Sunday, February 1, 2009

Step by Step

Step by Step
(Published by Fra Noi, Chicago IL, April 2007)

When I was small, it was my dream to grow up to be a foreigner. There were fleeting moments where I thought about being a psychologist, a veterinarian, or even an astronaut. For some reason though, the idea of being a foreigner, speaking another language, was of the utmost importance. It didn’t really matter what job I did, earning a living was a secondary priority. I wanted to be the one that talked with an accent. I wanted to be the one from far away. I wanted to have a reason for being different. And it struck me the other day, that after five years in Italy, my childhood dream has come true. I am Straniera.

It wasn’t my intention to actually move to Italy at first. It was supposed to have been a well earned vacation, before returning to the United States and my “real life”. For this sojourn, I randomly selected a small hilltown, and once there, found myself steeped in new experiences and old buildings. My eyes drank in everything with an insatiable thirst. I would look up at the sky, and it was like I had never seen blue before. The world was new to me, and I was hypnotized into smiling even when I slept. When it was time to leave though, I realized I couldn’t. My “real life” was here now.

The first hurdle I encountered in my fledgling career as a Professional Foreigner, was the language. I found it thrilling that I didn’t understand anything said to me. It was an innocent time. I discovered that there is a certain truth to the Bliss of Ignorance after all. Someone could walk right up to me and say, “Your house just burned down, your boyfriend is cheating on you, and you have spinach in your teeth”, and I would just smile and nod. In those days, it was impossible for me to get bad news of any kind.

I had studied Italian before leaving the United States and had thought myself prepared for the real thing. However, I became aware of my inability when I walked into a café, and the barman spewed forth in a blur of sound, “Berjernasinrinameedeeka.” We never covered this word in class! It sounded more like the name of some remote town in Siberia than anything I had learned in Italian. Only with time and listening, my ears became accustomed to the rhythm of the words, and I was able to understand that he had been saying, “Buon giorno signorina! Mi dica!”, not only asking for my order, but wishing me a good day at the same time.

There are definite phases in learning a new language, and the first are the most difficult. It took about 6 months of that Smiling-And-Nodding stage before I started hearing actual words, instead of a whirl of rolling r’s. However, after a year of permanent residence here, I noticed an odd thing happening to my mind. I realized that I had begun to stop translating English thoughts into Italian words, and had begun to actually think in Italian. Even with all the errors I was still to make, the language began to flow. And thus began the Tarzan Stage. Eloquent phrases like “Me go work yesterday”, and “What for dinner we eat week next at party of Danilo?” are examples of my eloquence. Once, during a frustrating conversation with a young man I was trying to distance myself from, I actually said the words, “Drive and give! Me mad and to the home I go!” I didn’t find it as humorous as he did, but with head held high, to the home I did go, with my self-esteem more or less intact.

The Humiliation Stage was next. This is where you are free-style speaking, unencumbered by the need to translate your thoughts, and just letting loose. And you honestly think you know what you are saying, but in fact, you don’t. One day, while leaving a restaurant, the owner stopped me and offered me sweet Vin Santo wine and almond cantucci cookies, in exchange for keeping her company. She was a kindly woman well into her 70’s, and enjoyed occasionally chatting with me. As I had an appointment in just a few minutes, I apologized to her, saying, “I’m sorry signora, but it’s nearly five o’clock and I have to scopare.” Everyone within earshot turned and laughed. I truly thought that I was saying that I had to leave quickly, but I was to find out, that the word I had wanted to use was “scapare”. By erroneously replacing the “a” with an “o”, I unintentionally told this adorable grandmother that I had to…well…that I had to immediately go have sex. This A/O thing was to plague me for a good while. I learned the hard way that if one is not careful with which letter they use, cheese becomes a sexual position, and a fig becomes a private female body part. It was during this phase that I also learned the imperative importance of a sense of humor. If one cannot laugh, the learning stops here.

From there, the rest was work. I’ve always taken the approach that learning a language is like learning to swim. You can read all you want to, but until you get in the water, you really don’t know how to do it. So here, surrounded by this beautiful language every day, I jumped in. Awkward splashing slowly became smoother. I lost my fear of drowning, and began to enjoy the immersion. Every day I still learn something new, through old people, children or even game shows on tv. I now swim in the deep water, unafraid to explore.

They say that the last phase is Math. When you can do Math in a second language, your journey is complete. But seeing as I’m already mathematically challenged in my native tongue, I’m not terribly concerned. My journey will continue forever, and that’s just fine with me.

No comments: