My Own Italian Renaissance

May 19, 2010

“Jack of trades, master of none, though offtimes better than master at one.”

I’m certain, though she is rarely mentioned, that Jack had a Jill.
Like Jack, Jill too is a generalist. She is exceedingly competent in many areas, she has no specialty, and therefore no over-arching title. She is, however, a master at integration for she has learned enough from her various learned skills and trades to practically bring her disciplines together in a practical way.

In my own right, I am one of these Jills, it appears. In fact, I have recently been hired as a result. Work thus far is good. In truth, I am only in preparation phase of being an employed Jill. Just now, I’m properly developing an wardrobe and collection of gear that will carry me through the summer in style and simplicity. Setting up my accounts, studying routes and techniques. Taking my bike mechanics classes and practicing funny things like hitching trailers, building fires, and reciting wine vintages. And, this week, I’ve been taking inventory of my tool box of language skills.

Spanish, French, Italian and Japanese all play occasional conversations in the spaces in my brain. I have had a unique encounter with each, as well as a few encounters with languages like Tagalog, Thai and Chinese. In high school, I studied Spanish in a traditional setting. Rarely used, except for a few family trips to Mexico, I had a strong understanding of grammar and really no comprehension of just how handy foreign languages are. In college, I transfered my interest to French, quickly dropping the course as I found myself spitting out Spanish/French sentences. It appeared that I had not achieved enough fluency to turn off the sponge part of my brain and so I never became comfortable just SPEAKING.

After college, I accepted a position as a journalism intern in Italy; a position I was offered because I had some rusty Spanish skills, but could speak English, and was willing to struggle through Italian. I recall my first days in Italy as I wandered all over town, feeling as if my tongue had been yanked right out of my mouth – anything I said seemed to come out in a jumble so frequently I said nothing at all. Just smiled and kept walking. But soon enough, I had to eat.

And so I started to speak, to ask, and to converse as best I could. Frequently, I spit out Spanish/Italian sentences that stood to be comprehended just enough. A lot of what I learned was from reading signs, listening to conversations, hearing questions I didn’t know the answer to, or watching the gestures and actions of Italians out and about town. My Italian was developed as a survival tool in those first months and developed into a familiar travel friend; a true tool in my international arsenal. Before I left Europe that summer, I was comfortably switching between Italian and French, ordering food, engaging handsome Italian men, and thoroughly enjoyed finding myself at a restaurant table of Europeans, where our most common language might not be the one on the menu.

This same story repeated itself again in Japan, where I jumped in with both feet, learning to read, and write and communicate as a means of enriching our lives, and travels. I learned that I truly do love languages. And to an extent, they love me back.

Its been a good 18 months since I had a conversation in Japanese. And its been nearly 6 years since I had one in Italian, or Spanish. So when work called last week to see if I would be willing to have a conversational evaluation of my Italian skills THIS week, I gulped, blinked, and began to bury myself in books on Italian grammar, vocabulary, and journals and journals of notes taken when I needed the language to find my way home.

In unpacking this beautiful language from my dusty little brain, I began to see patterns in myself; ways that I have learned to navigate the globe, and my own reality that are really so interesting. The sentences that I create in my little brain are different now than they were before. And the comparisons I draw between languages are interesting too – Japanese has a SPECIFIC sentence structure which must be followed….just as the Japanese have a SPECIFIC set of social and cultural mores which are rarely abandoned. It Italian, you can switch it up in anyway that you want. “Va bene.”

I probably don’t need to mention that after 6 years of being unused, my Italian skills did not spring back into color in a single week. I participated in my conversational exam as best I could, answering, or stuttering, avoiding injecting Japanese words in for simple vocabulary that has long but abandoned my brain. Alas, my Italian is still a bit dusty and I can only hope that as I work this summer to revive it (and hopefully spend some time in the fall in Italy) that my abilities will return “en forza.”

But the week was not wasted in the LEAST. Pumping my brain, recalling exactly HOW and WHY I learned Italian was a true (hilarious, bright) gift (filled with many hand gestures.) Recalling the ways that the little old ladies at my local market used to wring their hands and pinch their fingertips together to pull produce at better prices from the vendors. The nonni that gave me lessons on the corner about making escargots, and how to pick the best strawberries. Boarding the wrong trains, or navigating the interesting personalities at the stations. Songs sung on passagiatta Or, just listening to the sounds floating above the courtyard in my apartment building as Sunday supper unfolded – the animated conversations, belly laughs, and domestic quibbles that ensued.

Whomever said that speaking a foreign language doesn’t preclude you from traveling the world is leaving out an important point; some of the most vibrant moments to be gleaned from traveling the world, or even our own country lie in the little bits of daily life that are all made up of the way that we communicate. Without ears, or the power of speech, Italy would still be a gorgeous country, filled with color, smells, sights, and personality. But I truly cannot imagine what it would have been like to live in this belle paese and never learned to speak or read, and never really engaged in the bubbling pot of magic that was going on without me.

So, I’m going to keep organizing this toolbox. Certainly going to pack my almond butter bar recipe when I go, and probably going to take extra socks. Derek thinks that a new pocketknife and a sponge are necessary. But my language skills are something that I will always carry – tools that deserve to be sharp and ready at a moments notice.

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