(This continues my series of autobiographical vignettes, intended to demonstrate the neuroses, ambition, talent, chance, mischance, place, alcohol and attitude that go toward the creation of a writer. The tales may be instructive or proscriptive. This one concerns identity.)
In a communal-style dining room in the Sicilian town of Siracuse, my wife noticed that I was being ogled by a bashful fellow in an apron. Before I could figure out why a twenty-year-old, chubby Italian would be smiling, wistful and excited, in my direction, the owner of the joint approached my end of the long bench where a hundred or more diners were enjoying lunch.
From behind his drooping brown mustache, he spoke to me in Spanish. I shook my head and told him, in Italian, that I didn’t understand. He switched to Italian. “You’re Gibernau.”
“I still don’t understand,” I said.
He put aside his cigarette (for the artwork in his establishment suggested Communist-Anarchist tendencies and the EU ban on tobacco in restaurants was being ignored) and reached out a finger. Poking me in the chest, he said: “You’re Gibernau.”
I shrugged, helplessly. “What does that mean?”
He mimed the act of revving up a motorcycle. “The rider, Gibernau.”
“Ah,” I said, miming the act of revving up a motorcycle and trying not to look fearful (which is how I feel when I even think of riding a motorcycle.)
“Yes.” He nodded, very happily.
“No.” I said, sadly, shaking my head. “Motorcyles are very dangerous. I don’t ride them.”
The patron glanced over his shoulder. The cook was bouncing from foot to foot in excitement. The patron leaned in close enough that I could smell the smoke on his breath and see the broken veins around his baggy eyes. “Right now, you’re Gibernau.”
“Okay. It will be my pleasure.” (I’m even more polite in foreign languages than I am in English.)
He left the table and went behind the bar. I shrugged at my wife. “Is this a joke of some sort?” I asked her. “Does ‘Gibernau’ mean foreign asshole in Sicilian slang?”
I asked one of the youngsters across the table from us. “Yes,” one of them agreed. “It’s a joke.”
Before she could explain why it was funny, the clamor of loud Italian voices was silenced by the ringing sound of a spoon banging against a wine glass. The owner stood at the bar with the cook. A moment of silence, and he spoke:
“Today is a great day. Here, in our bar, we have il grande pilotti –– Gibernau.”
He lifted his hands in applause. The room joined him. The cook beamed.
I rose from the bench, raised my hand in modest acknowledgement, and resumed my seat.
The owner came over again. He brought an autograph book. “You’re Gibernau.” He was telling me this time, not asking me. I signed something that looked like a signature for someone whose name might’ve sounded like Gibernau.
“And Senora Gibernau, too,” he said.
My wife wrote: “Nothing’s finer than eating in your diner. Senora Gibernau.”
“A line from Seinfeld?” I said. “That’s how you’re signing for them.”
She laughed, as I imagine Senora Gibernau (who was a supermodel of some sort, it turns out) would have done.
On our return to our hotel, we searched the internet for “Gibernau” and came up with an extraordinarily famous Spanish rider who, at the time, was the only one who could challenge the great Italian Valentino Rossi. Extraordinarily famous among those who aren’t scared witless by bikes. He bore something of a resemblance to me, though I should add that I’m four inches taller and I don’t have titanium plates in my collar bones from falling off a Ducati at 200 miles per hour.
My wife and I became committed fans of Sete (Gibernau’s first name). We watched all his races from then on. Sadly he didn’t win any of them and retired a couple of years ago. So he reaped no benefit from my being mistaken for him.
Neither did I. When I eventually departed the restaurant to another round of applause, the owner insisted that I pay him the five Euros I owed for our spaghetti.
The wait for a successor to Amadeus is over. MOZART’S LAST ARIA by Matt Rees www.mattrees.net