On Communication: Situational Awareness


City Center: AciReale

This month I think I wrote seven nonsense paragraphs about text messaging and fragmented conversation. Nothing made sense. Usually, I love language. I love finding the perfect word for my perfect sentence. I deal all day in words. And many, many days words fail me. So instead of insight, I offer my favorite miscommunication story:

When my car died in a parking lot near AciReale, Sicily, I did what seemed logical and called by husband. He drove thirty minutes from his office on the Navy base to pick me up. I left my car unattended despite the gas station attendant’s insistence that it was “molto pericoloso” next to the fuel tankers stacked three deep on the side of the road. I made Cody drive me to the mechanic in the city who spoke no English, but always bought me a café and called me “Bella.” Giuseppe offered to go get the car later in the day, but Cody and I were worried about my grandmother’s old Chevy Cavalier, so we drove back up the streets of AciReale with the shop’s long, gray tow rope.

AciReale is an ancient city famous for its wild Carnavale held every spring since the 1500s. The narrow, cobbled streets wind through 16th century churches and modern apartment complexes. Most corners are blind and in some places cars pull into driveways to let downhill traffic pass. Every road climbs up and away from the sparkling Ionian coast. It’s picturesque – and a traffic nightmare.

As we pulled into the Agip gas station, men in blue coveralls watched us stop Cody’s white Fiat next to my car. They shook their heads as we looped the tow rope between our two cars. I was grateful I couldn’t understand the dialect – they clearly thought we were crazy or stupid. Maybe both.

Cody and I didn’t speak. Instead we grunted and huffed at each other, the anger and frustration simmering to near boiling. This was a rushed, unfamiliar operation; one that we needed to be done with, now.
As I started the Fiat’s engine, I noted the tension building in Cody’s neck as he reached into the car for a bottle of water. His khaki uniform looked out of place in the dusty, hot parking lot. He was supposed to be behind his desk, not under my car.

Cody is at home almost anywhere, but a flight squadron suited him especially well. Military communication is systematic, predictable, and direct. You give orders. You follow orders. He was trained to work quickly and without question. Cody can size up a situation before I even recognize what is happening around me. His hyper-awareness served him well in the cockpit and in his work as an operations officer, but it sometimes made life with me frustrating.

Parking on the street in AciReale

I started down the road back to the city center pulling Cody and the old Cavalier by the gray rope. The road was just wide enough for passing cars and I hugged the concrete wall as passed the Tabbachi and the fish man. I could hear Cody shouting instructions. He pounded his fist on the steering wheel as I swerved to miss a cart of artichokes in front of the corner grocery. The rope between the vehicles swung low and drug against the stones of the street.
I ignored Cody’s shouts.

I could see Cody waving his arms, urging me to get down the hill. I stopped at a busy intersection and watched my mirror as the blue car rolled to a stop behind me. The traffic ran past us – bumper to bumper little clown cars weaving in and out of each other like a hungry school of piranha. I saw the break in traffic just as Cody threw his arm upward and yelled, “Go, Go!”

I hit the gas hard on to the floor of the Fiat, but the car didn’t move. I downshifted and tried again. Nothing. I looked in my mirror and saw Cody rushing to get out of his vehicle. The rope was stretched taut between the cars and the air smelled like burning rubber.

a-roman-traffic-jamCody stalked toward me, his hands clenched at his sides. My car was in the middle of the intersection, but the traffic still buzzed around us, squeezing up and over the tiny sidewalk.

“Situational awareness!” he yelled.

My mouth gaped. I felt my head swivel on my neck. The rope between the cars was frayed and stretched, almost broken. The old cobbled road was marked with black. An old woman stood on the corner shaking her handbag at us and yelling in Sicilian. She backed up along the tiny sidewalk, desperate to get away from us.

“What is happening?” I yelled back.

The story spilled out: the old woman had walked between our cars. Cody watched her think it through: she looked at the rope. She looked at my car and then at Cody’s vehicle and then back at the rope. She stepped over just as I pulled into traffic. The rope went tight, caught a foot, and sent the woman flying, her shopping bags stretched out in front like paper wings.

I never even saw her.

Instead of the “Go, Go!” I heard, Cody was yelling “No, no!”

“How could you get that so wrong?” he said.

I’m not sure which words failed more that day in Sicily. Every time I think about the old woman on the corner, I gasp for air and then laugh – we were so lucky we didn’t hit her with our oversized American machine. But I also remember how clearly I heard Cody’s instructions – and how wrong I got them. The funniest part of the story though was Cody’s reaction, labeled so quickly and accurately: situational awareness. Somehow he found the perfect words.

~ Sarah

What I did on my summer vacation…

panareaWhen we arrived in Catania two weeks ago, my mother and I wound our way through the airport to the car rental counter and waited for an hour. This is the part of travel no one talks about – we Instagram the beach and our exotic breakfast, not the rental car line. I was anxious to leave the airport and head to our apartment on the water, but we needed the Fiat 500 to make our trek around the island. I sat on my suitcase and made small first cafe talk with the other English speakers in line. My mother brought me espresso in a tiny plastic cup and I changed my leggings for a skirt. I could already feel the Sicilian sun – the pulse of heat pushing up from Catania’s concrete jungle. It was both intensely foreign and achingly familiar.

Eventually, I drove our pint sized car through the city on faith and vague memories (the rental car agent looked at me like I was crazy when I asked for a map) and we parked on Capo Mulini’s lungomare. My mother recognized the apartment from the Google earth photos. The home is small – just two bedrooms and a living room, but guests live on the balcony. We didn’t spend a lot of time inside, but we ate picnic lunches and sipped our near constant espresso on the patio overlooking the Mediterranean.Capo mulini We watched Capo Mulini’s harbor full of boats and swimmers. We watched our Sicilian neighbors lower baskets down to the fruit vendor’s three-wheeled truck and hoist fresh produce back up to the third floor. We watched kayaks and paddle boats circle the Cyclops rocks; locals say the towering volcanic lumps were thrown at Odysseus on his legendary journey home from war.

We ended our trip with two days on an isolated island north of Sicily. Panarea feels like a secret paradise – there are no cars on the island and visitors arrive by hydrofoil. Electricity and running water came to Panarea in the 1980’s and now there are several hotels and wonderful restaurants. Most people spend just a few hours on the island, but we stayed two nights. We returned to a familiar hotel and shopped in the same overpriced boutiques we’d found nearly a decade ago. But mostly we sat on the sun warmed rocks and jumped into the clear sea. water

For me returning to Sicily is ideal respite: I know my way around (mostly), I can speak the language (poorly), and I love the water (completely). But the island still offers the alternative perspective that most travelers seek. I can move around with ease because it is familiar, but the place is foreign enough to shift my gaze, to remind me of the vast space in the world. Time is languid – maybe because of the heat or maybe because Sicilian conversation is dramatic and intense and takes a while. We rested well. We measured our days by the sun instead of the clock; we ate when we were hungry and lingered over our wine. We watched people and counted our blessings.

panarea sjIn the end it wasn’t the picture perfect, Intstagram-able moments that made my vacation great. It was the in-between moments: the first espresso in the rental car line, the hugs and tears from my dear Sicilian friends, the wine and the fresh picked peach on our Capo Mulini balcony, Panarea’s jumping rock. It was the smell and feel of the ocean as only a mountain dweller can experience the water: in stark relief. And the perspective that travel promises necessitates returning home. It is so good for my soul to go, but it is so great to be home.


Collective Memory

Prince Charming

As a child I remember learning that everyone my mother’s age knew where they were when President Kennedy was shot.  My father remembers where he stood when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon and my great uncle recalls the moment he heard about the bombing of Pearl Harbor. More than once I wondered what it would feel like to experience something so huge that a collective memory was forged.  I wondered if I would know immediately that the world had changed or if it would take the perspective of age to shift my memories. I wanted to feel something big, to know the kind of sadness or awe that could connect an entire culture. And then I experienced the September 11th attacks.

In another life I was a military wife.  In the first year of our marriage, my husband and I moved three times. We learned quickly how to be married and how to travel and how to be far from home. Eleven Septembers ago we lived in a small Italian village not far from a European military base.  My husband flew giant helicopters around the Mediterranean Sea while I taught English and learned to drink wine.  We were young and optimistic.  The immediacy of military life was both a comfort – we were surrounded by smart, committed people – and chaotic; those same people were constantly coming and going.  But in the early oughts, it was not yet scary.

Casa Sinclair circa 2001

We learned about the attacks on New York City like most Americans did – we saw planes hit the trade towers on television.  Ironically, we watched on a delay – the Armed Forces Network broadcasts morning TV late in the afternoon. We’d just returned from a trip back to the States.  Coming home to Italy was always surreal; our little pink villa in Aci Reale was both foreign and familiar.  But this day I watched as the landscape changed.  No longer were we just foreigners living in a beautiful country far from home.  In a moment, we became part of the generation changed by twenty-first century war.

It turns out, I was aware of the collective memory as it happened.  As we watched TV my husband gathered his uniforms, packed his flight bag, and called his squadron.   We did not know what to expect, but we braced for change.  We could not have known then that Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom would mean that thousands of US soldiers would deploy for years at a time.  We did not know that our military friends would die on the ground in Iraq and in the air over Afghanistan.  We could not yet see the political or economic ramifications that a decade of war would unleash on our nation.  But we knew immediately that the world looked different.

I don’t often write about what it was like to be a military wife.  I am proud of my husband and his service.  I am prouder still of my friends that continue to serve.  But I was lucky.  My husband did not see direct conflict.  He did not return from foreign deserts with traumatic brain injuries or missing limbs. He did not miss entire swaths of our children’s lives.  I do, however, talk about what it was like to live in Italy.  It is likely that a three year stint in Europe would have been life changing no matter when it happened.  It is also inevitable that every generation will have their Kennedy moment, but I will always wonder what my world would look like if that September memory had been different.