As the train pulled away Santa Maria Novella, the station in Florence, I was eager to finally be heading to Genova – to the person for whom I had made this entire trip.
Cara and I had met back in 2003, and from the first afternoon we spent together, we became forever friends.
It’s all thanks to some rotten fish.
It was one of the hottest summers on record in Italy, and I was sweltering in a little town called Quartu Sant’Elena, on the island of Sardegna. I was there as a missionary, about 4 months into my 18 month service, and was just starting to calm down over the fact that the Church had actually sent me back to Italy.
As a missionary, your life is defined by two things – transfers (a 6 week period of time) and your companion (another missionary with whom you live and work). I was in the middle of my third transfer with the same companion (a longer than usual time together) and it had been decided that for one afternoon we would do scambi (an exchange) with the missionaries in the neighboring city. I would go to Cagliari and work with Cara, and my companion would stay in Quartu with Cara’s companion.
The best word to describe Cara is “emotional.” A native Italian, Cara exemplifies all the best characteristics of her culture: warm, loving, passionate and extremely generous. Her main volume is “loud” and, like so many of her people, is completely fluent in Italy’s second language: gestures. One of the funniest things I ever saw was Cara trying to tell a story while scooping out some gelato. With her hands occupied, she was completely incapacitated until someone took pity on her and took over serving.
Cara and I had spent a lovely afternoon together. Since we had both been out about the same amount of time, we shared many of the same experiences, questions and hopes for the future, and only stopped gabbing in order to do our work.
It was nearing the end of the day and we needed to head back to Quartu for a meeting and to “switch back” to our normal companions. The fateful moment arrived: do we try one more place? Or do we head to the bus stop.
We decided to try one more house.
A very nice lady opened the door and after we explained who we were, invited us in, saying that her husband would love to talk to us.
That was ALMOST the truth.
She had us sit at the kitchen table and called her husband in from the other room. As soon as we introduced ourselves, he sat down and started ranting: how everyone was apostate except for him, that we all needed to read “la Bibbia originale” (the original Bible) and that we were horrible, horrible people. He was talking so loudly and so fast that it was impossible to get a word edge wise. Cara and I just sat there, stupefied, trying to find a moment to gracefully exit. But he went on…and on…and on…It was starting to get slightly offensive, and right around the time that he suggested that we would offer ourselves to any man that would pass by, Cara lost it.
Have you ever seen two pieces of metal strike so hard that sparks fly off?
Right in the middle of his lewd suggestion, she stood up, proud and indignant, and proceeded to let him know exactly what she thought about his rant. She was just starting to get on a roll when all of sudden, he held up his hand, signaling for her to be quiet, and started to sniff the air.
One sniff, two…
Then, it came…
“CHE PUZZO DI PESCE MARCIA!”
As his wife came running in to remove the offensive pan of dead fish that had been sitting in the middle of the table throughout the entire “visit,” Cara and I took advantage of the fact that his wrath had found a new target and slipped out the door. We barely made it outside before we keeled over, laughing hysterically until tears were streaming down our faces.
A few weeks later Cara and I were officially made companions. Every once in awhile during those 6 weeks one of us would whisper “che puzzo di pesce marcia” and we would start giggling uncontrollably. It had been an encounter neither of us would ever forget.