Sunday, May 8, 2011

Un Gelato, Per Favore

Every time I find myself in Italy I get a little smug. Because, you know, I can say a whole 5 phrases in Italian. Actually, I can usually quite successfully buy train tickets, order food and ask for the bill, ask for and get directions and did I mention order food? So long as none of these prompt follow up questions. Italians speak fast, really fast. And they generally don't tend to phrase all their sentences in the present tense for my sole benefit. They like to use the conditional and past historic and future and subjunctive and what's the subjunctive again? No, I wasn't listening in that class either.

I do remember, "Dario e` sempre in ritardo" though, as everyone who did even two weeks of Italian using Avanti would too. This brought back fond memories for some when I posted the line on Facebook as we all recalled how Dario was always late in every bloody chapter. Not so useless it seems when the Italian trains decide to run late and only announce this in Italian. Thank you, Dario, for your selfless tardiness.

So, anyway, I've just spent 9 days in Italy, eating my way through Rome, Florence and Venice, and hoping to improve my high school learnt Italian. Early into the trip, I got some great advice from a waiter, who was learning English himself. He said to me, "Just speak. Don't think about it, don't rehearse it, and definitely don't worry about making mistakes. Just speak." As his four years of English far exceeded my four years of Italian, I listened... and spoke. And I got better. I now know about 20 new nouns, all gelati flavours. 'Mele verde' is green apple by the way, and delicious. I did get pesce (fish) and pesca (peach) mixed up once. That was embarrassing.

As anyone who has learnt another language can attest, when you're trying to gain confidence in conversation, there's often a lot of self-talk going on, conversations whirling around inside the head as you determine whether you have all the words to form that sentence. Or whether you can avoid using the conditional tense even though you probably should. Then, building up the confidence to try it out. Then by the time you open your mouth, the moment's passed and the person you were talking to has already handed you the change and is looking to the person behind you in the queue. And as you walk away, it dawns on you then that the third person singular future tense for the verb 'to be' is sara`. I have a love-hate relationship with my self-talk. I will try to figure problems out in my head. But when I do, it usually surfaces like a weird case of turrets. Like when it started raining in Rome and I couldn't for the life of me remember the word for rain. I wracked my brain for 20 minutes, when it suddenly hit me. "E` piove!" I said aloud to Mary, our hotel owner, while we were mid conversation. And it had already been raining a good 20 minutes by this point.

I was so inspired to get better at Italian that I even bought myself a couple of kids' novels to read. I'm starting on Harry Potter e la Pietra Filosofale. Ok, it's taken me a week to read 50 pages but has proved to be really useful in forming more interesting sentences and learning figures of speech. I am curious though to see if I'll ever need to use Muggle or You-Know-Who in a sentence but I remain hopeful. Babbani and Lei-Sa-Chi, if you were wondering. I sense that this drive to learn is already waning as I return to London. Unless, maybe, I can find an Italian speaking job that desires expert knowledge in wizardry and fruity gelati. If you hear of something, please let me know.

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