When moving to another country it’s generally helpful to have a grasp on the language. My move is to Italy and it’s gone from being a remote, tantalizing dream to a soon-to-be reality. To this end, I’ve been taking Italian lessons. Actually, I’ve been taking them for four years. I’m not fluent. Nowhere near. I do have a grasp on the language but mine is more of a slippery, sweaty-palmed, hanging-from-the-edge-of-a-building-with-no-sign-of-Superman-in-sight kind of grasp. In other words, I’m screwed.
My Italian tutor, Alessandro, isn’t too be faulted for this. He does his part, engaging me in conversation, trying to coax the words out of me. Usually, I answer him in English. I understand his Italian well, I watch tons of Italian programming on the RAI network, my written Italian is exemplary, but when it comes to speaking, I sound like a two year old.
I’m planning a scouting trip in February to find a place for me and Cinder to live so I had the bright idea to have Alessandro do some role playing with me. (If this was two years ago when I first started lessons with Ale, my idea of role playing would have been very different as I had quite the crush!) So for our lessons over the next few weeks, he will pretend to be a realtor, a bank, a store owner, the Comune, and I will be me. I will be forced to speak in Italian and we will see how prepared I am.
I’m filing this experiment in a category I like to call: “it seemed like a good idea at the time.” It will have plenty of company with such past winning ideas as offering to help a friend fix her resume, only to have it become a project on the scale of War and Peace; a singing audition for a musical in order to impress a boy when I can’t sing a note; and, perhaps the worst fashion idea of all time, my wearing a beret through most of my sophomore year of high school.
I approached this morning’s lesson with my usual preparation…a cup of espresso and an hour watching the latest Italian miniseries Raccontami! I thought it an appropriate title for a show since it means “Tell me,” which is what Alessandro always asks me to do. By the time Alessandro arrived I was ready to go. I would speak solely in Italian and he would be impressed beyond reason.
I blew this in the first two minutes. Usually greetings are my strong suit, but I was so nervous about the exercise that I switched into English after the first Come stai? Not an auspicious beginning.
My next plan was to stall by offering coffee. I’m pretty good with commentary related to food, cooking or wine. We then caught up on our week. Ale spoke solely in Italian and I spoke solely in English. I felt my confidence drain away. “This is ridiculous,” I tried telling myself. “You’re paying for an Italian lesson and yet you refuse to speak Italian. You’re going to wind up only speaking to English speakers when you move and you’ll never fit in with the Italians.” Of course since I was having a conversation in my head, I lost the thread of what Ale was talking about and then had to resort to my backup plan, nodding intelligently. I glanced over at Cinder and saw her look of disgust. She seemed to be echoing my earlier thought: “We’re screwed.”
Alessandro, determined to at last get me to speak, started by pretending that he was an employee at the town hall or Comune and my job was to let him know I was applying for Italian Citizenship. “Parla Inglese?” I asked as a joke. He was not amused. I then proceeded with a halting, rambling attempt at letting him know I was moving to the town and that the Italian Consulate in New York had told me to put in my application when I arrived there. It took me ten minutes, by which time I was sure a real employee of the Comune would have lost all patience with me, or have put up the Chiuso sign and gone for a coffee break. “Brava,” Alessandro told me, knowing that I need constant encouragement.
We proceeded this way for the rest of the lesson; I pretended to be at the bank, a used-car dealership, a cell phone store, a real estate agency, etc. It was grueling for me and no doubt equally painful for my patient professore, but I did it. As long as I didn’t try anything too fancy, I was able to communicate.
My words weren’t pretty, or always correct, but I was understood and, more importantly, I was understood in Italian. We have two more weeks to practice and then with any luck I’ll be able get by on my trip without resorting to English. SPERIAMO!!!