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Lost in Translation This work is considered exceptional by our editorial staff.


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It was a hot July day in the Italian sun-baked, town of Orvieto, and my family was gathered in a car rental shop on the cusp of starting our family vacation. This was a small town on the edge of nowhere, and the only form of air conditioning available was the small fan in the corner of the room that taunted us with its back and forth pattern. My brother was out on the front step suffering from a sugar crash made evident by the circle of chocolate lining his lips. It was about two in the afternoon and none of us had showered in the last two days. Luckily, we knew that within a half an hour’s time we would be encased in a sumptuous, air-conditioned car, thanks to the Hertz Rental Company, and the thoroughness of my mothers travel planning with American Express. Dad was taking his third work call of the day, pacing back and forth just outside the shop. I was sitting in one of two plastic chairs, adjacent to the counter where Mom was filling out paperwork. My book was stuck at the bottom of the suitcase and it was just too hot to put that much effort into getting it out. Instead, I played with my frayed hair tie, looping it around and around my thumb.

All of a sudden, I heard Mom’s mangled Italian rise in pitch and looked up to see her eyes intensify as she looked over her glasses at the young girl behind the counter. Mom reached into her purse, grabbed her phone and started frantically dialing numbers. It had been twenty minutes since we arrived at the Italian Hertz partner, and in that time my back had slid further and further down the seat until I was almost reclining. The temperature was not helping my desire to sit upright, so I succumbed to the heat and slid a little lower as I watched my Mom shuffle her credit card and many receipts, while keeping the phone locked between her ear and shoulder. Her patience was waning, which I could clearly hear by her tense, vocal deliberation with the person on the other line.

“Urrgh!” She yelled into the phone, which she now held out at arms length as if she were communicating with the device.

“Why? What’s going on?” I asked from my supine position.

“Never use Euro car!” She turned to look at the girl behind the desk and used her fractured Italian to communicate something, which from the hand gestures, I could only interpret as bagging instructions to a grocery clerk, or perhaps the mating dance of a dodo bird. I perked up little from my slouch to get a better view of what was going on.

“Jef!” Mom yelled to Dad who was still outside. “They don’t recognize our booking and want us to pay again… I told her we paid a month ago and I have the receipt right here, but she says her computer doesn't agree.”

“OK” my Dad replied half-heartedly. This was his standard answer to almost anything Mom said when trying to avoid conflict.

“No. Not OK. Bad. Very bad. Can you help me here?” Her voice was slow and calm as if talking to a toddler.
“Gotta go.” Dad said into his phone and walked into the shop.

“I am on hold with American Express. Can you… just…just… here take it.” She shoved her phone in Dad’s direction and marched back to the counter. This time it was English she used to ask for a supervisor. The girl behind the counter shrugged nonchalantly and said her supervisor would be in sometime later, probably today. I groaned loudly. All of a sudden my Dad’s eyes widened and he began to talk on the phone.

“Hi. We are… in Italy and… well yes…. We rented last… what? No… Don’t think so.” Like a flash of lightning Mom grabbed the phone from Dad’s ear and pushed her glasses back up the bridge of her nose. I was playing a serious game of cats cradle with my hair tie. Just as I had made a mangled mess, a woman in white linen walked into the room. She was a little older than Mom, with dark brown hair that framed her oval face which took an unexpected turn towards the sharp point of her chin Her laughter echoed as she walked through the door and greeted us all. Mom wiggled with hope as she composed her papers and shoved the phone back towards Dad’s ear.

“Parlo Inglese?” Mom asked the woman with a forced smile.

“No.” She replied curtly.

“Will you translate?” Mom asked the girl, who seemed to be avoiding the situation. Mom cleared her throat. “I paid for this car a month ago through American Express. I paid in full, online. Here is the receipt.”

The Italian woman looked at the paper and typed something into the computer. She shook her head and spoke rapidly to the girl.

“She says that this didn’t happen if it is not in the computer.” The girl translated.
Mom glanced at Dad who was talking to the Hertz Company on the phone.

“They say that sometimes Euro Car doesn’t recognize Hertz.” Mom took back the phone and like a commander before marching into battle, demanded that the person on the other end of the phone note her every word. “If we pay for this car again, you and Hertz and Euro car and American Express are going to work this out and decide who will reimburse us, but one of you will reimburse us. You are noting that we are not responsible for this error, correct?” She raised her eyebrows and listened intently as Dad slipped back out the door.

She nodded “OK. Yes. I can do that.” Mom looked up from the phone. “She says that if we pay and keep both receipts we can get reimbursed when we get home.” Mom nodded to no one in particular and then raised her finger as she spoke into the phone again. “Yes. I understand. I’ll bring them both.” She hung up the phone and asked the girl behind the counter to translate. Jumbles of Italian words were tossed between the two of them.

“The boss says she will print a new receipt,” explained the girl. Moms’ eyes lit up and I sat a little higher in my seat. The older woman started typing on her computer. She printed something out and handed it to my mother.
Just as Mom reached for the paper, the Italian woman snatched the old receipt out of Mom’s hands, tore it into small pieces, and deposited it in the trash.

“Questo non è più necessario.” She said as she brushed her hands clean of the entire situation.
Mom’s face turned white.

“No.” my mother whimpered. This was the first time I’d seen her at a lack of words. I wrapped the hair tie another turn on my forefinger and sat forward. “I need that paper to get my money back.” She said to no one with a tone somewhere between fury and defeat. She held back tears.

“I need that receipt, my original receipt.” The Italian women looked confused and started speaking loudly to the girl. Apparently grocery packing hand gestures were effective for Italians as well.

I stood up and looked out the window for Dad and my brother.

Mom’s voice started getting higher and her glasses slipped down her nose. More Italian was tossed between the three women. I was pacing in circles, watching this mess when my dad came to the doorway, calmly observing as the voices of the women got louder and louder. Mom threw down her arms, walked around the counter and grabbed the trashcan. “I’ll just take the pieces of the receipt then.”

My mother got on her knees and started searching through the trash for the pieces of paper. She was so angry that her hands shook more trash onto the linoleum floor. A peach pit rolled under the desk and dirty plastic bag floated across the room. The Italian woman seemed to experience either outrage or embarrassment. She got up to grab the trashcan back, but Mom wouldn’t let go. They both spoke at each other in some garbled combination of English and Italian as they wrestled for the trash. Mom’s hair fell out of her ponytail and the woman’s glasses came off her face. I was standing still now, gawking at what was happening in front of me. Mom was not going to let go and neither was the woman. Dad just stood there open-mouthed and wide-eyed.

Finally, I leaped across the room and pried the trash can away. The Italian woman staggered back, picked up a broom and started sweep the contents back towards the trashcan. Mom stood with tears welling in her eyes. Both women refused to look at one another. The girl behind the desk swiveled her chair and refilled the staple gun, unfazed by the drama that just occurred. My forefinger was blue and my tailbone was throbbing from the ridiculous position I had assumed on the chair. I was hot and tired and my voice and hands started to tremble.

“What are you doing?” I screamed at the young Italian girl. “You are the only one who understands what is going on.” If Dad was not going to do anything and Mom was busy having a breakdown, I was the one who was going to have to handle this fiasco. I took a breath and leaned over the counter. “We will lose all our money if we don’t get that receipt. The receipt that is in your trash.” I pointed to the plastic bin whose contents bore evidence of what she had previously eaten for lunch. Slightly disgusted I turned back to her, “Tell your supervisor that she must help us fish out the pieces and paste it back together.” My voice broke at the end and my hands trembled.

The girl looked at me wide eyed then spoke softly to the woman. She gazed at Mom and said, in very bad English, “I am sorry, we can get the paper from trash.” Mom started to cry happy tears, and together they searched through the trash as I stapled and taped their findings back together.

The two women started laughing and crying and then all of a sudden they were hugging. I looked over, baffled by the display of affection. They were smiling at one another, clapping each other on the back. Dad, still frozen in the doorway, looked at me and mouthed, “What just happened?” I shook my head.

Fifteen minutes later we had our receipt in an envelope, and Mom and the supervisor were best friends. Neither of them seemed to have taken the experience personally. They were chatting and laughing and I heard the word “amico” several times
After our goodbyes we all piled into the car and waved to the two women. Dad started up the engine, and I tied my hair off my face and slowly slid down the car seat assuming my signature position.

“You know… I could have kicked her ass.” Mom whispered to us as she re applied her lipstick like the rebellious teenager she once was. We broke out into a cacophony of laughs as Dad started to back out of the parking spot. We had moved only three feet when our feelings of relief and excitement were interrupted by a large thud. We looked back to see a dented sign wishing us “Viaggio Sicuro”, safe travels. We froze. Stunned. I glanced back at the two women, my face red with embarrassment. One woman placed her hand to her forehead echoing the other’s nervous laughter. We parked the car and walked back into the shop.




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