It was Saturday night. We had planned a nice dinner. Bruschetta with tomatoes and palamato olives. Turkey and green beans sautéed with red peppers. We had splurged and bought a bottle of lemon iced tea instead of the usual “aqua naturale” (still water). The meal went well. A few minor bumps here and there: some of the bruschetta got burnt (still getting used to the stove) and the turkey was over-peppered (really really strong pepper). And then for dessert we bought ice cream sandwiches at the supermarket. Our big spender of the meal, they were brand-name “Nestle.” And they tasted like sawdust. Feeling undettered by the poor end of our own “welcome dinner,” we decided to go out for gelato as well as buy “bigliettos” or tickets for the bus in the morning.
It was supposed to be a quick trip. Both destinations were within our neighborhood, one across the street, the other two blocks down. I stuffed a 10 Euro bill in my pocket and grabbed one of the extra keys, a copy we had made, from the table. The girls followed with some money of their own. We left behind IDs and cellphones. I mean, who were we going to call on such a short trip?
Italian doors are anti-theft masterpieces. As soon as you close the door behind you, a key is needed to open the automatic deadbolt. Locking the door requires two turns to the left, which slides another four deadbolts into place. When I turned around to lock our apartment, I realized, with an incredulous laugh, that I could neither lock the door nor open it. We stood there silent for a minute until the frenzy began of shaking the door, wiggling the key, and feeling the panic of what had happened beginning to rise. We assessed the situation. We had fallen into the habit of locking the windows when we leave as well, just in case. Even if we could climb up to our second story balcony (which we considered), there would be no way to get in. Essentially, we were locked out, with a key.
During orientation, we were told that even if we were locked out, it is not considered an emergency. We ought to find a hotel room for the night and call the school in the morning for assistance. Only problem was that we only had around thirty Euros between us. And none of us had passports which you are required to produce upon check-in. Italy has a strict anti-terrorist law that everyone staying overnight in the country must submit to the government where they are staying. If you stay at a hotel, the hotel will send copies of your passport to the police. No overnight guests are allowed unless the owner of the house or lessee of the apartment takes on the task of reporting to the police on their own. Thus, legally, we could not stay at a hotel. In the back of my mind, I had just pictured us all sleeping in the stairwell for the night.
We walked across the street to the Tabacchi, trying to explain to the man, who had a limited English vocabulary, how we were locked out even though I held the key. It is really difficult to explain, especially when my prized English to Italian phrasebook was locked in the apartment. He replied in short phrases, “Left. Walk two. Left. 5 meters!” We left, all of us wondering where his instructions were leading us; we missed that in the exchange. Unfortunately, the final destination, a locksmiths shop, had closed ten minutes prior to our arrival. Typical.
We had passed a hotel named “Hotel Jane” on the way and figured an establishment catering to foreigners and Americans might have someone who spoke a little more fluent English. The woman inside was beyond helpful. First, before she took any action, she asked us a series of questions: “Are you sure that is the key to your apartment?”, “Do you have the right apartment?”, “Does your door have two locks?”. We weren’t idiots, but perhaps we looked the part. Unfortunately, the fire department in Italy, much like America, cannot open a residence unless the inhabitants can show legal representation that they live there. Umm. That too was locked inside.
Lastly, she gave up here reasoning and called the fire department, explaining the situation. We would have to provide passports and our apartment contract as soon as they opened the door. We waited outside our apartment on the front stoop for the “big red truck” to arrive. I remember feeling slightly uneasy about the whole thing, racking my brain, trying to remember where in the world I had stashed my passport and the housing contract. It was a really safe location, I thought at least, but with the mixture of jetlag and overall exhaustion, I couldn’t quite remember.
Finally, help arrived. Six men in full gear crowded our stairwell, chattering in Italian and smiling, or maybe it was laughing (?), at us. Not one of them spoke English. I held up the key, and the leader of the pack looked at me as though I had lost my mind, until he tried for himself. I could only imagine my embarrassment if, for him, the door had opened. I was glad, for the first time, that it has remained locked and kept us honest. The experts shook the door, just like us, realizing that it wasn’t locked but just shut. Then they produced a plastic folder and slide it up between the doors, rattling the handles a bit more, and opening the doors. Just like that.
My passport happened to be in the first place I looked. I’m glad that I know myself well enough to answer the question, “If I were to hide something really important, where would I put it?”
We took a minute to de-panic before gearing ourselves up for the anticipated gelato. This time, we all took keys, cellphones, IDs, and a good supply of cash. Let’s just say we’ve learned our lesson.