When facing the difficulty of memorizing thousands of new nouns and verbs in Italian, I tried to concentrate on all of the positive things that would come along with having a command of the language. I’d no longer have to hide in back rooms or bathrooms to avoid conversations with party-goers or my husband’s friends. I’d finally have the chance to express my philosophy on the air violin as the ideal instrument, or the unicorn as a real forest-dwelling Libran who goes by the name of Gus. There was a small part of me that hoped that I wasn’t “weird,” I was misunderstood. I couldn’t manage to express myself as well as I needed to for such complex discussions. “Horse with string on face. Good, he is. He he likes,” just really doesn’t get the point across the way I’d like it to. “You play. This. Thing. With little arm. No you have no need when there is air. Practice you, you must.” Combine the inability to articulate all of the bullshit in your brain and you’re bound to be labeled “that creepy girl.” People would back away, holding me in their line of sight, “I don’t know what she said,” they’d whisper to a friend nearby, “but it seemingly involved my dead mother and a horny chicken.”
Sounding like an idiot is on par for the course, though. When trying to learn a language everyone assumes that at least for a little while there will be some difficulty. They just don’t tell you how difficult. Nobody ever told me that I’d sound like a child and the world would infantilize me; they didn’t explain that I’d feel helpless and vulnerable, and possibly develop some form of agoraphobia so that when I walked my dog I’d have heart palpitations. Granted, helplessness can have its occasional advantages when undesirable activities come into question. When asked to go pay a bill, for example, I could conveniently throw up my hands and say, “Go? Where? I don’t understand. You know what, why don’t you take this one and I’ll get it next time after I’ve had a chance to study a few more verbs.” The disadvantages come in waves, like that time a man chased me down the street with his penis exposed and the only word I knew was, “Cappuccino!”
It took me a long time to learn Italian, years longer than it took everyone else who’d taken a real second language in high school. While all of my friends were in Spanish or German class, I was gesturing madly to the invisible hearing-impaired man or woman our teacher had assigned for the day. I thought that sign language was taking an easier route but I would have taken something else had I known I’d be punished for it later on. I was eons behind my friends who already knew how to conjugate verbs or who understood the concept of matching plural adjectives to plural nouns. I was always too worried about looking like an idiot to really get in there and give it a go, so I stuck with the present tense and the ten verbs that were full-proof. God forbid I confuse the gender or use the reflexive wrong; instead of taking a leap and looking “stupid” I would take a literal step back from the group, allowing everyone else to speak for me. When singled out I would shrug my shoulders and whisper accusingly, “I no speak it delicious, language of yours!” Some of the locals took pity on me; they’d smile – before excusing themselves to the more linguistically abled. Others, like my husband’s parents, were not about to let me off of the hook. They’d grill me in their thick Neapolitan accents, “You! You are IN ITALIA! You have the need to learn italiano, the language of us, now.” They had a point. My dirty mother-tongue was banned from their home in hopes that if they took my crutch away I’d learn to function without it. What they didn’t understand is that I’m not that kind of cripple; I’m too stubborn for that. If you try to teach me the hard way I’ll practically die before I allow you to think that your way worked. Take my crutch away, go ahead, I’ll just get a wheelchair or crawl on the ground, dragging my legs behind me. I read a sign once that said something along the lines of, “Holding a grudge is like drinking a bottle poison and waiting for someone else to die.” That was me but instead of one bottle I’d drink two – with vodka.
After years had passed, when the entire country had given up on the idea that I’d ever learn more than a few dozen words, I started to speak. It appeared that as the people of Italy lost that last glimmer of hope in their eye, the one that kept them believing that one day I’d be a contributing member of society, the pressure that I’d felt to perform melted away. I stopped worrying that I might disappoint people as quickly as they’d stopped speaking to me. The way that I saw it is that if nobody was expecting a gift, they’d appreciate whatever shit I gave them. It’s like if you’re expecting a cherry Porsche for Christmas but instead you find yourself in a freezing garage looking at some hateful Dijon mustard-colored Pinto. It’s only natural that you’d feel slighted by the cheap bastard you did that to you; resentful even. But what if it’s reversed? What if you’re expecting a set of rollerblades but end up with a Pinto? You’re likely to jump for joy and think, “Ah, really? You shouldn’t have!” and maybe you’d scratch them off of the list of people you want dead. When I finally did learn Italian, it wasn’t perfect but at least I could ramble on about things that interested me at dinner parties. I could finally scream, “Pervert!” at the next guy who ran at me with his dick flailing for help outside of his pants like a fleshy, uncircumcised beacon of mental illness.
Shortly after I could speak in full sentences, Francesco and I took a trip home to the US. I quickly learned that there was another element to learning Italian: I’d forgotten English. Gone were the the fancy words that I’d learned from my modern lit classes. In addition to losing most, if not all, of my educated English, it seemed that I’d also developed some kind of linguistic bipolar disorder.
When speaking English I speak like an American. My body language is rigid, controlled; my lips barely move as we force out most of our words from the back of our throats. American English is like ventriloquism; it’s an art form to seem so blasé while holding a conversation with another human. It seems that the more educated someone is, the less alive they appear when speaking. This is not the case with Italians from anywhere in Italy. No matter where they are from, from Milan to Puglia, it’s safe to say that they’re notably more “animated” than any born-and-bred American. As I faltered back and forth between both languages, my way of speaking, my mannerisms, also changed.
“Amore, please, this you bring me now, please. Him I have need.” Sounds nice enough in Italian but to Americans nearby – given the abrasive nature of the Neapolitan accent that I’ve inherited from my in-laws – it’s the equivalent of a serious tongue-lashing. “Little fat one, no, this no do you!” isn’t all that offensive back in Florence, but coupled with my feet planted firmly in place, my right hand curled into a duck beak pointed towards the heavens, my chest pointed directly towards the recipient, and the locked eye contact, it was aggressive enough for someone to easily scramble for their phone to report me to the police. “Yes, officer, that’s right. This little gnat of a woman! Any moment now she’s going to stab him in the eye. You should see her threatening duckfingers!” In the produce section I’d see people stop in horror, waiting for us to engage in battle. There, in their favorite grocery store on a perfectly nice Sunday, they were witnessing domestic abuse first-hand. They couldn’t wait to get home and tell everyone just how good they had it. “You know,” one of them would say to their friends after describing my supposed spousal abuse over lunch “sometimes I complain about Peggy, but hand-to-God she’d never treat ME that way in public!”
I saw people staring but I usually wrote it off as jealousy or some form of fascination with how cultured we were. Then one day, after speaking Italian with my husband at a pet store, before my Italian brain had been replaced with my American one, I turned to ask an employee where I could find their dog toys. The young man took forever to respond; he seemed frightened. It became clear, just then, that while I was waiting for him to answer my question, I had cornered him. My eyes were locked onto his like a fat baby on a cupcake. I was standing so close that my vagina practically rested on his leg. My left hand was on my hip, the other in a vague mid-air gesture like I was holding a crystal ball to cast a spell on him. I forced him to inhale my carbon dioxide. Within moments I’d gone from “normal” to guy-who-plays-computer-games creepy.
“I’m sorry,” I said as I backed away, “but I’ve been living in Italy for a while…”
RELATED STORIES BY C.O.S.I (The Expat Mafia)
- ‘An American speaking Italian is like a dancer having two left feet.‘ – Married to Italy
- ‘Speaking Italian has ruined my English‘ – Rick’s Rome
- ‘How I almost lost my native language‘ – Girl in Florence
- How That One Time A Can Of Coca-Cola Taught Me A New Language: The Florence Diaries
- ‘Tongue Tied in Italy‘ – Unwilling Expat
- Englishman in Italy: (coming soon!)