I made a vow when I was in Italy four years ago that if I ever was lucky enough to return, I would learn Italian my way. No textbooks. No classroom work. Only lessons tailored to what seems relevant--phrases such as: "Where's the bathroom?" "Is there something less expensive?" "Your skin is beautiful."
I made that vow during a crisis, a time when commitment-making seems a lot more productive than simply shrieking in panic. It was the final ocean swim of a perfect vacation day when, out of the waves, my son emerged crying. Over the white noise of the beach, I couldn't hear him but recognized the look of emergency. He stood wet and despairing on one leg. The poor kid had sliced open the sole of his foot on a shell. Blood flowed from his foot, like in so many of those Italian paintings of the crucified Jesus. I wanted to yell, "Help!" or "Doctor!" or even "Blood!," but I had no words for that.
The foreign phrase that shot through my apoplectic mind was a ridiculous thing I'd learned while attending a mind-numbing community college course: The elephant is gray. For a nanosecond I actually considered screaming, "The elephant is gray! The elephant is gray!," but figured it wouldn't solicit the reaction I was after.
As I trudged through the hot sand, my son heavy on my hip, his foot bleeding onto my sari, I couldn't think of a single elephant that wasn't gray, making that phrase colossally irrelevant, in any language. Next trip, I muttered, nothing superfluous, no zoo animals.
A British writer who lived in Spain and didn't speak the language described that experience as one of bafflement, living a separated existence. On a good day, a day when you manage to collect your groceries and board the correct bus and get the right change back, I could consider agreeing with his assessment. However, bafflement strikes me as an understatement. Living apart from the spoken language makes me feel like my dog. He hears sounds, sometimes his ears even wiggle, but the words hold no meaning and he's viewed--correctly so--as mute, thick-headed and significant as a clump of dust.
Being that low on the food chain is something I came to understand the time I stayed in a hotel room in Florence that had no toilet paper. I had no idea how to express this fact, and was not about to engage in the other preposterous means of communication used while living in a foreign country: sign language. Can you imagine that pantomime? I couldn't do it. I went to a local restaurant and loaded up my purse.
Not conversing is tough, but trying to talk is even tougher. Trying to talk reveals your deficits publicly, which is something silence never demands. My typical encounter went something like this: At the train station, I ask for the ticket, "Vorrei un biglietto," and the man behind the counter stares. I say it again. It's clear he's heard, he just doesn't understand what that Italian-sounding collection of words means. He smiles, cupping his hand to his ear. It's patronizing, but I need a ticket. I repeat the phrase slowly, loudly, butchering every beautiful syllable. He tells me the train is on track 15. He says it in English. I am defeated and relieved, awash in the sea of confusion that is foreign travel. To speak with the fluidity, vocabulary and pronunciation of a toddler is one of the most confidence-squashing acts I know; a stronger ego might call it humbling.
So this spring I've been fortifying myself against the crippling diffidence that attacks me in Italy. I've been studying with audiotapes. It's kind of a drive-as-you-go class. Each time I drive, I enter into a tutorial with a clear and melodic teacher who feeds me line after line of travelers' Italian. I've named this lovely sounding woman Teacher Maria Luisa and after she says, "I want a room, Vorrei una camera," she leaves so much blank time on the tape that I can not only repeat the phrase twice, I can also visualize myself asking the hotel desk clerk for the room and being handed a key. Teacher Maria Luisa says, "The suitcase is heavy," and a man with sculpted muscles and a short-sleeved shirt appears.
The audio classes were going molto bene until I hit lesson 29. I don't know if the teacher was becoming unglued, bored or what, but, things got strange--stranger than gray elephants by a long shot. Under the now-familiar hypnotic spell of audio Italian instruction, I would listen, repeat, visualize, listen, repeat, visualize. I listened, then repeated, in Italian, "My bed is large." During the visualization stage, however, the large bed idea hit me as suggestive, perhaps dangerously so. Just when would I have occasion to say, "My bed is large," and to whom? Think about it. Isn't it right up there with, "Come see my etchings?"
The next phrase was another invitation for trouble: "You talk too much." Teacher Maria Luisa said that one, and during the visualization stage I saw myself saying, "You talk too much," to a tour guide on the Grand Canal and landing in that hideous water that reportedly turns your eyes yellow.
Adoring Teacher Maria Luisa as I do, and trusting her implicitly, I began wondering if she'd really meant to say, "You talk too quickly," which would be useful and only marginally rude. However, I scratched any notion that she was suffering from a slight snag in translation when the following and final phrase from lesson 29 came over the car speakers.
"I'm losing my patience," she said in a tone as mellifluous and professional as any other. I'm losing my patience? I listened but didn't even repeat this one, let alone visualize.
My bed is large. You talk too much. I'm losing my patience.
Before the tape advanced to the bells signaling the start of lesson 30, I ejected the cassette. In Italy, I want tickets and toilet paper. I do not want problems. I made a quick, executive decision about my course work--something you have no control over in community college: I would continuously listen to lessons one through 28. The more advanced lessons will remain in their plastic case and come out only if and when I'm lucky enough to stay overseas for a year, which would no doubt be enough time to dive deeper into the murky waters of language and human interaction.