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.