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Lost in Translation This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.


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It was a hot July day in the sun-baked Italian town of Orvieto, and my family was gathered at a car rental shop at the start of our family vacation. In this small town on the edge of nowhere, the only air conditioning was a small fan in the corner, taunting us with its back-and-forth movement. My brother was on the front step suffering from a sugar crash, a circle of chocolate lining his lips. It was 2 p.m., and none of us had showered in two days. Luckily, we knew that within a half an hour we would be encased in a sumptuous, air-conditioned car, thanks to Hertz and the thoroughness of my mother's travel planning with American Express.

Dad was pacing back and forth just outside the shop, taking his third work call of the day. I was sitting in a plastic chair adjacent to the counter where Mom was filling out paperwork. My book was stuck at the bottom of the suitcase, and I was too hot to get it. Instead, I played with my frayed hair tie, looping it around and around my thumb.

All of a sudden, Mom's mangled Italian rose in pitch. Her glare intensified as she looked over her glasses at the young woman behind the counter. She reached into her purse, grabbed her phone and started frantically dialing. I watched her shuffle her credit card and receipts while keeping the phone wedged between her ear and shoulder. Her patience with the person on the other line was evidently waning.

“Urrgh!” she yelled into the phone, which she now held out at arm's length.

“What's going on?” I asked.

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

“Jef!” Mom yelled to Dad 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.”

“Okay,” my dad replied half-heartedly. This was his standard answer to almost anything Mom said when he was trying to avoid conflict.

“No. Not okay. Bad. Very bad. Can you help me here?” Her voice was slow, as if she was talking to a toddler.

“Gotta go,” Dad said into his phone, and stepped into the shop.

“I'm on hold with American Express. Can you just … here, take it!” She shoved her phone in Dad's direction and marched back to the counter. This time she used English to ask for a supervisor. The girl shrugged nonchalantly and said her supervisor would be in sometime later. 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, I don't think so.” Like lightning, Mom grabbed the phone from Dad and pushed her glasses back up the bridge of her nose. Just then, a woman in white linen, a little older than Mom, walked in. Mom wiggled with hope as she arranged her papers and shoved the phone back toward Dad's ear.

Parla 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 now talking to Hertz on the phone.

“They say that sometimes Euro Car doesn't recognize Hertz,” he said. Mom took back the phone and, like a commander 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. “Okay. 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.”

“The boss says she will print a new receipt,” the girl replied. Mom's 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 e piu necessario,” she said as she brushed her hands clean of the entire situation.

Mom's face turned white. “No,” she whimpered. “I need that paper to get my money back. I need that receipt, my original receipt.” She held back tears.

The Italian woman looked confused and started speaking loudly to the girl. Apparently grocery-packing hand gestures were effective for Italians as well. 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. Mom threw down her arms, walked around the counter and grabbed the trash can. “I'll just take the pieces of the receipt then,” she said.

My mother got on her knees and started searching through the trash. She was so angry that her hands shook trash onto the linoleum floor. A peach pit rolled under the desk and a dirty plastic bag floated across the room. The Italian woman seemed to experience either outrage or embarrassment. She got up to grab the trash can back, but Mom wouldn't let go. They yelled 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 now, gawking at the scene. Mom was not going to let go and neither was the woman. Dad just stood there open-mouthed.

Finally, I leaped across the room and pried the trash can away. The Italian woman staggered back and picked up a broom. Mom stood with tears welling in her eyes. Both women refused to look at each other. The girl behind the desk swiveled her chair and refilled the staple gun, unfazed by the drama. I was hot and tired and my voice and hands started to tremble.

“What are you doing?” I screamed at the 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 going to need 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; its contents bore evidence of what she had eaten for lunch. Slightly disgusted, I turned back to her. “Tell your supervisor that she must help us fish out the pieces and tape it back together.” My voice broke.

The girl looked at me wide-eyed, then spoke softly to the woman. She gazed at Mom and said, “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.

My mother and the Italian woman started laughing and crying, and then, all of a sudden, they were hugging. I looked over, baffled. They were smiling and 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 good-byes we all piled into the car and waved to the two women. Dad started up the engine. “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 into a cacophony of laughs as Dad backed out of the parking spot.

We had moved only three feet when our feelings of relief 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.

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.




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