Thursday, February 23, 2012

Why I Need to Learn Italian, Presto!

Like many office commuters, I spend my daily trip to work making phone calls, reading the morning headlines, and doing my makeup. I can only imagine what more I might accomplish if I wasn't the one driving.

But in preparation for my upcoming summer trip to Italy, I am now multitasking--much to my car insurance company's relief--with my new "Listen and Learn Italian" CD.

It's terrifico.

Five minutes into my first audio lesson, I called my mother for our usual a.m. conversation.

"Good morning, mia madre!"

Long pause.

"It's Sherry. Your daughter. I'm practicing my Italian. I know, practically fluent already, huh?"

"Oh! Yes, very good. What else have you learned?"

I frowned. Perhaps "mia madre" wasn't enough. After all, how many Italian strangers could I effectively greet by addressing them as my mother?

"That's it, so far," I admitted. "Plus, I know how to say "wine" in Italian." ("Vino!" A crucial piece of terminology which I mastered, I might add, even before my first lesson.)

"Well, don't you worry," she said. "I've been to Europe several times, knowing just the bare language basics of whatever country I was visiting."

I closed my eyes, cringing and nearly sideswiping the car whose driver clearly wasn't practicing good defensive driving.

Yes, this was my fear exactly. That like mia madre, Gloria, I would know just enough of a second language to be dangerous. And that I might possibly find myself, in Italy, recreating The Unfortunate and Forever Embarrassing Elevator Incident.

A few years back, we spent a week vacationing in Arizona. The region has a high Hispanic population, and a certain percentage of our hotel staff reflected this.

My mother, my youngest son and I found ourselves on the elevator one day with a raven-haired housekeeper.

"Hola!" my mother greeted her.

The housekeeper smiled in return and then resumed proper elevator protocol by turning to face the elevator door.

My mother--never one to let a stranger remain a stranger, as much as said stranger might prefer--glanced at her name tag.

"Oh, Gloria!" My mom's eyes widened. "I'm Gloria, too!" Before the woman had a chance to respond, Mother Gloria began executing a series of excited and rudimentary hand gestures.

"You, Gloria," she said, pointing her finger at the woman's name tag, "and me, Gloria," she explained, pointing to herself.

The woman silently studied her.

Mother Gloria glanced over at her grandson and me. She frowned in frustration. The housekeeper was apparently a bit slow on the uptake, unable to comprehend even the universal language of hand gestures.

She turned back to the housekeeper and resumed gesturing. "Me, Gloria," she said while patting her chest emphatically and then repeatedly poking the woman as she chanted, "You, Gloria!"

Finally, she managed to gather every ounce of her Spanish language skills and held up two fingers. "Dos! Dos Glorias!"

Pleased with her ability to lower herself to the woman's sparse communication level, she winked and nodded at her teenage grandson. He stared, wordlessly, at the elevator floor, in the hope that it might suddenly drop and put us both out of our embarrassed misery.

The housekeeper remained stone-faced and silent until the elevator door opened. She stepped off and turned toward the hallway.

Out of the corner of her eye, she glanced back at my mother. And, with the slightest of smirks and in perfect English, she said, "Have a good day, Gloria."

*sigh*

So, needless to say, I've been frantically listening and learning Italian on CD all week.

I'm afraid I can't rely solely on being able to order vino or pizza. (It is "pizza" in Italian, too, right?) And even though Italians are famous for talking with their hands, I'm reluctant to rely upon communicating through my own combination of questionable language skills and hand gestures.

I have an uncanny ability to offend people, on a regular basis, in my own language. And in my desperation to be understood in another country, Lord only knows the damage I might do--even in conversation with those whom I may come to find out speak perfect English.

When I do, I'm certain I know just the hand gesture to expect in return.

I saw that same gesture, while doing my makeup today on my drive to work, from the driver of a passing car.


Any tips for traveling abroad? Do you multitask when you drive? How do you say "OMG, please just kill me now" in Italian?

36 comments:

  1. My wife is teaching herself Farsi in the same way. (Our daughter-in-law is Iranian and we socialize with her parents a lot.) She's called the girl's mother and begun conversations on the phone in Farsi, even though the woman she's calling speaks perfectly good English. It's the thought that counts.

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    1. Paul: "It's the thought that counts." Ha--Exactly! That will be my mantra in Italy! Thank you!

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  2. I think the maid set you up. I bet she does that with a lot of guests. She was trying to see what you'd say about her if you thought she didn't understand English.

    Just remember, the secret to being understood in a foreign country is to speak English, only louder and slower. And that's also the secret of how to ask someone to kill you, no matter what language they speak.

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    1. Bluz: Yes, I have no doubt we were set up. BUT. IT. DOESN'T. MEAN. IT. WON'T. HAPPEN. AGAIN. IN. ITALY.

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  3. Sherry,
    You have to find a way to publish these! Seriously, a collection of family essays. I had tears in my eyes, the funniest thing I've read all day.
    My sister got married in Jamaica and there was a woman on the housekeeping staff named Lyra. My parents found her. Then they stalked her, yelling across the pool, "There's our other Lyra!" as loud and as American as we could possibly be down to the hats and SPF 100. I hadn't met the woman, much to their dismay so they came and got me. Thus followed the most awkward conversation in history of "Uhm, yeah, so your name is Lyra too. Okay, then, nice to meet you." She and I stood there moving foot to foot waiting for the moment to be over as my parents went on for about twenty minutes about where they were from, where I got my name, all the while the poor Jamaican woman holding towels that she was to be delivering somewhere.
    Oh, yes, this story of yours made me guffaw.

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    1. Lyra: I always guessed we might be long-lost sisters. These two confirm it. Thanks for the return laughter!

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  4. I heard an interview with Meryl Streep in which she told of auditioning for Dino Di Laurentiis when she was an unknown and how he said to his aide, in Italian, "Why did you bring her to me. She is ugly." Streep, fortunately, knew Italian and merely thanked him for the audition or such.

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    1. Paul: Oh, my! And of course, only Meryl Streep would show that kind of class! I would have tried to defend myself, in pathetic Italian, and made the situation even more humiliating. Can you imagine how he probably kicked himself later?

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  5. This is via my mother, who has encountered many an odd restroom in her world travels: Explore the differences in foreign facilities when things aren't urgent (she says things shouldn't be too odd in Italy, but it's not a bad thing to do anyway).

    I do three things in the car besides drive: I sing, I talk to/lecture/quiz whatever children happen to be in the back seat, and I swear at other drivers despite whatever children happen to be in the back seat.

    And, I think: "OMD (for Dio)! Ora lo uccidete, prego!"
    But I took German, so probably not . . .

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    1. Sarah: You just need to swear in German, and your girls would be none the wiser... And I've never even considered the possible differences in foreign "facilities." I am now more paranoid than ever. *sigh*

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  6. if there is one thing i wish i could give, it's having advice for traveling in Italy.

    i can tell you one of my favorite americans-abroad-in-italy books: The Reluctant Tuscan by Phil Doran. Sooooo good.

    i'm with lyra. these family stories need to be bundled up and assembled for mass production.

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    1. Amy: Have added the Doran book to the top of my towering to-be-read pile. When I consider my family stories, "mass chaos" comes to mind, but I'll keep in mind your nice words about publishing them for "mass production."

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  7. Italy, sigh. I am dying to go back. I can actually drive there from here so I really gotta go. I studied Italian for about 6 months and I can say that it is waaay easier to pick up than French. Buona fortuna signora.

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    1. Bobbi: You're within driving distance? I probably will get as far north as Venice. Is that road-trippable enough for you??

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  8. I also bought an Italian language tape before our trip to Italy last year. It pops up every once in a while on my i-pod in between Journey and Coldplay. I never did learn much from it. Anne did though, so she communicated for us. I gleaned from her conversations that the most important thing you should learn are the numbers, so you can order food and know how much things will cost. The Italian people love it when you speak their language, even if you curse at them.

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    1. Julie: Yes, knowing numbers would seem to be importante. (Did you see what I just did there??) But I hope I can do better than saying "Two Sherrys" in Italian. That concept didn't work out so well for my mother... Maybe I need to see if Anne will come along.

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  9. The True Adventures of Gloria - it must be written. This was very funny Sherry. Sorry I can't help out on the Italian but I'm pretty sure pizza is pizza everywhere.

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    1. Downith: "The True Adventures of Gloria"... yes! Oh, the stories I have yet to tell. Mom, will you disown me?

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  10. O mio dio, ora mi uccide. The problem with my Italian is that I learned to speak it when I was a self-obsessed 21-year-old, so I know how to use the first person and the informal third person, and that's about it. God forbid I have to speak to a nun or expound on how someone else might be feeling about something. It was all io, io, io.

    I really do have to become fluent in grown-up Italian.

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    1. Jessica: As an elementary school student, I never did learn how to speak properly to a nun, even in English. God forbid I have to do it in Italian. So, "Io, io io." Good thing I know how to say that now, because I may be 50, but this trip is all about me. Thanks for stopping by!

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  11. Years ago, when I was unattached and carefree, I traveled throughout Europe. I never carried a guide book or a got ruffled with language barriers. I found the nearest bar, ordered a drink, and let things just happen. It takes a little bit of letting go but I always found it to be highly successful.

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    1. MSB: Are you serious? You are definitely my new hero!! I have absolutely no issue with "letting go," but it might be a tad easier at my age with an adventurous and experienced companion. Can you let your husband know he needs to hold down the fort for ten days this summer?

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  12. The only actual non-English speaking country I've spent much time in was France, and I promptly learnt how to order their delicious crêpes (seriously, I could live on those), and tell the various knick-knack street vendors non merci; NO THANK YOU.

    Being in some parts of Scotland was largely like being in a non-English speaking country, but there's no way of learning any local dialect while making a dash through the place.

    ~Ashlee
    http://ashleesch.com
    http://theDragonsHoard.bigcartel.com

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    1. Ashlee: The dialects in parts of the U.S. are almost like different languages, too--especially from the north to the south. Even a few states away, I get confused knowing whether I should order a "pop" or a "soda." To be safe, I always just order a beer.

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  13. Oh my god, that story is hilarious.

    When I studied abroad and traveled around Europe, my boyfriend relied on me to do most of the talking in Germany. I had studied German in college and high school, but let's face it, I knew next to nothing. I did impress myself by correctly saying a few phrases, but I'll never forget the day at the train station, when my boyfriend asked if I'd go up to the counter and buy the tickets. Exhausted and in no mood to struggle through a German conversation, I dragged myself to the counter and promptly said, "Sprechen sie English?" Of course, the employee nodded and we conducted our transaction in perfect English. I turned around to see my boyfriend shaking his head. "I could have done that!" he said. He half-jokingly acted like I had cheated the system, but I thought it was a sensible thing to do.

    In conclusion: Learn how to say "Do you speak English?" in Italian and you'll probably be fine as long as you are in big cities.

    Signed,
    Lazy American who today would take your route and learn some of the damn language before leaving.

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    1. Laura: OMG, I'll need to order train tickets and ask for directions and everything, won't I? So I really can't just sit at a bar for ten days, ordering vino and pizza? I promise you, "Do you speak English" will be the very next phrase I learn. Or better yet, I'll have to find a boyfriend who speaks fluent Italian.

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  14. I wish I had something to add, but alas ... no. I'm going to say Gloria is right in that knowing a little will get you far. I speak pretty passing French, but every time I try to order something in France, they pat me on the head and keep shoving an English menu at me, begging to order in English.

    Besides, if you can order coffee, pizza and wine in Italian, I think you'll be just fine, just fine...

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    1. Teri: Do you think they have English menus in Italy, too? I feel better already. And does "Diet Coke" have the same name everywhere? If so, I'm fairly golden.

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  15. I can tell you what Fruta del mar DOESN'T mean--a plate of fruit. If you order it expecting that, like I once did in Italy, you'll be disappointed to receive a platter of squid tentacles!

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    1. Mainstreet Lisa: I hope you didn't get that surprise at 8 a.m., when you were ordering breakfast!

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  16. You can tell whatever stories you want to about me as long as you ask my approval first and as long as I think they are funny. I believe I inherited Grandma Stoll's ability to laugh at myself, at least most of the time!

    As far as travel advice, of the maybe six times I was across the Atlantic, it was usually part of a GOOD tour which was helpful with so many things. Language barriers were most difficult in the smaller towns, little shops, some cafes, also the times I was in France, since the French are more reserved (and the language more difficult than Italian.) If you "try a bit" in Italy, the Italians will love you. I obviously "tried" incorrectly in the elevator incident. "Your Gloria"

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    1. Mom: I'm saving all the really juicy stories for when you're 98 and living in the Sunset House--without a computer.

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  17. If you lift your hand up as if you are screwing in a lightbulb and give it a quick twist, I believe it is the F.U. hand gesture. Not a word, but may be useful. You will love Italy. I was there years ago. Take some pants a full size bigger or wear yoga pants. The food is amazing. Leave your food journal at home.

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    1. Teri: Excellent suggestions! Now I will know exactly how to respond when someone makes rude commentary about my yoga pants.

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  18. What a great post Sherry and hilarious comments. I will try and give you the language lowdown when we meet up but Bobbi's right, Italian is much easier than French. You'll be fine! Ti divertirai tanto! (Youll have a lot of fun!) Ciao cat

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