Here’s a fun fact: when I was in the Army I tested into the linguistics program. To prove how very capable of making terrible decisions I am, I opted for a communication security program instead. Why? Because the language training took place over twelve months in Monterey, California. Eighteen year old me couldn’t figure out who would want to spend a whole year in Monterey. Twenty year old and beyond me knows the answer to this is, of course, me.
Maybe, though, it ran deeper than that. Maybe I knew that while I found it easy to learn languages on paper, I had a hard time speaking anything but English. My tongue is stiff and dances like a white girl. I dreaded having to read things aloud in French class in high school because I knew how terrible I sounded. The Spanish I’d picked up along the way was zero help navigating the streets of Miami that time I had to shoe shop just hours before a cruise because I’d lost one half of every pair I packed.
Still, ever full of grand ideas, I set out to learn a little Italian before my upcoming trip. One of my local Facebook friends was hosting an exchange student from Italy who, as it turned out, also spoke French. That seemed like a logical place to start, so on a warm, November day I met Courtney and La-OO-ra* at Café Buongiorno. La-OO-ra brought her friend, Elisa, a German exchange student and classmate. Both girls were super-model-beautiful, but couldn’t have looked more different.
Elisa was smartly dressed in a pencil skirt and ironed blouse. With her porcelain complexion, round cheeks, brilliant blue eyes, and the only natural blonde hair in the whole 27614, she never stopped smiling. She looked like sunshine. I so hated that I had no good reason to learn German that I started questioning if I couldn’t, maybe, just work in a day trip by train from Paris to Frankfurt. A quick consultation of Google Maps ruled it out.
La-OO-ra had toasted skin, a long, brown, sun streaked mane, and petite, pointy facial features. Her style was casual and comfortable, yoga pants and a sweatshirt. In classic European teen fashion, she was adorned with golden bangle bracelets and hoop earrings. I made a mental note to grow my hair two more feet and start wearing jewelry.
I probably won’t start wearing jewelry.
I intended to set up a weekly study session in which La-OO-ra could help me dust off my decades old high school French and teach me some Italian, but she basically talked me out of it. She told me that Parisians are snobs and will look down on me for knowing only a little broken French just as they would look down on me for knowing no French at all. So to this I say, why even bother?
I did pick La-OO-ra’s brain for a few, key phrases in Italian. I felt bad that Elisa was being left out of the conversation. Even decades later, I too remember the special hell that is boredom to a teenager. So when La-OO-ra told me how to say have a good day (buona giornata), I asked Elisa how they would say that in Germany.
With her ever-joyful smile and twinkling eyes she quickly replied, “Oh, we would never say that to someone.”
This is hilarious – until you think about it. Except that thinking about it actually makes it funnier.
I continued with what would become my only Italian study session with La-OO-ra. I worried that it isn’t enough to be able to ask where the bathroom is, I wanted to be able to understand the directions; down the hall, second right, third door to your left, for example.
La-OO-ra raised an eyebrow and asked me, “How beeg you tink deese places are to be?”
Apparently, unless I plan only to pee in opera halls and museums, this will not be an issue. Besides, she told me, everybody in Italy speaks English and is enthusiastic to help Americans. I hope this is true.
Still wanting to learn some amount of Italian, I started using the DuoLingo app on my smart phone. Equally, I attributed my early success to how naturally Italian seemed to feel rolling off of my tongue, and the app’s smart use of written, spoken, and speaking features. Before long, I’d completed the Basics 1 program with no weak words. I could say with great confidence, “Io sono una ragazza!”
This phrase means, I am a girl, and is said with the gesticulation that I intuitively know must accompany anything I ever say in Italian. Let’s ignore for the time being that my gender is not ambiguous and that Italian men have a reputation for not needing to be told that someone is a girl. And if we can, let’s also ignore that I technically should be saying, “Io sono una donna!” because I’m a woman who can no longer pass for a girl.
No sooner did I start feeling really good about learning Italian – and I mean, like, maybe-my-life’s-purpose-has-been-to-learn-Italian good about it – did I run across a New Yorker article titled Teach Yourself Italian by Jhumpa Lahiri. Read it; it’s great. But not right now. Right now, let me bring this home. This article is about an Indian born New Yorker of Bengali decent who studies Italian. For years. After eight years of study and several lengthy trips to Italy, she still found herself unable to fluently converse.
This was all the encouragement I needed to give up trying to learn Italian for my trip in March. If, after eight years this brilliant woman couldn’t do it, how on earth was I ever going to learn? So I started ignoring my DuoLingo app everyday when it pushed me notifications that it was time to study. I soon forgot whatever other words I’d learned. But worse, I’d resigned myself to being the ugly American who expected the whole world to speak English because I was lazy and ignorant.
And then this week I learned that Jhumpa Lahiri just published her memoir Interpreter of Maladies, – are you ready for this? – in Italian! I might or might not have know about this if I hadn’t stopped reading her New Yorker article when I realized my own plight was hopeless.
So maybe I won’t learn enough Italian to carry on deep and philosophical conversations – this time. But I can order una birra, or un bicchiere di vino, and that’s not nothing. Re-energized in my pursuit of a second, completely indulgent language, I went on Groupon to find discounts on things to do while in Rome. I either bought a couples massage, or a blonde hooker; it’s hard to say because I couldn’t read a word of the advertisement and had to guess based on the photo, alone. It was forty euro, so either way, great deal! Then I opened my DuoLingo app for the first time in over a month and got reacquainted with my old friend, Italian; this time with a new goal. One day I will return to Italy and inquire of all the great opera halls, “Dov’è il bagno?”
* La-OO-ra is actually spelled L-A-U-R-A, and must be pronounced by lightly rolling the ‘r.’ It is the most beautiful name I’ve ever heard, when pronounced correctly, and I want to change all three of my children’s names now.