Friday, June 19, 2009

Learning Italian Slowly

It’s barely six weeks before I leave for Art Workshop International in Assisi, and I have been procrastinating about getting to work on my Rosetta Stone Italian course. It’s a brilliant program, and I can tell that I really could learn Italian if weren’t such a slacker.

The other problem is that I am such a word person I'm horrified at the prospect of butchering Italian in the way I know I will if I actually do get up the nerve to speak. Still, travel is always better when you at the very least have the means to give the language a try. It’s not writing like writing a novel, for Pete’s Sake! The words don’t have to be perfect. I just need to learn enough so I can communicate in the most basic way when wonderful opportunities arise.

Like this one, which happened in 2000 when when I spent a month in Montone, a little Umbrian hilltown.

It was a beautiful day (of course) and I was taking a long walk, listening to the Talking Heads’ “Stop Making Sense,” which always makes me happy and was particularly making me happy that day because I already was so happy in that place. I walked down a long hill, past a farm where there was a kennel with thirty or so dogs, most of them hunting dogs. Spotted, sleek. They barked and howled in their cages as I walked past. I waved at an old lady out on the balcony of the farmhouse. She waved back. I walked on, past grape arbors, the bushes flattened against wires so that the sun would touch the greatest possible number of leaves. Then I walked past a line of olive trees.

I saw an old man coming up the road toward me. It was blistering hot outside, but he was wearing long pants, a cardigan sweater, and a fedora. He walked with a cane, but steadily.

I said, "buon giorno" when we met.
"Ah, buongiorno!" he said, and stopped. He asked me a question.
"Non capisco," I said. I don’t understand.
But he was determined to have a conversation--and we did!
He asked, pointing at the town at the top of the hill, if I was staying in Montone.
"Si," I said. "Bellisima." Beautiful.
He beamed. "Umbria e bellisima," he said. He asked me where I was from.
America, I told him.
"Bambini?" he asked, indicating the size of a small child with his hand.
"Non, ragazzi." I said, indicating bigger children.
"Yo sono escrivo," I added, getting a little braver. I am a writer.
"Si." Novels. I tried to say I meant to put Montone in a novel, but I don't know if he understood.
"Buon caminare," he said when we parted. Good walk.
"Buon caminare," I responded.
He hesitated before moving on. “Tres gambi,” he said, smiling, pointing to his cane. Three legs.
I was thrilled to get his joke. I tried to say he was a teacher, teaching me Italian, but couldn’t remember the word for "teach." I said (something like) you are good for my Italian.
"Si," he said, smiling.
"Grazie," I said. "Arrivederchi."

I was so pleased with myself for listening to those dumb tapes I’d listened to for weeks in the car. I’d surprised myself knowing more than I thought I knew. It gave me the courage to go to the bakery that afternoon, say, "Buongiorno. Posso avere due panini, per favore." I understood when the baker said, "Mille lire." I paid, took my bread. "Grazie. Ciao."

Then I went to the post office, stepped up to the window, and held up my two postcards addressed to the USA. "Due francobolli, per favore," I said. Then stamped my cards and put them in the postbox.

Seriously, is "francobolli" not the best word ever? Try saying it! You'll love the way it rolls off your tongue.

So, okay. I need to do this! And when I feel overwhelmed, I'm going to read and reread this prose poem by David Shumate.


I learn three words each day. It’s been seven months now and perhaps I could carry on a conversation with a Sicilian child. If she spoke slowly. In present tense. And only about pencils and dogs and cheese. Sometimes I feel my new Italian self growing inside me. He’s a little man who gesticulates as he speaks. He rides his bicycle to the market to buy eggplant, anise, and porcini. Then delivers them to his elderly mother. In the afternoon he plays bocce with the older men. The children mimic the way he whispers to himself. The grimaces he makes with his face. When the moon comes out he slicks back his hair and sings beneath the window of the woman he loves. What a sight he is. Down on one knee. His arms outstretched. So willing to make a fool of himself. Over and over again.

So, okay. It's time.

I'm going to boot up my Rosetta Stone software, put on my nifty little microphone device and ask my new, growing Italian self to speak into it. Wearing spike heels and a short, low-cut red dress. Riding my Vespa through Rome, helmetless, my long black hair flying out behind me. Talking on my cell phone.

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