Thursday, October 19, 2006

Here's my first day in Milan. It's a little after noon, raining, and I haven't slept for thirty-six hours. I'm not two steps out the door from customs when my cousin, who I remind you hasn't seen me since Forrest Gump was playing in theaters everywhere, bursts out of the crowd and hugs me. I had a lot of sleepless nights before I left home, worrying that my cousin wouldn't recognize me and knowing that I wouldn't recognize him, and I'm pretty sure I had more than a couple of nightmares where I'm stranded at Malpensa airport for sixteen days. What I'm trying to say is that this was an auspicious start.

It seems like the older generation non parla inglese, and the younger generations speak English bashfully. The kids are all learning English in school, but I can totally understand why they're shy about using it around me and I have to tell them, "Tu inglese dovere essere meglio della mia italiano," which never really seems to help. Maybe it's because there's eight words in that sentence and about twenty grammatical errors. Again, I understand. I'm not exactly thrilled about putting my limited Italian skills on display where every last conversation is this frustrating cross between a game of charades and Taboo. I'll want to say something like, "I need to go to the store and buy some toothpaste," but I'm stuck thinking, "How the hell do I communicate that idea if I don't know the words for 'need,' 'go,' 'buy,' and 'toothpaste?'"

Through interpretive mime, that's how.

But I'm shocked by how much we can communicate and understand each other... at least when I drop my ontological skepticism, I'm genuinely comfortable that we're on the same page. I have my English-Italian dictionary with me, just in case, but it turns out you can say almost anything with a basic vocabulary of a few nouns, verbs, and adjectives. The trick is to know your pronouns and prepositions — and I have a whole lot more respect for those little, abstract words these days. For example, you can get across the concept of a disposable cell phone pretty easily if you know the words telefono, dollari, tempi (time), and usare. But it doesn't matter how enormous your vocabulary is, there's a good reason you never heard Allen Ludden stage whisper, "The password is 'someone.'" Because you don't watch the Game Show Network, that's right. But try explaining what "around" means, or "along" or "that."

On a side note, my cousin Simone is learning English — British English — in school, and there's a lesson in his textbook about how to give directions to a location. Example number one: "Excuse me, please tell me the way to the—" I forget what it, but it's probably the "—library." Apparently it's a cross-cultural standard that the first thing you want to do when you're in a strange country is check out some books from a foreign library. And who says "please tell me the way" these days? Are they in Wonderland? What really struck me, though, was that Simone and his mom, who speaks conversational English, were both having trouble figuring out what the hell "the way" meant in that sentence. I'm trying to figure out why anyone would think that's a good example for teaching English. The meaning of "way" isn't straightforward from the sentence context and there's simpler, uh, ways of saying the same thing.

The answer the textbook character gave was even worse. "Walk along the street. Take the second left...." So, Simone asked, does "along" mean, uh, lunghi (complete with pantomime) or a dritto ("straight") or what? "Down the street" probably isn't that much better, but I'm sort of at a loss to see the didactic benefit of using a word so similar to "long" in a context similar to one you might use "long" in, but with such an irrelevant definition. I'm almost mad enough to write a letter to the book's publisher. But this is easier.

Anyway, I have to explain to everyone I meet that io non parlo italiano bene and ask them to parli piú piano, per favore. Which, to their credit, never, ever works. My Italian relatives are all very exuberant, greeting you five times before you've even made it in the door and constantly asking you if stai bene? Driving or talking, they don't slow down for shit, and they especially don't have that asshole American trait where a foreigner says they don't understand what you just said and you repeat yourself, only slowly and loudly, as if that's the problem. In Italy, it's not just about hearing yourself natter on; they actually want you to listen to them, and it's an infectious attitude. I've already mimed out "shower," "wheelchair," good old standard "sleep", "catapult", and "Atkins diet." (Figure out why.)

I'm staying with my uncle, who I'm pretty sure is a xenophobe, and my aunt, who is only the most awesome person ever. Apologies to anyone else who I've previously bestowed the "most awesome person ever" title upon. Your throne has been usurped. La mia zia non parla inglese — not a single word — but we can somehow have real conversations that are half fun and half the good, laughable kind of frustration. It's too bad that most of what I have to say is a cross between the observational tedium of Jerry Seinfeld and the style and lack of humor of a Yakov Smirnoff routine: "In Italy, they serve caffe in piccoli cups. In my country, caffe italiano comes in twelve ounces, sixteen ounces, or even venti oncie!" We're so mismatched. "In America, you don't get to leave work and go home for lunch!" Ah, the human species. So wacky!