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.