My Italian class was postponed this week because Alberto’s schedule was too crazy, so I’ve determined to speak as much as possible on my own so that I haven’t forgotten everything by the time we resume. To this end, I’ve been spending two or three hours every afternoon hanging out with new friends on the street. Literally on the street. On the main Corso, close to where Caterina, Gabriella and Antonella have their shops, there are also the shops of the butcher, a sprinkling of shops selling local goods, a place called Pantalomania with clothing and jeans, as well as a pizza place and gelateria.
There is something almost cozy about having a chat on a stoop with people who you are getting to know. The stoop in question is someone’s residence, but there is not much activity in and out so it’s the perfect place for people to congregate, smoke a cigarette, and still keep an eye on their stores. They all seem to have an innate sense of which people are actually going to buy something, or just browse for a minute and depart. The world walks by– tourists pushing strollers, licking melting gelato, carrying precious bottles of newly-purchased vino– as well as residents, going about their daily routine, older ladies prettily-dressed and heading to mass, and local misfits and personalities. I’ve been watching this activity for two months, but now my vantage point has changed to that of one who is gradually being welcomed into the fold. And I’m able to express my curiosity about people I’ve seen over the past couple of months. Now I am able to say, “tell me about that little old man in the suit who has the pompador,” and I learn that he is one of the richest men in town and tight with his money. His suits are immaculate, but are so old as to be considered vintage.
I’ve been told by more than one person that it’s hard to make lasting friendships here. I know that in my first weeks I despaired of having a real conversation or connection with someone. I was daunted not only because of the language barrier, but because I didn’t seem to be charming the pants off everyone in the way I had expected to. I thought that it was enough to want to be here. But what I’ve discovered is that the people here aren’t closed at all, they are reserved. And this is an important distinction. Perhaps by sheer proximity, in that I would determinedly say hello to the same people every day, I began to make inroads. And as people discover that you aren’t just here on a lark, that you are interested in speaking their language, learning about their culture, and that you really do want to live and work among them, they are warm, open and accepting. (I received my first invitations for dinners, and a party, this week!)
Conversations with my new friends have ranged from intimate chats with one or two people at a time, where we are learning about each other’s families and history, to larger groupings where everything is discussed from the weather, to the lack of tourists this summer, to local politics (which I can’t follow at all yet) and of course, lots of talk of recipes and food. I learned yesterday that the butcher would have polmone today. It took me a minute before I realized that this is “lung.” Everyone laughed when they saw my expression, so I tried to smile gamely as the butcher was standing right there.
The cultural differences are the most interesting to me. Talking about why Americans are always portrayed as carrying humongous cups of coffee on television shows leads to a twenty minute discussion of coffee, the amount both cultures work, quality of life, and the media. Commentary on someone’s nail polish leads to a heated debate about beauty salons and a personal attack on someone who has fallen out of favor. I do my best to field the questions directed at me, while listening attentively so that I don’t lose the thread of the conversation. My comprehension isn’t stellar yet, and if I tune out for a minute, I’m lost. I look up words in my dictionary and share English words with them. For some reason, these conversations seem to deteriorate rapidly into new slang expressions, and we are amused no end when someone repeats a vulgar word in the other’s language.
One of the teacher’s from my language school walked by yesterday while I was sitting with about six people and was happy to see that I was conversing it Italian with such a “bel gruppo.” For my part, while I am happy to be speaking in Italian, I’m more content that I’m learning about my new town, connecting with people… and that my humor translates!