There was a time my husband and I thought we could learn Italian.
We’d accidentally gotten to go to Europe (see The European Schedule http://www.frostwriting.com/issues/article/the-european-schedule/) and fell in love with Italy. We had friends living there at the time and somehow we imagined that someday we might go there to live. We liked to pretend that we could escape the Bush years and the embarrassment of the Iraq War.
So we signed up for an Italian language Meet Up. Do you know about meet-ups? They are a self-organizing on-line social networking thing that goes like this: If you are interested in geo-caching you can sign up for a Geo-Caching Meet Up, if you are interested in exploring abandoned buildings you could sign up for an Urban Explorer’s Meet Up. There were meet ups for just about any interest. A friend of mine signed up for 6 of them and after going to 2 decided that was enough. There are Knitting Meet Ups, Doll Collector Meet Ups. There’s probably one for bloggers.
After signing up we got an e-mail reminder that the group was meeting at an area bar. I don’t know what I was thinking. Maybe I thought with enough conversation and prompting I could master Italian. For Christmas my husband had given me flashcards. I probably had memorized a hundred words. What could I possibly talk about at the meet-up besides Hi, my name is—
We walked in and ordered vino and took a seat in the back on cozy couches. We sat across from a couple conversing in rapid-fire Italian. One of them turned to us and spoke in what sounded like Italian. My mind suddenly emptied out. I did the only thing I could. In baby Italian I said, Hi, my name is—
But that was as far as I got. Even though one of the women slowed waaay down, I still didn’t know what she was saying. I just smiled like a simpleton. After awhile the two women continued talked amongst themselves. As more people arrived there was a flurry of ciaos! and come va!
My husband turned to me and said, We’ve got to get out of here. I agreed, but how without making it obvious.
Another guy came up and asked how things were going. We were relieved that he spoke to us in English—even though the whole point was to learn Italian. We learned that he was a native Italian and was in the States to study. He’d come to the meet up to improve his English. Listen, I wanted to tell him, if my Italian was as good as your English, I’d be flying high. But to even say that sentence in Italian would have taken me an hour, looking up each word in my Italian dictionary.
We had several Italian primers. Most comprised of ready-made conversations that had nothing to do with real life. One contained a scene between a potential tourist and an equestrian. Perhaps for the traveler planning to buy a horse and gallop around the Boot. In Italian my husband practiced asking me, Is this horse tame? Non, I managed to answer.
We also had a beginner Italian book picture book for kiddies. Ciao Teddy. In the picture book Teddy (a cute little teddy bear, un orso) buys ice cream (gelato), goes to a circus (circo), plays with a ball (una palla) and a train (un treno). Teddy has a madre and a padre and a sorella. In one of the scenes he goes to the circus and buys a ticket, a bigletto! At the circus are leoni, coccodrilli, giraffe, zebra, and grande elefante.
We knew them all because, of all things, the little tots who come to visit us always pull the Ciao Teddy book off the shelf. It doesn’t matter to them if we read it to them in English or Italian. I’d come up with a theory that the kids felt safe and secure with the accessible pictures, the simple language: Teddy loves his mother and father, his mother and father love him. This message translates into any language.
So when the Italian tried to ply my husband with questions in Italian I watched him go from engaged to distracted. I was about to interrupt to say we needed to get going when my husband suddenly brought up the circus. Si, si, our new friend nodded. Then Mike began to rattle off the names of different animals.
One of the women came over and sat on the edge of the couch near Mike. She named a few animals, I recognized from Ciao Teddy. She stopped, Shit what’s the word for monkeys?
Scimmie, Mike answered.
The woman was so impressed I thought she was going to lean over and kiss him.
After deciding to leave—we ended up staying for another hour.
So if we’re ever in Italy and need to go to the circus—we’re totally ready.