Say it with a Smile

I learned to kite during a week-long clinic in Hatteras.


More accurately:  I continued to learn to kite during a week-long clinic in Hatteras.  This was after 2 or 3 lessons in Newport, another 6 months just flying a trainer kite on a beach in Connecticut, and then 10 days getting skunked in Cabarete.

I wasn’t the only one “learning” to kite that week. Three other guys were part of the clinic, and while it wasn’t exactly a contest, no one (read: ME) wanted to be the last person to get up on the board.

One (Fitz) was a happy-go-lucky kind of guy who didn’t seem to care if he ever learned to kite or not. If he did, great.  If he didn’t, he would, eventually, at some point in his life. He’d go out for half an hour, poke around, not get anywhere, and be content with his one attempt for the day.  If anyone was going to get on the board first, it was not going to be Fitz.

The second guy (Stefaan) was a natural, a real top-of-the-food-chain kind of guy. He picked up kiting right away: he rode the board the first day, stayed upwind the second day, and was jumping on the third day. Stefaan didn’t count. Stefaan was just unfair.

The third (Gianni) was a native Italian with a thick accent who learned to speak English by watching old black-and-white movies.  At first, he’d thought the word “motherfu&ker” was a compliment that meant the person had a hot mother that everyone wanted to fu&k.  He was a great story-teller, and kept us all entertained.  He didn’t always mean to be funny; he just was funny. When he wanted to practice patience, he’d go to the post office, stand in line, and then leave when it was his turn.   But the best part about Gianni was that – like me – he was a slow and angry learner.

Collectively, we hated Stefaan, and seethed around in the waters of the Pamlico Sound together, attempting water-start after water-start, swearing and angry like two Tasmanian Devils, glaring malevolently at Stefaan whenever he’d ride past us on his board, smiling and jumping and making kiteboarding look fun and easy.  It was a dark and difficult time for Gianni and I, and I was glad I wasn’t the only one having such problems.   Misery loves company, and Gianni was the most miserable company I could have possibly had.

He was a much different person in the kitchen, though, than when he was stewing around in the sound.  A real live Italy-born Italian, he took it upon himself to cook dinner for everyone in the house, every night.  It was his self-proclaimed job, and he didn’t trust that anyone else could do it as well as he could.  He had definite ideas about how pasta should be cooked and eaten, and treated the improper handling of pasta as if it were a punishable offense.

“Theese people… these Amer-ee-cans,” he’d say. “They break-ah thee pasta in half, and throw eet eento the water. You must NEVER break-ah thee pasta!”

One night at dinner, Fitz was merely trying to add olives to his pasta and had his fork and knife posed over his plate.

“Is it okay if I do this?” he asked Gianni, in reference to the olives, because – with Gianni’s stringent rules over the proper treatment of pasta – you always felt like you had to check to make sure that you weren’t violating some sacred Italian rule. Gianni, who hadn’t been paying attention, looked over when he heard his name, and seeing Fitz with a fork and knife poised over his plate, assumed Fitz was about to cut his pasta, and reacted as if someone was about to slaughter his firstborn child.

“Oh, Feetz, Feetz, Feetz!” he cried. “No, Feetz, pleeeeease, don’t do that … no … no … noooooo!”

It horrified him the way Americans ate all of their courses at once … the meat with the potatoes and the vegetables and the salad all on one big plate at the same time.

“In Eet-aly” he said, “We do not meex our foods. We generally have five courses, and eat them one at a time. We do not slop everything together on a plate like pigs. Eeet is so much more civilized in Eetaly.

“My first Thanksgiving here, I deedn’t know what to do. Eeet was rideeculous! The people, they piled their plates with food! PILED them! Me? I had fifteen courses!” he said, waving his hand around with the proud air of a rich and lazy king who’s just had the feast of a lifetime. “It took me four hours! The cranberries, and the potatoes, and the …”

“What about the gravy?” someone interrupted his dreamy reminiscence.

“The gravy? Ennnnh,” he said, waving the idea away with his hand. “The gravy, take it or leave it. The gravy could have been better.  Gravy’s not meant to be eaten as a separate course, but what could I do?”

On and on, we toiled …. Gianni and I, day after day, getting nowhere. We just could not figure out how to use the wind to get ourselves up on our stupid kiteboards.

“It’s not ‘Gee-ahn-ee,’” he said, regarding the pronunciation of his name. It drove him crazy how Americans pronounced it.  “It’s Zjon-y.  Two syllables, not three.  Zjon-y. ”  In order to get it right, he made us turn up the corners of our mouths, as if we were smiling, and then say his name:  “Zjon-y,” he said. “Say it with a smile.”

Like many other New Yorker City people, Say-it-with-a-Smile didn’t own a car.  Instead, he had a bike, a heavy old clunker, which he seemed to fall off more than he actually rode.  One day while riding around in Central Park, he was riding behind some random girl, when all of a sudden:

“The beetch!” he says of the girl.  “She makes a turn right in front of me, and whaughf! We are both on thee ground.  She has a black eye and her nose is bent. I am covered with blood but I do not know this because I am wearing a red shirt. Then, she gets up and RUNS AWAY, and leaves her bike behind!”

That same day, while he was riding along on his heavy old clunker: “I pooshed down hard on the pedal, and eet came off and at thee same time, the fender broke down eento the wheel and … pffooosh …. I go catapulting ten feet into thee air and I do a … a … (he searches for the right word, making circular motions with his hands) … I do a fleep …. and I land right on top of thees policeman. Right een front of him! And he starts screaming at me: ‘geet out of my face, geet out of my face, geet out of here you beeg mutherfucker! Geet out of here!’”

And that was the end of the old clunker.  He immediately went out and bought a new, lighter, swifter bicycle, and as he was careening down Fifth Avenue with his earphones turned way up, he accidentally but illegally sped through a red light. As he’s cruising away from the scene of the crime, he sees, “Out of thee corner of my eye, something that lukes like a big sea lion. A short little guy, meedle-aged, out of shape, bald, with a beeg belly (gesture to indicate pregnant-like belly), and he’s rideeng on one of those … policeman bicycles …. and he’s pumping as hard as he can and I can see that eets a struggle to keep up weeth me. And maybe the day before, on my old clunker bike, I would have stopped. But now I’m on my new bike, and eet’s like, no WAY, vat is he THEENKING, I’m not going to stop for him, so I luke over at heem, over the top of my sunglasses, and I give him thees luke – a “who are you kidding, you idiot” look – and I … foooooosh! Take off!  And he doesn’t have a chance!”

Finally, on the last day of the clinic, I get up on the board and actually ride it for about 15 seconds.  This doesn’t sound like a lot, but it’s huge.  I finally know what it feels like to ride the board.  It will take me another 4 months before I can repeat this with regular consistency, but none of us, especially not Gianni, knows this yet.  For all intents and purposes, I have arrived, and I’ve left my partner-in-misery behind.

With my newfound confidence,  I embark, the next morning, on a solo mile-long downwinder which should take no more than 15 minutes. “Not so fast, bucko,” the Universe says with a smile.  I quickly become detached from my $1000 kite and bobble around in the water, able to do nothing except watch it go tumbling off into the sound. It is soon a mere dot on the horizon, and then disappears completely.

In the meantime, when the people who are waiting for me at the downwind location see my disappearing kite and realize I’m not attached to it, they start an unofficial search for the “lost kiter girl.”   At any given time, I am technically no more than 500 yards away from civilization, but no one can find me anywhere.   As the hours go by, excitement builds, and everyone starts gearing up for the titillating prospect of my tragic demise.

Six hours later, after swimming, trudging, and clawing my way through various patches of wild, unfriendly marshland, I finally show up, simultaneously relieving and disappointing everyone in equal measure.  People are mad at me, as if I staged the whole thing on purpose.

Gianni is there too, and I feel stupid and humbled. If this doesn’t make him feel a little better about my 15-second rise to fame and glory the day before, it should. This is absolutely the best I can do to make up for it.

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2 Responses to Say it with a Smile

  1. Dominik says:

    Whst a wonderful story St…. !!! Full of self insight, wit and flat out hilarious! Poor Zjanny 😉 hope you enjoyed the proper civilized italian dinner, though…

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