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,