At a gathering in Florence, she was proudly putting her fledgling Italian to the test. “Oh, I love this so much,” she said, using the Italian name for the sheep’s milk cheese –pecorino– they were sharing. The response from her new friends was not what she expected. Confused, she avowed a little more loudly, “No, really! I love it. In fact, I adore it.” When the Italians stopped laughing, they explained that she had ended the word with the wrong vowel and was actually professing her adoration of love-making in an um, certain…physical position. It did have something to do with sheep – and mammals in general- but what a difference an “a” makes!
No, it wasn’t me, but I am here to tell you that living in a foreign language is not for the faint of heart. Three years into this adventure in immersion I still have days when I want to crawl under the table and hide. Unlike my amazing friend Natalie who speaks several languages and can parlez with her French neighbors without a trace of an American accent, I struggle mightily to get it right. Left brain, right brain differences? Age? Or maybe it’s because I made my living with words in my madre lingua. As a life-long writer, playing with words, cultivating nuance and communicating complex ideas is fundamental to who I am.
And then this. Starting over again with “Hello”, “How are you?” “Where is the bathroom?” “I like your dog.” “Excuse me, I did not mean to say you are a dog.” Excuse my Italian. Pardon my Italian, I’m sorry for my Italian. Mamma mia.
Cari signori, thank you for asking. I really want to explain to you how I feel about the election. I want to share my opinions on immigration reform. I’d like to ask specific questions on how those ravioli are made. In my own language I am opinionated and well-spoken. But here, sometimes it’s better to smile, listen and make notes on new words and phrases I need to learn. Come si dice? Come si scrive? How do you say ____? How do you spell____? Sometimes when I am really lost and it seems as if a response is required, I do as the Italians do. I shrug, tilt my head and say boh, a wonderful word that means nothing and everything.
Most of the people I’ve met are very kind and patient. They offer gentle corrections and help me to say what I want to say. I’m no longer embarrassed to make mistakes but I’ve learned way too publicly, for example, that the words for fig and the slang word for vagina, are one tiny letter away from each other. “Cara,” corrected a funny friend with a grin, “Your vagina is not a fruit.” The word for “cool” as in hip, sweet, awesome, is also too close to that fruit for my aging brain and so I use gonzo which as far as I know is safe. For a long time I thought we lived in a former red light district until I found out that the street up the hill is named for stone (sasso) and not for sex (sesso). These things were not covered in my text books.
Alberto is also a great help, although at first our teacher/student interactions went like this:
Me (In Italian): Alberto, what does cerniera mean?
Alberto (In Italian): It means, uhhhh, cerniera. (Louder) Cerniera! (Really loudly and gesturing wildly), CERNIERA!!!
It means zipper, thank you Google translate. As a bonus, I also learned the word for deaf, as in, I am not.
Still, I would not trade this experience for anything. For a long time it was impossible to understand everything. I learned to trust and to be less controlling. I would figure out that we were going someplace to meet somebody but more than that was a pleasant surprise. When words are precious and sentences are a struggle, I can sit comfortably in silence. I reserve my energy for meaningful conversation and leave the blah blah blah in the ether. I have to listen closely here, there is no other choice. If I want to be part of the conversation, I need to jump in, be humble, make mistakes. So hard for perfectionist me. When I am tongue-tied, I’ve learned that sometimes a little wine helps. And yeah, I’ve also learned that too much absolutely does not.
When you begin to live in another language, there is the insult of speaking like a child but wonderfully, the opportunity to observe like a child. Every flower, insect, body part, appliance, food, experience…all of them have new names. I’m learning to be patient, to not assume and to wait for the meaning to come. As my next visit approaches, Alberto will tell me, Non vedo l’ora! Which taken literally means “I can’t see the hour” (what?) but actually means, “I can’t wait!” (Much better!) Tra il dire e fare c’è in mezzo il mare (between the said and the done there is half the ocean) means something is easier said than done -but how much more poetic!
The Italian language is passionate, playful, descriptive and melodic. I am always enchanted (and jealous) to hear tiny Italian children trill their R’s and roll long musical words off of their tiny tongues. In the meantime, my Italian friends tease me as I clunk tovagliolo (napkin), chiacchierone (chatterbox) or stuzzicadenti (toothpicks) painfully into the conversation. When I am lazy, I might resort to cosa, which means “thing”, although by cheating, I disappoint myself. It helps to remember that there was a time when even the dogs in Siena spoke better Italian than I did.
In working so hard to learn this new language, I’ve come to appreciate even more the richness of the language I take for granted. To notice the differences is to be reminded of the beauty of finding just the right word, coining the perfect phrase. There isn’t just blue here in Italy, there is azure, celeste…descriptive words we have in English but don’t call on often enough.
Most profoundly, in opening my mind to this new experience I find I have discovered a better version of myself. Happier. Lighter. When I first arrived my vocabulary was focused on immediate needs and responses. Italian was the only language my new friends and I had in common, so our interactions were uncomplicated and straightforward. Past trials and tribulations were left unnamed because I simply didn’t have the ability to articulate them in this new adventure. By the time I learned those words, I no longer needed them to define who I am. I didn’t realize the weight of the past until it was lifted because the words were not there to describe it. I find who I am right now is abbastanza bene…good enough. Even when those pesky little vowels betray me.
3 thoughts on “Living in a Foreign Language, or Your Vagina is Not a Fruit”
We’re such harsh critics of ourselves, we perfectionists…Shall I count for thee the gaffs I’ve made?? To name just a few, I’ve ‘swept the floor’ publicly, watched as Marco visibly paled when I announced in the shop, in front of the older signore set (including a nun) how much I love figs – girl figs, as you’ve discovered! – and just how much i dislike ‘preservativi’ in the food back in Aus.
To listen to you speak in Italian, you’re doing beautifully 🙂
Aw, thanks Ali! Maybe those are little tricks they plant in the language so we can be funny foreigners? 🙂 I’m trying to think of some examples in English where there are dual meanings to that degree but haven’t come up with any. They sweep, they play the trombone…But damn, girl, I didn’t announce my fruit obsession in front of a nun. Sorry, but that is hysterical. Poor Marco and Alberto. And preservativi….well that one’s just not fair. Too close to preservatives. And what are they actually preserving? However, you are correct and I hate them in my food too. xo
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