Retired in Rome Journal: Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither is learning the Italian language

The essential tools of learning Italian: an Italian dictionary (notice how well worn), an Italian verb book, an Italian newspaper and the first of many bottles of Italian wine.
The essential tools of learning Italian: an Italian dictionary (notice how well worn), an Italian verb book, an Italian newspaper and the first of many bottles of Italian wine.


I walked into the public market nervously awaiting my first public transaction in my new adopted language. I was cautiously optimistic that, although I hadn’t bridged the gap between English and Italian, I at least laid down a small floorboard over a narrow but deep chasm. I could get by. So I approached an old woman selling vegetables and wanted to know if her tomatoes had preservatives as they have in the United States.

Not worrying about my ugly American accent but concentrating with trance-like attention on the correct nouns and conjugation, I said in a loud voice half of Rome could hear, “HAI POMODORI HANNO PRESERVATIVI?”

She started giggling. Then she started laughing. It soon turned into a howl. I had asked her if her tomatoes had condoms. “Preservativo” is the Italian word for condom. “Conservante” is the word for preservative.

It was one of many hard language lessons I learned when I first lived here from 2001-03. Not all of them were this funny. Some left me reeling from language class looking for a subway track on which to throw myself. I’d get excited over holding a simple conversation about soccer in a local caffe then go into a deep depression when I couldn’t figure out the change in a supermarket. I’d stay up tunil 3 a.m. watching TV waiting for one sentence, no matter how simple, that I understood and I could reward myself with a trip to bed. At one point, I was so desperate for comprehension, a doctor could tell me in Italian, “You have AIDS. You have cancer. You have six months to live. And your insurance doesn’t qualify and you owe us $5,000,” and if I understood him, I’d walk out feeling pretty good.

Learning a foreign language is without question the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It is maddening, excruciating, time consuming, all encompassing, humbling, humiliating and, at times, just plain cruel. It is my daily challenge, one that never leaves me. It’s like military boot camp where a commanding officer is constantly telling you you’re not good enough. The Italian language is my drill sergeant. Sometimes he’s kind; sometimes he’s cruel. But he never leaves me alone. When I walk out of this apartment, he is all over my back. And he always will be.

I have just passed the five-month mark in this stint in Rome. I have lived here in total a little less than 22 months. I would classify my Italian as intermediate. I am not fluent. I am merely conversational. I can read, write and speak it a lot better than I can understand it. That figures. In between Rome stints, I lived 11 years in Denver. You can’t hear Italian in Denver. Denver’s Little Italy section consists of a guy named Guido who lives off Lincoln Street. I didn’t hear the language, outside my private lessons, for more than a decade.

The motivation to speak a foreign language began at 22. When I graduated from college, I traveled around the world alone for a year. The only language class I had ever taken was one hour a week of Spanish in sixth grade. That’s it. The United States is an isolated, jingoistic monolith where most Americans think the planet revolves around them. Foreign language is only for young scholars to put on their application to Ivy League schools. I was a sportswriter. I only knew conversational profanity.

My trip around the world changed my life forever. One overriding impression in every country was this: Everyone spoke English for me. From Norway to South Korea, the locals who could speak English did on my behalf. Ironically, of the 25 countries I visited, guess the one where I found the fewest English speakers: Italy. I found more English in rural Sumatra. Nevertheless, I became extraordinarily self-conscious. One time during a party in Munich, I apologized to everyone individually when I realized they all spoke English to each other. “We think it’s rude to say things you don’t understand,” one told me.

During that trip and in all 92 countries and territories I’ve visited I’ve learned the best way to respect a culture is through language. So I have made a point to learn a few phrases in each native tongue. I call them traveler’s French, Chinese, whatever. Even if I’m in Holland, where nearly everyone is 100 percent fluent in English, I try to speak Dutch. The traveler’s phrases needed for translation are quite simple and can be learned on the plane ride in. They are, “Where is …?” “How much?” “I would like …,” “Thank you” and, when in Sweden, “I want to father your child.” With those phrases you can travel anywhere — of course, in some countries better than others.

Living in a country and not visiting, however, changes everything. I wanted to do more than order pasta carbonara without sounding like a truck driver from Lubbock. I wanted to converse. I wanted to exchange ideas. I wanted to get in soccer arguments. In my first stint, I enrolled in a language school called Dilit. It was a two-month public flogging. If I marched through the Roman Forum wearing a fig leaf and carrying a sword I’d leave with more pride than when I left Dilit. About 90 percent of the students are under 30 and European who are working on their third or fourth language. The native Spanish and French speakers become fluent in, oh, about an hour and a half. I was still trying to figure out the past tense for “I’m fucked.” Here’s why, as strange as it may sound.

It was all in Italian.

Think about it. How do you learn grammar of a new language if you don’t understand that language? I never figured that out. English was not allowed. So after two months of feeling like that short-order Greek cook Bill Murray played in “Saturday Night Live,” I took three months of private lessons from an architect trying to make some extra money. She patiently explained Italian grammar to me — in English. In 15 minutes I understood more than I did in two months in school.

I also did more on the side. A wonderful Italian word is “scambio.” It means language exchange. A common practice here is finding a Roman who wants to learn English. You get together and talk English for an hour and Italian for an hour. All the while, over a glass of wine, a beer or a gelato, you correct each other. It’s a free way to improve your language skills while occasionally making a pretty good friend. I had scambio partners for all kinds of topics. With one guy I talked soccer. With one woman I talked travel. With another I talked art.

Here you can humiliate yourself but only in the company of one other person. And boy, did I make the Hindenburg of language guffaws. There’s a real romantic wine bar near the Vatican called Del Frate. Dark wood. Low lighting. Wine list on a chalkboard. It reeks Rome and love and passion. My partner that night was this gorgeous Roman in her mid-30s. She looked like a young Sophia Loren. We were talking Italian and she asked me about my job as a sportswriter. She asked if I played sports when I was young. I tried to say, in Italian, “I was a lousy athlete.” But instead, I screwed up the noun and the tense and instead of saying, “I was a lousy athlete,” I said, “I am lousy in bed.” I couldn’t understand why she was laughing so hard. How did she know I only hit .236 my senior year in high school? And why were all the other beautiful women in the bar laughing at me?

Here’s why: “Athlete” in Italian is “atleta.” “Bed” in Italian is “letto.” Atleta. Letto. Hey, it’s an easy mistake to make.

And to answer your next question, no, I didn’t get a chance to prove to her otherwise.

I was living with my girlfriend at the time. Believe it or not, that is a drawback. There are three ways to learn a language easier: Live with a local family, work in a local business or find a local lover. You either live it, work it or sleep it. She and I did none of them. We spoke English at home, we both worked at home and we were both journalists working in English. I saw many American women on the prowl for an Italian man. Those women may have put up with the men’s philandering, their machismo and their mothers but I’ll give the women this: They were fluent in six months.

So here I am back in Rome, living alone. I have no excuses. My neighborhood of Testaccio is void of English speakers. It has no hotels. It has no tourists. It doesn’t even have a postcard. If you don’t know Italian in Testaccio, you will starve. I’m not taking lessons. I took 11 years of them from the one native Italian-language teacher in metro Denver, the ever-patient, multi-talented Adriana Caso in Littleton. She kept my skills afloat until my retirement in January.

Now I’m flying solo. My Roman friends say my Italian has improved since I first lived here (Brava, Adriana.) but learning a language is a 24-7 struggle, especially in Italy. Nothing is in English. All American movies and TV shows are dubbed in Italian. The only thing bilingual are the menus in touristy restaurants. The New York Times International is the lone English-language newspaper and at 2.80 euro (nearly $4), a better investment is a cheap bottle of wine.

There are four areas of language and none can be ignored:

Reading. I buy Corriere dello Sport or La Gazzetta dello Sport, Italy’s two national sports newspapers, about four times a week. They are packed with soccer. A big A.S. Roma soccer match will have up to 18 stories on it. The Saturday Gazzetta has an added bonus with SportWeek, its equivalent of Sports Illustrated except it always has a feature — with LOTS of pictures — on one real hot female athlete. After all, this is Italy.

Writing. I text and email my friends in complete Italian sentences. They read like legislation in Parliament.

Speaking. Italian is a very sexy, romantic language — except when I speak it. My Roman friends have said I sound like a Roman street thug. I took it as a compliment. It wasn’t. However, I try. I really try. For starters, I refuse to speak English. All my Italian friends know it. When an Italian addresses me in English, I say, “Scusi. Preferisco Italiano.” I ask vendors in Mercato Testaccio innocuous questions just to see if I can make myself understood. I frankly don’t care where they get their clementines. I also know how to make pasta puttanesca. But I want to start conversations with people who don’t speak a word of English. If I’m in a bar, I will start a conversation with, “Allora, A.S. Roma o Lazio?” meaning which of the two Rome soccer teams do they support. If they say Roma, I reply, “Bellissimo! Possiamo essere amici!” (Great! We can be friends!”) If they say Lazio, I say, “Vaffanculo.” (Go fuck yourself.) Seriously, I don’t say that. In fact, I don’t meet many Lazio fans here and the ones I’ve met are, surprisingly, functionally literate. When I learn a new word I try to use it the next day. In one scambio I learned the word “Arrapato.” That’s Italian for “horny.” So the next day I went up to a platonic female friend and said, “Ciao. Mi chiamo John. Sono arrapato.” (Hi. My name is John. I am horny.) “Sei arrapata?” (Are you horny?) You see, in Rome, there are some awful things you can get away with just by being a dumb American.

Comprehension: This is where I have struggled intensely. Understanding Italian is like deciphering graffiti from a passing train. It is really tough. On Valentine’s Night I went to the theater to see a play. In a two-hour production, I didn’t understand one single complete sentence. I was in a deep depression for three days. I have since come out of it and I’ve rationalized my struggles.

A major problem is Romans speak faster than anyone else in Italy. For me to learn Italian in Rome is like an Italian learning English in Brooklyn. I understand people better in Tuscany, considered the birthplace of the Italian language and where most Tuscans speak the purest form. Even in Sicily it’s easier. In Sicily they speak Sicilian. Italian is their second language. Their Sicilian sounds like they’re always in an argument. When they speak Italian they sound like graduates from the Columbia School of Broadcasting. My closest contacts in Rome remain somewhat foreign to me. Alessandro, my best friend the sportswriter, has one of the heaviest Roman accents I’ve heard. He is a Roman for Romans. He doesn’t talk. He growls. One word blends into the next. While it’s always grammatically perfect, our conversations are often stilted and maddening. He is so used to me asking him to repeat that he now just automatically translates comments before I can say, “Come?” (pronounced COE-may?) the Italian word for, “Huh?” My landlady is a harried 44-year-old single mother of a hyper 4-year-old boy. She is constantly stressed. Every time she speaks she sounds like an Alitalia pilot right before his plane crashes into the Dolomites.

But when learning foreign languages, you must turn baby steps into a giant leap for mankind. Blow off the failures. I have seen signs of improvement. I can read sports sections at about a 60-percent efficiency. I can make people laugh with funny emails. I’ve held conversations all over Italy. And I’m starting to understand when the TV commentators want to saint or lynch the national soccer coach.

I also know how to buy condoms.