Well, comrades, here we are.
The Sun has risen. It’s time to wake up from the fantastical dreams of the night and return to the real life that we fell asleep from yesterday. And, unfortunately, this alarm clock doesn’t come with a snooze button.
The past three months in Italy have flown by like an airplane crossing the Atlantic. Now, all that remains is an airplane ride across the Atlantic that will, no doubt, seem as if it were three months.
Yet, as Henry Miller once said: “One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.”
So, I won’t be returning home with a feeling of loss or longing for the country that I’ve come to love over the course of this program. Instead, I’ll be returning home with fresh eyes and a new perspective. Things that I once took for granted will no longer go unnoticed. Things that once seemed so far will now feel like just a short walk. And, this massive and intimidating world will seem just a little less massive and a little less intimidating.
Ok, fine… so I can’t honestly expect you to believe that I won’t miss living in Italy. After I’ve talked it up so much for three months, how could you? The people are beautiful, the food is delicious, the art and architecture are second to none, and, maybe best of all, when I tell people I’m from Alabama, they don’t immediately ask: “Oh, do you love NASCAR!?”
Now, that’s not to say there aren’t things I look forward to about returning. Some are even things I didn’t think I would miss.
For instance, after spending this much time in Rome, I will never again complain about the public transportation in Chicago. Having to wait twenty minutes for a train to arrive would seem like a luxury now, given the fact that it will, at least, get you to where you need to go when it arrives.
You see, it’s not that Rome’s trains or metropalitane aren’t efficient; it’s that they don’t exist. For the entire city of Rome (which, I believe, takes up twice the land area that Chicago does) there are only two subway lines. And, it’s not hard to imagine why:
“Hey, Giuseppe, I think this city needs a train system, but where should we build it?”
“Not a problem, I’ll just start digging right here… Whoa! Holy mackerel, Vincenzo! We’ve just excavated an ancient cemetery dating back to the Etruscans! We can’t build a subway here!”
“Oh, wow! Well, why don’t we try digging over there?”
“Jumping alligators! Now we’ve discovered an ancient temple… and… IS THAT JIMMY HOFFA!?”
“Well, looks like there’s not gonna be a subway. Just tell people to take the bus.”
“But, Vincenzo, the streets of Rome are very curved and narrow, won’t that just aggravate the traffic problem?”
“I said… they can take the bus.”
In that sense, we Americans are actually lucky that our country is still very young. There was nothing to impede our subways when we decided we wanted to get around:
“Yo, Bobby, let’s build a subway.”
“Sounds good. But where?”
“Well, I just dug a ditch over there. All I found was an Indian burial ground.”
“An Indian WHAT? Are we building this subway or not!?”
“You know it, bro!”
But, the transportation in Rome is nothing to gripe about. It may be a bit difficult to get anywhere in a hurry, but, once you arrive, it really doesn’t matter. Rome is the kind of city that is wonderful because of where it allows you to be, not because of how it gets you there.
But, another thing that will be nice about returning is the feeling of relaxation that one can afford when they are home. Now, Italians are no strangers to relaxation. Quite, the contrary, one of my favorite activities with my host family was sitting around over a glass of wine, having a conversation before dinner. But, I’m talking about that special relaxed feeling that one only finds on their own street, in their own home.
Being in a different country always requires that you be on your toes. It’s not just that there are pickpockets (I got pick pocketed twice), it’s just that your mind must be ready, even when you’re sitting in your room reading or, more likely, using Facebook.
Much of it has to do with the language barrier. If you let yourself get too relaxed, then you become totally lost when someone tries to speak with you. You’re suddenly jolted into a state of panic, and all you can think to say is: “Um… ah… buh… oh… what?” Then, before you know it, bam! Pick pocketed again.
For me, first and foremost, the goal was to learn to speak Italian on this trip. I wanted to be able to look an Italian in the eyes, tell them what kind of pants I was looking for, and have them come back with the perfect color in my exact cut. I thought, surely, that three months would be enough time to attain this goal.
As time passed, though, I realized that there is really a lot to it. There’s the vocabulary, the grammar, the pronunciation, the syntax: all the things that, in English, have long since become second nature for me. It’s easy to get discouraged. Just when you think you’ve discovered the grand secret to the whole language, your teacher says: “Great, you’ve got that part. Now let’s move on to all this crazy shit you’ve never studied or even heard of.”
It’s true. There are some verb forms in Italian that don’t even exist in English. So, when you’re trying to use them in a conversation, you must constantly remind yourself: “Ok, I know this doesn’t make any sense, but if I say it, they’ll be really impressed and give me a trophy.”
The most important thing is practice. In that sense, I must express sincere thanks to all the people at Italiaidea, the language institute where we studied. Apart from giving us Italian lessons during our regular class hours, they also took time to just stand around and joke with us outside of class. In my opinion, those times were some of the most important in my development in the language. And, really, I can’t say enough good things about the people who work there.
An example: for the last night of the program, the entire group, along with our host families, was taken out for dinner by the program directors (though DePaul footed the bill). It just so happened that this was on Thursday night, which, for people back home in America, would have been Thanksgiving. As you know, Thanksgiving is not an international holiday. The last Thursday of November, for most of the world, doesn’t involve turkey carving or pumpkin pie. But, knowing that these things are significant enough to us from the States, the directors arranged for us to have a full Thanksgiving dinner at the restaurant.
There was a giant turkey, a plate of stuffing, cranberry sauce, potatoes, peas, carrots and, of course, pumpkin pie. Though we couldn’t spend the evening with our families back in America, the wonderful people here still decided to give us a little piece of home that we could enjoy as if we were there.
Well… kind of.
You see, the really funny thing about Italians is that they always structure their meals in the same way. You may remember an earlier post where I described the grand feast that I’ve been enjoying every evening with my hosts. There’s always bread, cheese, pasta and wine before you ever arrive at the main course. So, despite preparing a giant American dinner for us at the restaurant, we were still served bruschetta and pasta before any of the Thanksgiving meal was brought out. By the end of the dinner, I gained a sense of sympathy for the turkeys we bake every year… it doesn’t feel all that great to be stuffed until you almost burst.
For me, though, there was another thing that made the evening special.
Right before everyone started eating their plates of turkey, the head director of our program at Italiaidea, Chiara, come up to me and asked if I wouldn’t mind standing up to say a few words about Thanksgiving, so that all the Italian families could better understand what it is we were celebrating. It made sense enough, since the holiday is not anything of significance for Italians, so the history and tradition may be a little vague. The only thing was, Chiara wanted me to give my little speech entirely in Italian.
My immediate thought was: “Are you kidding! I wouldn’t even be able to give a good description in English. I know it involved some pilgrims or something, right?”
So, I suggested to Chiara that, instead of me, she should ask another man who was there, Janòs Simon. Janòs is the husband of our director from DePaul, Cathy, and he seemed the obvious choice as far as I was concerned. He speaks about six languages fluently, he knows more about history than Wikipedia, and he’s very outgoing and amiable. I figured, if anyone could give a decent Thanksgiving description to the Italian families, it would be him. But, it was clear that Chiara wanted one of the students to do it, not the husband of our director. Maybe it’s more meaningful that way, I don’t know. All I did know was that there was a carafe of wine on the table, and I had obviously not had enough of it.
But, after a little coaxing from Chiara, I decided that it might not be a terrible idea.
Ok, that’s not true at all. I never thought it wasn’t a terrible idea. She got me to do it, but, even as I was standing up, all I could think was: “Why are you standing up! You have no idea what you’re going to say! Abort mission! Abort mission!”
But, it was too late. I was already on my feet and Chiara was heading back to her chair to listen to the words of wisdom I was about to impart to the group. So, as you do, I shouted: “Scusate, attenzione!”
Everyone eventually quieted down, and I took a deep breath. To save you the trouble of having to use Google Translate, I’ll just describe in English what I attempted to say in Italian:
“So, for us Americans, today is a holiday. And, it’s actually an important holiday… and, uh…”
With that wonderful opening line, all my friends in program burst out into loud laughter. It wasn’t to ridicule or make fun. It was because they could see how nervous I was, and there was no need to be nervous. We were all together to enjoy our last night. We weren’t there to impress anyone with our Italian skills or our knowledge of Thanksgiving.
It’s amazing what a little laughter can do. I started laughing loudly along with them, and, from that moment on, the speech became a breeze. With a smile on my face, I continued to give my Italian address:
“Every year, we gather with our families on this day to remember all the things in life that we have to be thankful for. It’s not a holiday for people of one particular religion or one particular ethnicity. It’s a day for all of us to remember what it is we have to say thanks for. So, for all of the students here, I’d like to say thanks to all of you for giving us this chance to study in Rome and enjoy your culture for these three months. It’s been marvelous.”
I sat back at my seat and poured myself a glass of wine. My host parents were sitting there smiling. And, at that moment, I realized I had reached my goal. Even if I made several grammatical mistakes (which I’m sure I did), I had just addressed a group of people in Italian. It’s exactly what I came here to learn, and I did. So, from there, it was off to the pants store.
Really, it’s going to be quite sad getting on the plane. I’ve spent the past two weeks trying to keep the thought of leaving Italy out of my mind. I would love to stay another three months. I would love to stay a whole year. The experience has been indescribable, and it will never be forgotten (unless I’m somehow involved in a terrible motorcycle crash and suffer amnesia).
I’m sure that when I get home, much of what I’ll hear of Italy will be news about the Eurozone crisis and how miserable everyone must be, living in such terrible economic times. But, the truth is, this country has been nothing but marvelous through it all. The panic and misery surrounding the economy has existed almost exclusively in the headlines. When you go out into the streets, stores, restaurants, cafés and parks, you see that the Italian people haven’t at all lost their spirit. They still hold their heads high. They still live with vitality. It’s that special something in the air. That marvelous ether that won’t allow anything to grow dull. I won’t be at all surprised if scientists 20 years from now discover that Italian air really is superior. It will be bottled and sold all over the world, and people everywhere will really see what it feels like to live.
So, here we are friends. We’ve reached our final stop. Though I’ll be stepping onto my plane with a little sadness, I’ll be stepping off with a smile. Within the next few weeks I’ll be seeing all my wonderful family and friends who have been too far away for far too long (Cue exit song “Bittersweet Symphony” by The Verve).
See you all very soon!
With love always and forever,
Buona sera friends,
I must say with a heavy heart that my study abroad program here in Rome is winding down to its final week. There will be no more excursions around other parts of Italy or vacations around other parts of Europe. Next weekend will be my last in The Eternal City, and I can only feel that I haven’t even scratched the surface of what this metropolis has to offer.
On a scale from “Damn it, I’m leaving!” to “I can’t wait to eat a giant burrito!” I find myself somewhere in the middle. I know without question that I will miss Rome and all of its wonders once I’m thrust back into the bitter cold of Chicago. But, I also realize that no journey is complete until you can hug your loved ones at home, then spend the subsequent month bragging about all the cool shit you got to do abroad. It’s a very romantic idea in my opinion.
But, I don’t want to sound as though the adventure is fully finished. One more week in Rome amounts to at least a month or two worth of Chicago (you’ve got to convert it from the metric system, ya know). So I’m not going to hang my head and mope. No. Never. We must press on. No surrender, no retreat.
… at least for 7 days.
Since our last encounter, though, some exciting things have taken place. Firstly, because of some letters written by some important people in Chicago, our study abroad group was announced by name in front of thousands in St. Peter’s Square, where Pope Benedict XVI, himself, gave us a little papal wave from his papal chair. It was for one of his weekly addresses that he gives on Wednesdays in the Vatican, and we were able to sit very close when he rode by in his Popemobile.
He’s really a rather adorable little guy. He’s not too tall, he’s pretty old and frail, but he’s always got this big smile on his face as if to say: “Can you believe this!? I’m the freakin’ Pope!”
I’ve also got to give him credit, he’s pretty good at the whole language thing. He gives his addresses and blessings in 6 or 7 languages, while I’m still here working on getting this Italian stuff down. Not a good start for my long road to becoming Pope. All the cussing doesn’t help either (Che cazzo!).
And while we’re on the topic of Popes, we also got the chance to see the remains of the first one, St. Peter. And they’re conveniently located right underneath St. Peter’s Basilica, so we didn’t even have to go far. Luckily these excavations aren’t like the ones they have for the Capuchins. St. Peter’s bones weren’t hung up on the ceiling in the shape of a creepy chandelier or something. There is just a little plexiglass box in a crevice about 10 feet behind a barrier, where you can kind of see what appear to be little bones.
But, come on! It’s St. Peter!
I kept asking if I could go closer to the remains, but the guide denied me three times. Then a cock crowed, and I went outside and wept.
Anywho… I really shouldn’t write for too long, because I have a lot of work to finish for the coming days. I just wanted to post a little something while there is still time left on this voyage. I’m going to try to make one last wrap-up post in the next week before I leave, so get ready for a Pulitzer-Prize-winning article any day now. For the time being, though, you’ll just have to make do with this. Very sorry.
My love to everyone at home! I’ll be seeing you very soon, and a handful of you will be getting gifts. So, if my return wasn’t enough to excite you, maybe my trinkets will be.
Ci vediamo presto!
Ciao ragazzi! Come va?
It’s that time of the evening again, when I realize I have a lot of homework that I should be doing, and it therefore becomes apparent that I haven’t blogged in several days.
It’s really very strange. It doesn’t seem like long ago that I was getting off the plane in Rome for the first time, breathing the air and feeling like a newborn baby, ready to experience a foreign world and speak a new language (I was even patted down by men in rubber gloves, so the rebirth was all too realistic). Now, there’s less than three weeks left on this trip, and I have to deal with the harsh reality that things will inevitably go back to normal.
The Coliseum will, again, just be something I see on travel shows and in guidebooks, instead of seeing it every week on the bus. The Spanish Steps will be a couple thousand miles from where I go to class, instead of a couple yards. Pasta will seem like a main course, instead of a starting dish to a glorious feast. Red lights will actually mean “stop,” instead of being mere street decorations.
It’s a hard pill to swallow, really. But a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. So it’s good that I spent this past weekend with some friends in Sicily, where there’s an abundance of sugar and spoons.
When I’m asked by people here why I decided to learn Italian (it’s not the most worldly of worldly languages), I have to explain that it was a personal choice, influenced by my grandmother who was Sicilian.
Ok, she was born in the U.S., but that doesn’t matter, because her parents were from Sicily, and she was born after they relocated, so that definitely counts. But she died when I was still pretty young, and it seemed reasonable that I should, at least, try to revisit her (and, consequently, my) heritage by coming to Italy to live here for a short time.
So, apart from learning to speak Italian (which I think I’ve done a fair job of doing), it was also important that I get the chance to visit my ancestral home city: Palermo.
Sure, Rome is wonderful enough with all its museums, piazzas and Vaticans; but this trip to Italy really wouldn’t have meant as much without spending a little time on it’s wonderful island to the south (I think Conan O’Brien described its geography best: If Italy’s a boot, then Sicily is the dog shit that it’s stepping in).
Getting to Palermo turned out to be startlingly simple. The cheap plane ride only took about 50 minutes. And, given the fact that I had to wake up at about 6 a.m. to go to the airport, the city was really just a short nap away.
And it’s quite a sight to see from the plane window, because you don’t really get a view of the island until just before you land, which means the plane is low enough to really give you a view of the amazing landscape. I’ve described before that the landscape in Tuscany was something awe inspiring and marvelous, but the mountains in Sicily give Tuscany a run for its Euro.
It was also pretty easy to locate our hostel in the city, since it was a short walk from the central bus station. So, unlike normal travel nightmares of losing luggage at the airport and circling the city for hours looking for the place you booked, this visit to Palermo seemed predestined to be a good one. But we didn’t really know just how good.
For starters, our hostel was the type where the owners are just as excited for you to be visiting as you are. So, right when we arrived, the guy who runs the place pulled out a map of the city and started highlighting all the things he thought we should see and do on our short visit. He also told us that the hostel would be bringing the guests out to dinner later in the evening, and possibly even have a sangria party.
Well, the sangria party didn’t happen, because, I guess, there weren’t enough people. But we did still have a bottle of spumante between all of us to celebrate the fact that they had just acquired another unit in the building to use for guests. They then took us out to dinner at a local place that had (dare I say it… yes) the best seafood ever! But it wasn’t for the faint of heart.
It’s the kind of place where they don’t filet the fish or peel the shrimp for you. Everything comes out fresh with its eyes looking right at you as you dig into its juicy, delicious insides. There was even whole squid, looking like it had just finished writing its last will and testament in its own ink, before being thrown to the grill and served, tentacles and all. At the end, with shells and bones strewn all about, the plates seemed much more full than when they arrived, as were we.
But the fun-loving hostel proprietors didn’t call it a night at this point. It was now time to go party.
This was a Saturday night, which, we came to realize, is the serious party night in Palermo. So, we were taken to a piazza in the city where everyone gathers to hang out, talk, dance and drink. The beers were huge and cheap, and this, of course, means that I was no stranger to them. There were also grills at the end of the piazza that filled the air with thick smoke, but we were far too stuffed from the dinner to have any interest in partaking in more food (though I say that apprehensively).
Really though, what struck me most about the scene was the look and feel of the piazza as a whole. The buildings around us were apparently very old, and many of the windows and their shutters looked like they hadn’t been repaired since they were installed (or, at least since they were destroyed in WWII). Despite all the lights and loud music, the setting really seemed like a page out of history. And there I was, drinking my beer and feeling like an anachronism from the New World, on the other side of the looking glass, taking it all in. That kind of thing really gets me excited, but hey, dancing is fun, too.
And, there was more to be done in Palermo than simply have a party (In fact, I didn’t know that that would even be part of the tour). So, one of the sights we decided to see during our visit was the catacombs of the Cappuccini.
Wait, where does that sound familiar?
Oh yeah, now I remember. There were also dead corpses at the “cemetery” of the Cappuccini in Rome, which I mentioned in a previous post. But, I gotta tell you, these Sicilians don’t screw around. The Rome version seems like a dollhouse in comparison to what we saw in Palermo. (Warning: the following images may give you the urge to watch The Shining for the mere comfort it provides)
Yeah, so, at least the Roman version was just skeletons… As you can clearly see, these people still have skin and hair! And they’re not kept 20 feet away behind metal barriers, they’re literally lining the walking path. If one so desired, they could lean in and see into these people’s ears. Not saying that I did that, of course. I mean, that’d just be weird. Why would you even bring that up? Why are you looking at me like that!?
So, after seeing the Cappuccini in Palermo, it suddenly made sense why my great grandparents decided to sail to the U.S. This is the kind of thing that not only makes you want to find the nearest exit, but also the furthest country possible. At least in America we don’t dress up our corpses and hang them on walls… we give them makeup and call it Sex and the City.
And, from here, the next obvious segway is to talk about more food we ate.
The guy from the hostel told us there were basically six Sicilian foods that we had to try before leaving: the arancine (fried balls of rice filled with cheese and meat or vegetables), the traditional pasta with sardines, Sicilian pizza, the famous cannoli, cassata siciliana (a type of cake) and a dessert with seven layers of different chocolates.
We succeeded in trying all but one, which was the chocolate cake thing, but we felt pretty accomplished in trying all the others. Now, obviously, these aren’t things that can only be found in Sicily. As a matter of fact, you can pretty much find them in any Sicilian bakery here in Rome. The appeal is that you’re actually trying the “authentic” versions of the foods, which, only having two days in Sicily, seemed like the proper tourist thing to do.
But, really, they were right. I thought that everything we ate in Sicily was outstanding. I’ve already become a big fan of arancine during my stay here in Rome, but the ones we got in Palermo were triumphant monsters compared to the Roman ones:
I also really enjoyed the pasta with sardines, which may sound a little strange at first, but I guarantee it’s good. I apologize that I didn’t get a picture of it, but my friend Vicky did, so maybe I’ll borrow it from her in the near future to post. There was also the pizza, which we only tried from a street vender at a market. It was certainly tasty, but it consisted of much thicker bread and a tiny layer of cheese (180˚ swing from Chicago style pizza), so I wouldn’t really consider it life-changing.
As for the desserts… it’s pretty well known that Sicily is awesome with regard to sweets. That’s why Sicilian pastry shops are so popular in Rome. The local desserts in the Roman part of the country are basically crackers with a light sprinkle of sugar. So, the way that Sicilians use ricotta cheese and fruit must seem like very advanced culinary technology.
But, whatever it is they’re doing, it works. Because I consumed more desserts during my two days in Sicily than I ever hope to again. And that amount of sugar really has a weird effect on the body. I couldn’t tell if I was sleepy or energized. All I knew is that I couldn’t breath. But, if I was going to die of asphyxiation, what better way than with a cannolo in hand?
As always, I’ll end before fully explaining all the things I got to see and do. But, this should be a decent example of how my life continues to go marvelously on this dream journey to Italy. I’ll try my best to not focus on the fact that it’s almost over, and, if I find that I can’t avoid it, I’ll at least remember that I’m coming home to people that I don’t mind seeing again all that much after three months apart.
Love to all at home, Dom Dom
So here we are, back in Rome after a week abroad in Barcelona and Paris (and by “we” I mean “not you,” of course).
So, how did the trip go, Dominic?
It was wonderful! Thanks for asking!
We took off from Rome Saturday evening and arrived in Barcelona later the same evening (I don’t remember the exact times, because the 0 hour time difference between the two throws me off).
I could spend my time describing our journey from the airport on the shuttle, which took about 45 minutes; then the subsequent train ride on the Metro to get to the hostel, which was only a few stops; then I could tell about meeting the cool Portuguese guy at the front desk, and how he laughed at us when we asked if there was a curfew, but that would all be (and has just been) a waste of your and my time.
Instead, I’d like to describe what it is about traveling to new places and staying in hostels that really makes traveling a worthwhile endeavor, in my opinion.
You see, there is the often exaggerated aspect of traveling that includes eating local foods and seeing touristy sites that, I feel, does not give one the truest experience of being a “traveller.” Sure, these things are great and should be experienced, especially when your travel time is very limited. But, for me, there’s really nothing as exciting or rewarding, with regard to foreign (or even domestic) travel, as meeting and befriending new people from completely different places. This is why Dora the Explorer is still my favorite show, hands down.
Don’t get me wrong. During our time in Barcelona, we obviously indulged in tapas and sangria (everyday, if I remember correctly). But to say that visiting the Templo De La Sagrada Familia or seeing the Picasso Museum was what made the trip great would only be telling half the story (like only watching the first seventh Harry Potter movie without seeing the second seventh Harry Potter movie).
We were lucky, I think, to have found such a wonderful hostel in the city, because, unlike some hostels I’ve encountered, it seemed that every single person who stayed there was interested in meeting everyone else and becoming friends. And the group was constantly changing, because new travelers would enter when others left.
Initially, there was a group of Swedish guys with whom we started conversing in the common area. But we never ended up getting too close with them, since, as you know, Swedes are generally cold people (ba-zing!)
But really, they were lovely.
And we met some other Americans who, by some twist of fate, were also studying abroad in Italy and happened to be in Barcelona for vacation. We also met an Israeli girl who told us some very interesting things to do the next time we’re in Israel (which I’m sure will be very soon).
But this group ended up being more of the conversation people. They were good to talk to, and maybe drink a little wine at the hostel with, but, in the end, we never went out to see the city with them.
Instead, the real party people ended up being an Italian from Florence, Michele (who, after a couple pitchers of sangria, assured me that my Italian is much better than I think it is, woohoo!), an Argentinean named Tomas (Thomas, Tomàs?), who spoke good English but was much better at Spanish (of all things), a guy from central California named Brian (he had spent the prior months studying in Sweden), and a young man from Manchester named Stuart, who studied music and now teaches voice.
We were a well-rounded group, I must say, and, for our first adventure together, we decided to hit the town and discover what Barcelona had to offer.
I haven’t mentioned yet that it rained, at least a little, pretty much every day that we were there. But, on this particular night, it decided to really come down. So, as we were all walking to a local bar, recommended by the Portuguese guy at the desk, we found ourselves huddled together in our rain jackets under umbrellas, having pleasant conversation about the funny nuances that really make our cultures unique.
This is a conversation that can go on for days when you’re with a whole group of foreigners (myself included). So, with a good talking point already in motion, we found the bar and took a table for our pitchers of sangria, where the conversation continued in the aforementioned way. But, I should mention that this was no ordinary bar. It kind of had the tone of the Rainforest Cafe, if anyone in Chicago has been there (I actually haven’t, but I was told by my friend Monica from DePaul, who was also there, so I’ll believe it).
The main room of the bar had fake trees scattered all around, seemingly growing from the ground into the “canopy” of the ceiling. And, every so often, the lights in the room would go dim and strobe lights coupled with the sound of thunder would mimic stormy weather (which is exactly what we had come inside to avoid).
But the place was really rather fun. Or maybe that was just the sangria.
Then, as often happens, we got hungry, so we set sail again to find a place where food is sold… restaurants, I think they’re called. But, since our conversation had become so engrossing, we ended up talking and walking down the street past several restaurants without remembering to look and see if their food was good, and that’s including the fact that it was still raining. So, after some time, we settled on a place that was close to our hostel and sold the most authentic of American food.
I got a hamburger, but, just to make sure I wasn’t sending the wrong impression, I also got fries (we had 4 nights to eat Spanish food and I never get burgers in Italy, cut me some slack).
Afterward, we headed back to the hostel for a “few” beers, before deciding it would be best to go to a nearby club and do some dancing (or, at least, my best white-boy-from-Alabama interpretation of what dancing would look like).
We arrived at the place only to find out they were having a giant Halloween bash.
Now… I was under the impression that Europeans don’t celebrate Halloween. But, it turns out this didn’t stop them from dressing up and dancing to crazy American indie rock. As a matter fact, this wasn’t even taking place on Halloween, it was about 5 or 6 days too early (but European fashion is always a little ahead of ours, isn’t it?)
Again, the dancing and singing was great, but it was really the experience of meeting new people that made the visit so lovely for me. We really found out some interesting things about ourselves.
For instance, Michele (the Italian) thought it was amusing to hear the things that really irk me about the Italian language. For example, the word “problema.” Anyone with a basic knowledge of the language would see this as a feminine word, because it ends with an “a” instead of an “o,” right?
It’s not “la problema,” it’s “il problema,” because the word is (for no damn reason) masculine, and takes on a masculine ending in the plural form.
Another example is the word for egg: “uovo.”
Masculine, right? Well, normally if it were masculine, it would become “uovi” in the plural, replacing the “o” with an “i.”
BUT NAY! THIS ONE DOESN’T EVEN FOLLOW A RULE!
In the plural it becomes “uova.”
That doesn’t even seem plural… it’s just feminine now. What the hell, Italian!?
But Michele also had his questions about English, too. For much of the night, we heard him using an English word that doesn’t exist, which was “theorically.” Obviously, what he was trying to say was “theoretically,” so we all understood what he meant, but I decided it would be best to correct his error.
And I wish you could have seen his face. He had been using the word “theorically” for years, and no one had taken the time to correct him. He was, of course, grateful that we gave him the correct word, but he was still surprised at that fact and referred to all those other people who hadn’t corrected him as… how do you say… “assholes.”
But this, in turn, lead to another question of why we don’t then use the word “theoretic.” As you know, the word is “theoretical,” always has been, always will be. I mean, “theoretic” is technically an acceptable word in English, but the only people who use it are those same assholes that didn’t correct Michele in the first place.
It occurred to me at this point that, in order to really grasp how a language works, you have to stop asking why and just go with it. I now have more faith in my Italian abilities because of it.
Why is “problema” masculine?
It just bloody is! Now leave me alone, I want to eat all these “uova!”
So yes, all in all, the experience was made great by the wonderful people we met. I even learned a thing or two about English, even though I thought I spoke it pretty well. But Stuart, the guy from Manchester, let me know that in England one would not say “pants” to refer to pants. This is their term for “underpants,” and they, instead, only use the word “trousers,” which is the American word for “I’m pretty lame for using the word trousers, but I do anyway.”
He also taught me the expression “bloody Norah,” which, as you can imagine, is just a charming British way of saying “Holy Shit!” I rather like this one, actually… I think I’ll keep it for myself.
Oh, and their word for sweater is “jumper,” but this one isn’t all that exciting. I mean… come on… jumper?
I feel I should move on to Paris for brevity’s sake, but before we hop on the crêpe wagon I think I should at least mention this story.
While in Barcelona, we took the opportunity to do some salsa dancing one night (which is actually more prevalent in Latin America than Spain, but we’re Americans, so it’s all the same, right?)
The club was full, and we were apparently the only people there who didn’t know how to salsa, because these Spaniards were owning it. As often happens, I was the only male in the group of Americans. This means that all of my friends were scooped up by Spanish men and spun to the dance floor without any hint of problem. But for me, not so easy, because in salsa the man always leads (kind of like every other type of dance, I guess).
It was time to find a partner to scoop up and spin to the floor, but I don’t speak a word of Spanish or dance a word of salsa, so my courage was not where it needed to be.
I had also made the mistake of mentioning to one of my friends that a Spanish girl we saw on the way in had been particularly pretty. My friend then made it her mission to force me up to the girl to ask for a dance. She vowed that if I didn’t do it, she would ask for me. Not even Vito Corleone makes offers so brutal.
But I wasn’t going to go alone… oh no… I needed the love and support of my friend, Tequila.
So, Tequila and I met up at the bar to have a pep talk. I tried to argue, but she just kept forcing her point down my throat, and her words were rather stinging. After maybe two or three attempts at trying to argue with Tequila, she eventually convinced me that it was not only a good idea to ask this Spanish girl for a dance, but necessary.
Tequila always knows just what to say, but you always have to take her advice with a grain of salt.
So, I was on my way to man up to my mission. I approached the Spanish girl and in my clearest English asked: “Shwood layktoo danzt?” (Tequila promised it would work)
She obviously didn’t speak English, because she looked confused, but, nevertheless, she accepted and on we went to the floor.
And we danced.
Ok… so, like I said, the man has to lead… of course. But I don’t have a clue what I’m supposed to do to salsa (Tequila never mentioned this part). So, there we were, kind of wiggling back and forth, both of us waiting for the other to do something cool.
After a little while she asked: “You naw how to dance da salsa?”
I responded, again, in my wonderful English: “No, ken yew teash meee?”
But, like I said, she didn’t speak very good English, so she just looked confused again.
This is when I got the bright idea that, maybe, since she’s Spanish, she’ll understand Italian.
“Puoi insegnarmi come ballare la salsa?”
Again, nothing but confused looks.
“Non posso ballare, forse vuoi insegnarmi?”
Then a big smile.
So, she backed up a few steps to show me what her feet were doing…. I backed up a few steps and bumped into a guy. Mistake 1.
She showed me that salsa is done in threes, so you step outward, bend the knee, step inward, repeat… the knee is always on the two… I started doing what probably seemed like half jumping jacks. Mistake 2.
We tried again to dance the way that you’re supposed to, but I continued to fumble my feet and screw everything up. She started laughing. I knew that I had been bested by a foreign culture, so I simply told her that she could dance with someone else, and that maybe she could show me later. Mistake 3.
So, I didn’t learn to salsa, but, either way, it was a good time. And for my effort, Tequila gave me one last pat on the back before we called it a night.
What can I say that hasn’t already been said about Paris?
Well, first of all, we arrived in no state of mind to be trying to walk through busy streets, because our flight had been booked for early in the morning (if I find the joker that used my computer, my passport and my debit card to book the ticket, I’ll give him a reason to shout “bloody Norah!”), and so, instead of trying to at least get a little sleep the night before, we just decided to pull and all-nighter and catch our 5 a.m. shuttle bus to the airport the easy way.
So, we went to the airport, caught our flight and travelled into the city center without the appropriate awe and enthusiasm one should have for such an occasion. But, after all, it’s Paris, “The City of Light,” so who’s gonna go take a nap in this situation?
Ok, to be honest… I totally would have taken a nap if our hostel didn’t have a lockout time from 11-3. This was my third time to visit Paris anyway. But, instead of bitching and moaning about it in the hostel common area, we decided to do the Parisian thing.
So we just bitched and moaned in the streets.
But, again again, my favorite thing about traveling is meeting new people, so I would rather not describe everything we saw while there. You can google that stuff if you want.
I’ll mention that we went to the Louvre (and walked around it for 5 damn hours! No joke. That’s what happens when you travel with a bunch of art history students), Notre Dame Cathedral, the Luxembourg Gardens, the Basilica du Sacré-Cœur (guess how long it took me to find those symbols on my keyboard), the Eiffel Tower, the Moulin Rouge, the Place de la Concorde (which, by default, means we were close to the Arc de Triomphe), and, personally, I went by myself to the Père Lachaise Cemetery because the others went to Versaille, which I had already seen on a prior trip (by the way, thanks for that, Sandra!)
Really, the only new thing for me was the cemetery, which is the present resting place of Chopin, Balzac (childish giggles), Jim Morrison and, of course, Oscar Wilde. You may know the tradition of putting on lipstick and kissing Wilde’s tomb to leave lip prints, so it’s a pretty famous thing to see. But, as luck would have it, his tomb was being “renovated” during the month of October and was, therefore, blocked by metal gates and covered by plastic tarps. So I didn’t get to see it.
I just wish I had known this before I put on the lipstick, but hey, I was still able to leave a kiss for Balzac (giggle, giggle).
So, after Barcelona, I was excited to see what kind of people I would meet at our hostel. To be quite honest, though, we didn’t meet anyone the first few nights. It was pretty off-putting.
The whole hostel seemed off-putting in the beginning, actually.
The common room wasn’t nearly as cosy (no couches, just stools around tables), the breakfast was over at 9:30 a.m. (Ha! Like that time of day actually exists!), the bathroom and showers weren’t as welcoming (don’t really want to explain this one too much, let’s just say that certain rooms had door handles but no sinks) and the people who worked the desk weren’t as lively and fun (for continuity, I’ll include this parenthetical phrase, but there’s really nothing to explain).
So, it was quite a surprise a few nights later to see a nice young group of people congregating in the common room. Different accents, different ages… perfect!
I was waiting for my friends to get ready to go out, so I decided to buy a beer from the front desk and join the conversation.
You must forgive me, I don’t really remember all of their names, except for the one I became Facebook friends with: Amber, the lovely young lady from Auckland, New Zealand. But they were all lovely. There was a young French woman, two Canadian guys (one from Toronto, the other from somewhere in Quebec, or, as he called it, “Kabeck”), and a guy from Buffalo, who was in the middle of describing the “ultimate pickup line.”
As he described it, it’s not really a pickup line at all. It’s more of a conversation starter, followed by a pickup line.
Apparently, you have to be in the right place for this to work, because, I’ll tell you in advance, it involves Star Wars.
Stay with me, stay with me.
Ok… so… if you’re at a place where Stars Wars happens to be playing on the t.v. (what the hell kind of bars do Buffalo people go to?), and there also happens to be a girl there that catches your fancy, all you have to do is walk up, take a look at the screen and say:
“You know what? Dustin Hoffman did a great job playing Darth Vader.”
To which (Casanova assured us) she will respond:
“What!? Dustin Hoffman didn’t play Darth Vader!”
I’ll stop for a second to note that, while this girl would be absolutely correct if she said that, the chances that she would actually respond in this way seem unlikely. My guess is that she would probably say: “Could you get lost? Because obviously your virginity can’t!”
Either way, let’s just say she takes the bait… All you have to do is follow up with:
“Are you kidding me! Of course he did. I’ll bet you dinner that he did.”
Aaaaah… you see what he did there?
Apparently this guy from Buffalo is as elegant and graceful as a real Buffalo… bravo.
But, I have to give him credit for the genuine effort, though. I was once with friends when we came up with the line: “You know… God made a mistake… you were supposed to be an angel, but he forgot your wings.”
Apart from just being objectively cheezy and terrible, this runs the risk of coming across completely wrong after a few drinks at the bar…
“Excuse me, Miss. I’d just like to say that God messed up when he made you… You… No, wait! Come back! Come back!”
But, anyway, our entire conversation didn’t just consist of pickup lines, so I’ll move on.
We continued to have a small discussion around the table, but, like I said, I was just waiting for my friends so we could go out. So, when they were ready, we went out to find a nice little place in Paris to get some wine and meet with some of the pleasant Parisians.
Half the plan worked just fine.
I mean, seriously… if you know that the whole world views you with the stereotype of being a snobby stronzo (pardon my Italian), then why wouldn’t you want to dispel this stereotype by being amiable and polite? I guess when you’re a snobby stronzo, part of the job description is to not care that people think you are.
Now, I’m not saying that all Parisians are asses (and I’m certainly not saying the French in general are asses, because the ones from outside of Paris were really very nice), it just surprises me how different they are from Italians.
I think I’ve described before that Italians are generally very helpful when they see that you are not Italian. In fact, when you try to speak Italian with them, they get excited to see that you’ve learned it. Parisians, on the other hand, still seem angry that English became the dominant language after WWII, and refuse to accept any English words into their language.
For example, the word “computer” is commonly used among other languages, despite being an English word (even Albanians say “kompjuter,” and that’s close enough). Not the French, though. They say “informatique.”
Because “computer” was obviously one syllable too short to truly describe what the thing does. It doesn’t compute… it informats.
What actually happened to us was that we went to a little bar/lounge where people were sitting around, drinking wine and, so it seemed, having a good time. We decided to stop in and have a go at it. Before we sat down at a table to order wine, though, the waitress, having heard us speak English, told us to go order at the bar, since it would be cheaper. Actually seemed quite nice, really. Like she had our backs, even though she’d be losing out on the table charge.
We went to the bar and asked for a bottle of wine. The bartender informed us that we had to sit down and order from the waitress.
Strange. I could have sworn… well, nevermind.
Back to the table, where the waitress, looking frustrated, pointed and said we had to order at the bar.
Now… I’m no physicist, but it seemed to me there must have been something about us that made no one want to take our order.
So, back to the bar to explain to the bartender that the waitress was telling us to order from there. But, as you can imagine, the bartender simply gave us a look like we were idiots and didn’t understand the concept of a waitress. As far as I’m concerned, there really shouldn’t be a problem. Seems that both of their jobs involve serving wine to people, yet neither were too keen on doing it.
Really, though, this is where you have to get stern and let them know that you’re not going to be pushed around.
So we went back to the table.
Waitress, again, annoyed look and all, calls over another waiter and tells him to take our order. I’m glad to say that, finally, he did take our order, and it was only a matter of minutes before they brought us a fine bottle of Argentinean wine, which we enjoyed thoroughly. We even toyed with the idea of ordering another when we were finished, but we decided it probably wouldn’t come until 10 a.m. the next morning, so we left instead.
For a couple nights of our stay, this was our situation, until we began hanging out with the people from the hostel. The guy from Quebec’s first language was French, so he made it much easier for us to go out.
Actually, the next night after the interesting Parisian encounter, we went out again (still just us from Chicago), but came back relatively early (as we had the night before), because we thought that the hostel’s curfew was such.
Turns out, there really was no curfew. When we got to the door, some of the same people I had spoken with the in common room were gathered outside, about to go out to some bar nearby.
They invited us to come along, so, of course, I said yes. But, I was the only one from Chicago to join the group on that night, so, really, for one of the first times in my life, I was the only American in the group. As you may guess, this made me the butt of several jokes throughout the evening. But, I took it in stride and just kept repeating in my head “they’re only jealous that we invented Twizzlers.”
It was great fun, though. There was even a new person in this group for me to meet, Tony. He was French, but not Parisian, so very polite and fun. We hung out at the bar discussing our languages and cultures, as you do. He explained how the French “r” has to be pronounced from deep in the throat, rather than at the top of the mouth like English and Italian. I explained how the sound for “th” that we use in such words as “there” or “then” is simply made by saying a lispy “s” while humming. Turns out that explanations like these really don’t help too much.
What was great was that Tony told me he had a guitar at the hostel after I had explained that I played. So, when we all returned, he grabbed it from his room, and a few of us hung out outside to play it.
The problem was that it was about 6 a.m. by this point, and we (or at least I) hadn’t realized it. So, the next morning, my friend Monica informed me that people at breakfast had been talking about the annoying guitar that was playing outside while they tried to sleep. I felt bad… but, I wasn’t the only one playing, so not too bad.
We went out again the next night, as well. This time I wasn’t the only one from the American group, so things were back to normal. But, overall, our experiences in Paris were very good.
I’d still say that I had more fun in Barcelona, but Paris is Paris. There’s no denying that, so don’t even try.
Annnnnnnd we’re back!
As you may have noticed, my blog posts have been getting a little less frequent than they used to be. I would take the blame for this fact, but somehow I feel it’s someone else’s fault. I don’t know who, but I swear I’ll find them… which might take me some time, so please be patient if there are no new posts before then.
Since my last entry, there have been some developments that you may have heard about.
On Saturday, the Occupy Wall Street movement made its way to Europe (I guess Wall Street is one of those roads that leads to Rome), and, unlike all the other cities of the world that took to their streets without bottles of gasoline and bricks (boooooring!), Rome went to town on itself.
This isn’t entirely fair, of course, because, of the thousands who came to protest peacefully, it was only a small percentage who were part of the “Black Bloc” of anarchists. Still, the destruction made headlines, so I’m here to let you know that I’m perfectly fine. And, given the fact that no one checked in on me to confirm my survival over the past five days, I’ll just assume you were all killed in the riots. My condolences.
But I’d rather not focus on negative stories such as this, which is why I’ve decided to make this post a sort of “best of” highlight reel of what I’ve seen in Rome these past 2 months. Next week I’ll be going to Barcelona for a few days, followed by Paris, so I thought it would be good to talk up Rome while I still hold it in high regard.
I’ll start with some museums I’ve visited, or, as they’re called in Rome, “people’s houses”:
Palazzo Barberini: Galleria Nazionale D’Arte
Yup, that was somebody’s crash pad back in the day. Specifically, it belonged to the Barberini family of Rome a.k.a. Pope Urban VIII and his kin. It’s right in the city center, near my school, which is probably why he chose the name Pope Urban… wasn’t gonna just get a house in the suburbs, ya know?
Nowadays it’s a museum with three floors of Baroque wonder. You would surely recognize some of the famous works housed here:
La Fornarina by Raphael (or is it?)
So, yeah. You may already know, but some people speculate that Raphael didn’t actually paint this one. Or, at least, didn’t paint it all by himself. I’m not really sure what the conspiracy is. I just like it cuz it reminds me of myself in middle school.
Saint Francis in Prayer by Caravaggio
You probably know this one, too. I didn’t do any research on it, but I would assume that’s St. Francis, and he’s praying… Or something like that.
But my personal favorites of this gallery were not works I had seen prior.
The Rialto Bridge from the South by Canaletto
Seeing it on a computer screen doesn’t do it justice. The works by Canaletto really stood out overall in the gallery to me. I don’t think I’ll succeed in describing why, since I’m not an art historian, and I’m not too wood with gords. But something about his works seemed perfect. They were mostly landscapes of Venice, a beautiful subject for art to begin with, but also the strokes that he used and the colors he chose… I don’t know, kind of makes you enjoy art without feeling like you have to, you know?
This is a landmark that you should already be familiar with. If nothing else, it was in Angels & Demons, right?
This castle is now a major tourist attraction in Rome, but, believe it or not, it actually used to just be a castle. Popes used it for protection back before the Popemobile had bulletproof glass. I’ve been told there are secret underground passages that lead from this to the Vatican, so that the Pope could flee to it in times of danger. But that’s a secret, so don’t tell anyone.
Nowadays it’s a museum, but, I’m not gonna lie, we couldn’t go for a long visit, so we just skipped whatever was there to see and went up for the view (don’t judge me). And, lemme tell ya, the view is really something special!
Ok, so I didn’t bring a camera (stop judging me!). But from the top you can see a complete panorama of all of Rome. It’s also the setting for the final act of Puccini’s Tosca. I’m sure you already know, but that’s the opera where everyone dies. Not before they get to sing a little bit, though.
Museo Nazionale Delle Arti Del XXI Secolo or MAXXI
I heard about this one right before I left for Rome, actually. The Chicago Tribune had a story about overlooked museums, and this one was featured, since most people don’t come to Rome to see 21st century art. I guess I agree, cuz I ended up going alone, but it was still worth mentioning.
The art was good… you know… for being modern. Some of it was actually very good, but, as is always the case with modern art museums, others appeared to be either done by a kindergardener, or just someone who really wants to make you groan and say “Awww, I could have done that!”
One work in particular struck me as interesting. It was thousands and thousands of incense sticks tied into long strings, and hung to look like tall jungle plants. To begin with, I thought it looked cool, but another thing was that it made the entire gallery smell so darn perdy.
But I always get the feeling that modern art has a pretension about it that is hard to get over. Paintings that you find in classical art museums are the kind of works you wish you could have in your own home. Contemporary art, in many cases, is the kind of thing that only looks cool in contemporary art museums. If you were bring it home, you’d probably just have to hang it on your fridge.
But who am I to judge? I don’t have a beret.
Vatican Museum & The Sistine Chapel
K, so I really shouldn’t have to explain this too much. If you’re not familiar with the Sistine Chapel, I doubt you have the reading comprehension to have made it this far.
This was not my first visit to the Vatican Museum, so I already knew what to expect.
That’s not a way of putting it down, though. What I mean is that, I knew I was going to enjoy it.
Obviously Michelangelo’s work in the Sistine Chapel is legendary and brilliant, but the museum itself is full of fabulous paintings and sculptures. You probably recognize this, too:
I sure did. So when I saw it, I pointed and yelled: “I know that one!”
But this was another occasion when we didn’t have enough time to see everything. I even noted as we passed through a room that, under most circumstances, I would find it odd that I’m trying to rush through a room full of priceless art without stopping to look. Sorry Matisse! We came to see the IMPORTANT stuff!
So there are some museums for you. Obviously, this doesn’t even scratch the surface of museums the city has to offer. But I still have a month, and I intend on making it to more.
Moving on, I thought I could just share with you some interesting places that exist in the city.
You’re surely aware that Rome is old. This means that a whooooooole lot of people have died here. But not all end up in the same place after they die.
I’m not talking about heaven and hell… I’m referring to the rotting corpses they left behind.
You may have heard of the Cemetery of the Capuchins. The Capuchins were monks, and the cemetery is famous because it’s not a cemetery… It’s a couple of rooms where their remains have been made to look like decorations all around the walls. (I changed my mind, I’ll just take the contemporary art)
This is another location that is very close to my school, so, one afternoon, a few of us decided to go see what all the fuss was about.
Then we vomited.
As you walk, room after room, you start to realize that EVERYTHING is made of dead people (I was too scared to check how the bathroom looked). There were even chandeliers made of human jaw bones and vertebrae. You know… the kind of thing that would even make Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs say: “Dude, this place is fucked up!” While Jeffrey Dohmer nods in agreement.
If this wasn’t enough for a Wes Craven bedtime story, there’s even a plaque in one of the rooms that reads something along the lines of: “What you are, we once were. What we are, you will one day be.”
That was our cue to turn around and just go to the Hard Rock Cafe.
On a less morbid note, I’d like to mention another place that I think is pretty interesting. I’ve only gone once, but, if you know how much I love coffee, you won’t be surprised that I’m going to mention a coffee house on my list.
As you can see from the sign, this is the Antico Caffè Greco, established in 1760, Rome’s oldest. Yup, a coffee house older than the United States. I decided to try a cup of coffee here one day, but the place is just a little too swanky for me. I felt like people were giving me condescending looks because I wasn’t in a designer suit, but I just sipped my coffee and went about my own business. To be honest, the coffee was nothing spectacular, but I still think it was worth it to try once.
I would keep going, but there are really too many things to mention about this city to keep going. Like I said, I will be seeing Spain for the first time very soon, then a trip to the wonderful city of Paris. I understand if my photography skills have been disappointing throughout most of my posts, but I’ll try hard to take some good pictures while I’m out and about in Europe.
Until next time….
Ok, I know what you’re thinking.
“Where is Dominic!? Why hasn’t he posted in so long? How am I supposed to go about my life without regular Zinn Blog entries!”
Oh, that’s not what you were thinking? Sorry, I’ve never been too good at that game.
Either way, I figured I should check in briefly, since my journey in Rome is just about at the halfway point (sad, I know). I suppose the optimistic way to look at it is to say that I still have half left, right?
Whatever… I don’t want to leave, and I’ll mope about it all I want. Thank you very much.
Since my last entry, several changes have taken place that might be interesting enough to note.
First, Rome isn’t hot anymore. Actually, it’s gotten kind of brisk. It’s good for me, because I never had the chance to wear the leather jacket I bought in Florence until now. But, at the same time, I’m probably going to end up wearing it too much (didn’t pack enough warm clothing), which might end up reducing its cool factor from Marlon Brando (from The Wild One) down to Roger Klotz (from Doug).
Sure… I could always go shopping for more clothes, but, don’t forget, this is Italy, not America, and I have my doubts about the quality of the clothing here. Maybe I should just wait to go home to Anniston, Alabama, where I know for a fact I can find adequate winter jackets for my eventual return to Chicago. And, while I’m pointing out obvious facts, Caddyshack 2 is one of the best movies ever!
In other news, my service learning program with elderly Italians has continued to go splendidly, I must say. The people at the Girasole (Sunflower) center have been very helpful in teaching me to speak Italian.
Well, not so much ‘speak Italian’, as practice my panic face.
You see, something about older people makes them unsympathetic to the fact that those of us in the program are still learning the language, and have not become fluent yet (sorry, some of us haven’t had 95 years to practice it). It’s not so much that I can’t understand what they say. It’s just that they won’t slow down, and instead of repeating themselves when something is unclear, they just go “Blegh!” and shrug you off like you’re hopeless.
Not all of them are this way, of course. Some are very welcoming, and treat you well even if you’re confused. But underneath you can tell that they’re judging.
Still, there are times when it goes really well; when I’ll understand exactly what someone is talking about, and I can even respond. But then, inevitably, another person will walk up to join the conversation, speaking too fast and using words I’ve never learned. Enter the panic face:
And -“Blegh!”- conversation over…
But I still have more than a month to get over that barrier. And I plan on doing it, by golly! It’s not my style to let old people get between me and my goals. (Speaking of which, my apologies to the old man in front of me in line today for the last piece of tiramisu. I wish you a speedy recovery… or a relatively painless death, if your injuries prove fatal.)
What else? Hmmmm…
I’m well into my second Italian course for the quarter, which is a conversation class, rather than grammar. And I believe it’s going pretty well. To be honest, I wish I had it a little more, because it’s only twice a week for an hour and a half. In my opinion that’s not enough to get a real conversation in. It’s forcing me to do something I never thought I would have to do: go out and speak with real Italians.
As you can probably tell from the way I’m explaining this, I still have many problems with the language. It gets easier and easier as time goes by, but I’m always reminded of the fact that there is much more to speaking a language than knowing how to conjugate the verbs.
In Italian, pronunciation is one of these things. One “n” between “Penne” and “Pene” is the difference between a type of pasta and a penis. Seriously. If you don’t hold the “n” sound for the appropriate amount of time, the waiter might bring you something you didn’t order, or the doctor might think you’re having difficulty getting your pasta cooked to the proper firmness.
It also seems there are thousands of simple words that I use in English all the time, but I’ve never learned their translations. For example, I went to the pharmacy today to buy some lip balm and eye drops. The cold is setting in, so it’s only natural for my eyes and lips to get a little dry. (It’s normal! Shut up!) But, once I was standing in front of the counter about to speak to the girl, I realized that the only way I was going to get what I needed was to play charades.
Here’s what I know how to say without trouble: “Scusi, potrei avere…” (“Excuse me, could I have…”).
But what’s the word for eye drops?
“… la cosa per gli occhi?” (“… the thing for the eyes?”) I made a gesture as if squeezing eye drops into my face, and she seemed to get it.
Next the lip balm. This was harder, because I knew how to say eyes, but I forgot the word for lips (which I now know is “le labbra”). So, instead of trying to talk my way around it, I just said “E anche…” (“And also…”), then started gesturing as if applying lip balm with my finger. She caught on after a few seconds, but I’m still left wondering whether or not she thought I was asking for a kiss, at least at first. I’m not sure if Italians use the apply-with-finger method that I was gesturing when they use lip balm (she gave me a roll-on tube, not the goop, like Carmex), but I didn’t want there to be any doubt that what I wanted wasn’t lipstick.
This is a very mundane example. Sometimes it’s a little harder and the stakes are higher. Like when asking a bus driver where to get off for your destination.
If buses in Rome were like buses in Chicago, there would be a perky little voice to tell you exactly what stop you were approaching; as long as you know where you need to get off, there would be no confusion.
Instead, there is no voice, or even a scrolling screen to tell you where you are. There’s just a scrolling screen to tell you the number of the bus. So, once you have all of the streets memorized, as well as all of the bus routes, you’re fine.
… but, I don’t. (Others in my groups are aware of this).
Getting to major spots or to/from school is no problem. I’ve got that down pat. It’s trying to find new places or taking new buses that throws me. So, what else to do but ask the driver? (Who will, without fail, only know one word of English by default: “No”)
Me: “Scusi, c’è una fermata per x?” (“Excuse me, is there a stop for x?”)
Driver: “Sì, ma non c’è ghjkfdfkgjhsdfghjasdhg, va bene?” (“Yes, but there isn’t string-of-unintelligible-gibberish, ok?)
“Sì, va bene.” (“Ok”)
But I don’t want you to get the impression that I’m a complete novice, either. I’d say that, by this point, I’m able to hold a basic conversation in Italian. It’s just not a particularly interesting one. And it’s certainly not one that involves eye drops or lip balm, as all the best conversations do.
Other topics that I would probably fail at discussing: Gardening, Driving, Types of Hats, Works by Rembrandt, Cartoons of the 70s, and so on…
But, you know me, I’m not losing hope. Each day continues to be a learning experience. So, I push forward for the second half of my program. Maybe I’ll finally learn my way around all of Rome, or maybe I’ll just keep asking the driver. Either way, I’ll do it with a smile on my face.