove chocolate bar. "You want some?" she asks. Half the bar is shoved into my clenched mouth. "What, they're good!" she exclaims.

Tina is getting pushy. It is time for action, and I am ready to pull out all the stops. The following attempts fail: reading; reading with the book raised against my face; listening to music; listening to music and taking off the headphones every time she spoke; listening to music, taking off one headphone, and saying "What?"; pretending to sleep; pretending to sleep and then groggily pretending not to understand what she was saying; not responding.

I make one final attempt to pretend sleep. When she talks again, I roll over to my right. She grabs my shoulder, pushing me flat against the seat. "Look at the sun! Boy it's gonna be a hot one in Italy today!"

I am utterly defeated. The breakfast carts are out and the air reeks of coffee. "I think it's going to be 90 degrees in Rome today," I say.

"Even hotter in Sicily, my friend!"

The plane is just about to land. Tina begins clapping rhythmically, and the plane joins in. "Thank you Jesus! Whoooooo! Jesus thank you for landin this plane!"

Thank you Jesus, indeed.


At 2:10 AM, Blogger Five-Seven-Five said...

Tina must do a lot of travelling...I swear I've sat next to her on a flight to Phoenix before. Can't wait to read about your time in Italy.


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