Yes, I’m following you

I was 40 when I moved to Italy and determined to learn the language. First stop was a 6-week intensive, 20 hours per week. More work followed. No kidding, a big job. But there are little triumphs along the way. 

It’s magic! At a vegetable stand, asking for three peppers, two zucchinis, and a kilo of onions and getting exactly that!  Thrilling, really. 

Did you notice?The first correct use of a direct object pronoun in the past tense! It was at a ticket booth and my driving urge was to go back and ask the agent if she noticed and if she was impressed. Fortunately she was busy.

Walking without a wireI had a Swedish girlfriend in my Italian class and we talked English on the phone. Then one day we started in Italian. “Hey, I can’t do this,” I was thinking, and then, “But I ‘m doing it.” 

First play At the end of the 6-week intensive, with a lot of hand-holding, I wrote a tiny play called “The Land Without Preposition,” about a benighted kingdom whose father offered his daughter’s hand to the prince who could bring the best prepositions. 

The solace of Psalms I knew a few Psalms and we had an Italian bible, so I could read the few I knew and feel the pang of familiarity. The same shepherd, the same dancing, the same homesick songs by the River of Babylon, the same morning after a long night. 

Collecting useless words Such as defenestrazione, throwing someone out the window, usually to his/her death. It didn’t fit most casual conversations but nice to have it in case.  

After all that work On the subways, early on, I just tuned out the flow of talk I couldn’t understand. Then one day, by magic, I followed two girls’ talk. Here it is: Girl #1: “Yesterday, I saw a really cute skirt in the window. I tried it on and it looked terrible on me.” Girl #2: “I hate that.” After all that work . . . 

Blending in My father in law was razing his son on what seemed to be a family characteristic. “The fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree,” I observed. Some clarification had to follow because Italian doesn’t have that expression so it seemed that I was inexplicably talking about trees. Later, though, my father in law slipped the expression into his lexicon: “As Americans say, ‘The fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree’.”

Close but not in hand At first, you have whatever you’re reading and next to it, on top of it, is the dictionary, and next to that your ever-lengthening vocab list. Then, gradually, the dictionary is there, but on the table. 

Making it to midnight Dinners with friends never started before 8 and the strain of following the talk or wondering what was so funny yielded a raging headache by midnight. Until it didn’t. 

Because you’re a foreigner Later on, it was astonishing what normally reticent people would tell me, fears, concerns, hopes, “Because you’re a foreigner.” An outsider, maybe, and therefore safer. Or perhaps the difficult language of the heart meets the rough-edged second language and feels at home. 

Pamela Schoenewaldt, historical novels of immigration and the search for self in new worlds: WHEN WE WERE STRANGERS, SWIMMING IN THE MOON, and UNDER THE SAME BLUE SKY (all HarperCollins).

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5 comments on “Yes, I’m following you
  1. Caroline Graber says:

    Had you studied Latin?
    Your word of throwing someone out the window reminded me of one of the first Latin words we learned, fenestra—window!!
    Very useful later in nursing training to learn about a
    “fenestrated drape” which had a little window cut out in the middle!!
    Love your books!!!


  2. Caroline. Yes, I studied Latin in high school and adored it. For a scheduling reason, I didn’t take a third year and regret it. Great language. “Fenestra” is window in Italian. So, that word came through. My husband’s uncle was a scholar-priest at the Vatican and could chat in Latin. Thanks so much for posting. I just submitted a manuscript to my agent. An obit write in Philadelphia in 1918 chronicles casualties of WWI and the Spanish Flu, learning a good deal about life and love. Thank you for your service as a nurse. You people are heroes.


  3. Jo Lynn says:

    As always, I loved this post. It was a good reminder that things take time, so we need to temper our frustrations and practice patience.

    I look forward to your new novel! I loved the previous three and am sure this one will be compelling also–as well as especially timely.


    • Yes, takes time. We just want to rush to the finish. I think St. Catherine of Sienna (or similar) had a lovely statement: “All the way to heaven is heaven.” Meaning, I guess, you have to love the process as much as you year for the product.


  4. Iosifina says:

    I am so proud of you, Pamela! I was 24 and a new mother when we moved to Greece and my journey to learn Greek began. After many tears of frustration and loss, I had an argument with a Greek taxi driver and won when I told him to go get the police and bring them to my home. When the police did not arrive, I knew I’d won! After that I could fly! I love your quote about the road to heaven is heaven. I count those early years the best four years of my life.


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Sunday, May 6, 2pm reading from latest work at Hexagon Brewing Company, Knoxville, TN.

Thursday, May 10, 6-8 pm presentation on research on the historical novel, Blount County Library, Maryville, TN.

When We Were Strangers, Italian translation, to be presented in Pescasseroli, Italy, August 2018.

Recent Review
“Absorbing and layered with rich historical details, in Under the Same Blue Sky, Schoenewaldt weaves a tender and at times, heartbreaking story about German-Americans during World War I. With remarkable compassion, the author skillfully portrays conflicted loyalties, the search for belonging, the cruelty of war, and the resilience of the human spirit.”—Ann Weisgarber, author of The Promise and The Personal History of Rachel Dupree

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