I have sat
in so many places with teachers telling me that
this is what I need to do.
Sit, listen, repeat.
Io vado – I go, Tu vai- you go
And I’d sit there with these lists of conjugations that frighteningly err on the side of math instead of language and I’d repeat the lists in that numbing monotone that school children somehow pick up when speaking in unison – and I’d learn nothing.
This is the way you learn a language, they say.
This is what you need to study, they explain.
This is how you’ll speak someday, they lie. At least to me.
Yesterday someone stopped me again on the street and we made our way through “the script” – the conversation that happens anytime anyone discovers that I’m from the US – every time that someone realizes that I’m more apt to drop my r’s instead of my c’s. It begins with “where are you from” and normally ends in some sort of statement of jealousy that I live among these towers and spend my days wandering cobblestones. Eating fresh tomatoes and somehow losing weight on a diet of pasta and gelato.
I ask my routine questions back to be polite. “Are you just traveling? Where else have you been?/Where are you off to next? Oh yes, that city is beautiful too – you’ll love it.” And they continue and ask their genuinely interested questions and the one that always comes reared its head again as we stood on the bridge over the Arno. “Are you fluent in Italian, then?”
“I am fluent to you, but not to them.”
I am fluent to you because I can navigate my new world – the one that still seems so foreign to the tourist that just hopped off the tour bus only a day or two ago. In a world where you can barely order your cappuccino, I am making jokes with the woman in the bakery. Where you are worried about how to explain that you need a wakeup call, I am working as a nanny – picking up a little boy from school where I have the title of Tata.
I am fluent to you, but I will not call myself fluent to me – not yet.
I won’t be fluent until I can explode into a torrent of angry syllables when I know I’m being taken advantage of because of my “American-ness.” I won’t be fluent until the jokes don’t go over my head, and the wah-wahs of Charlie Brown fade into competence. I won’t be fluent until I know how to nicely tell other children at the park that it’s Giulio’s turn for the slide, not theirs, though I think he’ll find his voice before I find mine. I won’t be fluent until I can feel the words instead of think them – when I can launch myself into the middle of a heated argument and not stutter over a string of syllables that get caught between my tongue and my teeth. I won’t be fluent until I can joke around with my team and yell split-second decisions while ankle-deep in mud on a rugby pitch. I won’t be fluent until I can hear my voice triumph over the transition between two languages – smoothly, with words intermingling on my breath just as easy as it is for my husband. I won’t be fluent until my voice echoes what my heart wants to say.
Each day is a challenge, a struggle, and a headache because all I want to do is be fluent. But Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was the tower of Babel.
“But have you taken classes?” She asks me. Yes. I’ve taken classes. I sat in those chairs and repeated those phrases and filled out the worksheets and tried to memorize what trapassato remoto is, but you know what?
I am an artist and my paint palette is the English dictionary and my brushes are my ridiculously hideous handwriting and I remember who I was in third grade English grammar class and I can tell you that – still to this day – don’t know the difference between a gerund and a participle off the top of my head, but I can weave this language into a beautiful tapestry of words that can set the reader on a silent rollercoaster of emotion that screams from the pages and makes you feel things you didn’t even know you wanted to feel. That didn’t come from grammar lessons.
Because language for me isn’t a precise science with curriculums and consequences, and nothing in a workbook is going to tell me the difference between how it feels to say ti amo or ti voglio bene. And no book written will explain to me how to listen for a Florentine accent instead of one from Venice, or what a pencil or a watermelon is called in the local dialect.
I’ve learned my language through experience, through repetition, through accidents and, yes, television. I learned “umbrella” from Nino, the man that sold shoes in the market outside of my study abroad apartment, and the word for “seatbelt” as I flew through the snowy streets of Ascoli in a white fiat panda driven by a guy whose only English word was “washing machine” because he thought it was funny.
I learned “here, take this” from my husband as we passed food around our mini apartment and “No running” from a sign by the pool in the middle of summer and the biggest park in Florence. I learned the word for “purr” because that is how everyone described my French bulldog’s breathing, and all of the equivalents of “Go Team” from my beautiful rugby family that somehow dealt with me even when I couldn’t remember my left from right in practice drills.
I learned the difference between ti amo and ti voglio bene years ago – not from a book but from an incredible girl named Shereen that owned the cafe in Ascoli and took me under her wing one night when all of the rest of the English speakers were too drunk to string together sentences, and I learned “nightmare” from a co-worker that couldn’t handle the mess that used to be our office.
I listen to the intonation and eavesdrop on conversation in the street, in my garden, in my head – on repeat, over and over, and I try to cement this language of love into emotions instead of titles like passato remoto – because we speak and write and yell and whisper our emotions and feelings and life – and that is something I don’t think I could ever learn only from a book.