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A couple of weeks ago, right when the mercury was hovering around 3 digits, but amplified in intensity by the black, blocky stones that fill Rome’s streets, our sink took a holiday with the rest of Italy.

August is the month of Ferragosto, a month that creates a giant vacuum in an otherwise bustling city, where Italians are sucked away to the many warm beaches and resorts, leaving Rome with only its smattering of tourists around the popular sites and otherwise, eerily vacant streets and storefronts.  Only signs, the type we Americans buy at the hardware store to advertise, ‘for sale’ or ‘garage sale’, fill their windows, which say ‘closed for Ferragosto’; be back in 3 weeks.

Ferragosto has roots from an old emperor Augustus (get it….Ferr Augusto?), who in the wake of lots of labor to create the harvest and yet another reason to party as only the ancients could, created the holiday sometime around 18 B.C. – to which is still survives today.  However, many Romans, understanding the impending financial woes in the Eurozone, are shortening or all together sticking it out and staying open.

A normally human-filled street, vacant during Ferragosto

So when our sink decided to utterly and completely clog, and when my normal artillery of tricks and chants to make the water go down didn’t work, I knew I was in for a hot, stinky, messy wait for help.  Where would I find a plumber at the height of the Ferragosto hiatus?

We live in a building that is over 300 years old, and while Italians have a penchant for renovations, at some point in the line its clear that you are working with some old stuff.  Also – I learned that our pipes are about half the diameter of the pipes we use in the United States.  Add to this a very serious calcium presence (I once heard an American teenage girl tell her parents – yuck, my hair is all stiff – and thought this is how teenagers are able to sense the cultural differences), and you might understand that it really wasn’t me, putting fish bones and loaves of bread down the sink to create this epic plug.

So a call to the property manager (or seven), and four days of making the pilgrimage with the dirty dishwater to the porcelain god – all in the heat of August, had me huffing and puffing, and blasting my sticky bangs with blasts of breath off my equally sticky forehead.  And when the property manager reached me on the fifth day, with a window for the ‘idraulico’ to come by between 11 and 1, I was tickled to death that the knight in shining blue coveralls would be there to solve the issue.

He arrived, and if I had any conception of what a plumber looks like (I think of the bulbous backside spilling out from under the kitchen sink), Maurizio was not that guy.  Standing eye-to-eye with me pushing 5 feet 4 inches, he was a good 25 pounds lighter and possessed a buzzing energy.  I opened the door, and instantly he set in ‘OH MAMMA MIA!!! CHE CALDO!!!! NON C’E UN FILO DI VENTO….!!!”  and the expressions about how friggin’ hot it was didn’t stop, but only became intertwined with comments about the plumbing as he set about his work, trying to figure out why this block was sending salad into our washing machine.

He talked constantly, half to me and half to himself, of which was hard for me to know when to respond. His talking his way through his work offered a bonus Italian language exchange, with a heavy Roman dialect leaving half of most words in the abyss, making it a good challenge.  What I did understand was all the words he used to describe the plumbing situation:  tutto bloccato (everything blocked), non va (it’s not going), non scarica (it’s not draining), no riesce (it can’t do it), non fa niente (it’s not doing anything), che devo fare? (what can I do)……in a word – this was one hellavuh block and most of the responses you may encounter in any Italian customer service setting.

After a couple hours of this very fun, spirited banter of half inner half outer talk, he determined the POMPA would be needed.    POMPA is a pump, but the way it is pronounces sounds like BOMBA – which makes it an awesome, bad attitude, let’s unblock this mother sort of contraption.  I was excited, until he told me that he would need to get it, after his lunch, and it would take to people.  Looks like I was becoming an apprentice plumber that very day.

Maurizio returned after the lunch hours with what looked to be an old, rusty bicycle pump – not the Hunger Games inspired contraption that I had hastily whipped up in my imagination – with a hand pump, the sort that cartoon characters used to blow up mountains with TNT.  He explained that this is how it would work; he would pump up the pressure inside the POMPA, and release it into the pipe through our sink in the laundry closet.  I, in the kitchen with a rag stuffed into the pipe, and pressing with all my strength, would try to keep it from blowing out all the goodies in the pipe.  Taking no chances I used my foot against the pipe, sitting on the kitchen floor and pulling against the sink to get more grip.  I couldn’t help but feel that this was all a bit dramatic for a lousy sink clog.

There we were – a petite Italian idraulico and an an American expat bracing herself under the kitchen sink, ready for the blast that would hopefully bring an end to this madness.  The first blast went, and……..nothing.  Maurizo pumped up the pressure again, an act which only burned more precious calories for the thin plumber – this time with more pressure.  And again, nothing.  Okay, he said, once more, but I can’t do anymore than this without breaking the pipe.  And so I said a little prayer to the plumbing gods – and WOOM!!!!  An audible uncorkage of the pipe was heard at both ends of the tube. It had worked!!!!!  We were equally ecstatic and both gave a little fists in the air – team idralico success cheer, before he packed up as quickly as he arrived and was out the door.  Just like that….all that trouble shooting, new Italian vocabulary, all the shared effort, and he was gone with the wind….and the POMPA.

So while this nice little sweaty story about a clog may not be earth shattering stuff – it does offer a few lessons.  First, if you are visiting Italy, don’t come in August. Your odds of meeting some of these genuine Italian people, such as Maurizio the plumber, are severely limited as they take off to keep their very generous work:rest ratio.  Secondly, opportunities to learn (language and plumbing in this case) come in the most humorously possible ways, and it is one of the great fortunes about living and traveling abroad.  Here’s to many more unclogged pipes!!!!