When There Are No Words

A few weeks ago I was walking on a back street in Florence when I looked over and saw an older woman sitting on the sidewalk clutching her ankle.  She was in a classic dress suit, with stockings, a hat, and the type of elegantly comfortable older woman heel that is so common here in Italy.  She looked half asleep and very sad.  I walked over to her to offer a hand but she barely acknowledged me. I asked, “posso aiuta?” Can I help? She just slumped a bit more and clutched her ankle.  I noticed some women walking nearby who were coming over to help; they asked her some questions in Italian but she just started to cry out in quick short screams.   A minute later an ambulance was coming around the corner, someone must have called them earlier, and the two women and I got out of the way.  They started talking to her and lifting her up, she was screaming louder now but seemed to be letting them help her up.   The men acted like it was nothing, common, I guess for them it was.

From the moment she didn’t respond I had been at a loss for words, what could I say? And I wanted to ask them if she was ok, if she was crazy, if I could help but I just stood there.  The two Italian women didn’t say anything either and once they realized it was under control they were on their way.  I left too, walking much slower than before, but I heard her screams for the next block.

This past Friday my friend Barbara came to San Giovanni to meet me for dinner, she came early and we decided to go for a walk. It was a gorgeous day, warm enough to go without a jacket, and lots of people were in the park.

We strolled along the Arno chatting then we both noticed this young man that had walked past us had stopped behind a tree and it looked like he was peeing.  Then I realized he was not peeing and told Barbara we should turn around.  He awkwardly ran past us to hide behind another tree in our path.

He was obviously touching himself and once we passed him he again ran ahead of us to find yet another spot.  There were more people but he still found a spot near the passageway under the bridge, so we decided to cross over the busy street rather than pass by him again.  Once we got away from the park he left us alone and we walked back towards the piazza then later to my apartment.

These things happen, usually in cities but; in any case Barbara and I agree that we never felt in danger, just disgusted and a bit shocked.  We just were made to feel uncomfortable cause this guy got off on it.  I’m not writing about this to alarm any of you, please don’t freak out.

I’m writing about it because both these situations are the type of thing I never really thought about without English.  It was really disorienting to have nothing to say and to understand nothing in a situation where communication is essential, especially with the older woman.

Barbara and were talking about the park situation the next day, we both felt guilty about not reporting him.  It wasn’t a huge deal to us but we started to worry about other people he might do this too, had we failed them? We wondered how our friends and family would react.  Neither of us had any idea how someone would be punished in this situation here in Italy; in the US I think they would be arrested or at least taken in and reprimanded, Barbara said she thought the Italian police wouldn’t do much but we both hated the idea that they would do too much.  This guy was a kid, about 18, and yes what he did was wrong but he needs some counseling to learn how to deal with it in a healthy way not to be ostracized from his community which would only lead to him feeling worse and acting out in more unhealthy ways.  We kept coming back to our conversation about it. What do you think?

I don’t want to give the wrong impression of my experience; these are only a few poor moments in the months rich with wonderfulness.  So please no worries friends and Mom!

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1 Response to “When There Are No Words”


  1. 1 Your Father October 17, 2008 at 6:02 am

    In an open market in Lusaka, I came upon a man in the throes of an epileptic fit. I rushed to him and tried to comfort & orient him as he came around, then realized I didn’t speak his language. I looked around for support. “Does anybody know this man?”

    “Oh, yes,” came the reply from a vendor. “Don’t worry. That’s the way he is.” I spent the rest of the week trying to figure out how I felt about this cultural difference.

    I’m proud of you you, my dear, for being compassionate and open to differences.


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