Four-In Tongues

Salve

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).

The picture is terrible, I know. Wanna fight about it?

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?

Nay!

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.”

“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.

Kinda.

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?”

Confusion, confusion…

“Insegnami!”

Then a big smile.

“OOOOOH! OK!”

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.

……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

Paris…

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.”

Why?

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.

Jim Morrison's grave.

Notre Dom

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