Plugging into cultures quickly is not easy, but its part of what I have to do in this job. In Saudi I made friends with the Saudis, but Arabic was out of my reach and I knew it. I had to understand and respect the devotional codes – the importance of prayer at various times, the habitual gestures, the basics of shared space. I made sense of the behaviours and timings and integrated them. But the language barrier… outside of parroting phonetic phrases it was way too big to cross. Arabic is HARD.
Here in Italy it is simpler for me. Back at university, Tim studied Italian. We were best friends at the time. He went out to Venice for an Erasmus year. He lived with Lucio. I visited a few times.
My special skill from Lucio is swearing. I can’t really use that on this job. But he did teach me functional Italian use. Then I fell for Marzia and promised her I would learn Italian properly and come find her in Rome. I didn’t. She called me on it about three years ago. “When you come learn Italian like you say?” “Doppo.”
Problem is, all of that with Tim and Marzia… That was decades ago. More recently my brain has been in Spanish, in French and in Portuguese. Italian is frying my cortex. Every day a little better. By the time I leave I’ll be able to have a conversation. Right now I’m all over the place. “Per me, il mismo … Lo stenzo … Discupla … lo stesso?” Usually people assume I’m Spanish, so then because I’m hoovering up their words and inflections when they don’t speak English, I get even more confused because I’m not sure if I’m hoovering up half remembered Spanish phrases helpfully spoken to me by an Italian who knows from the fact I speak in bullets that I’m not an Italian speaker.
“Hi. Fire blanket. Long drive. Bathroom? Pay after. Thank you. Bye bye bye see you soon goodbye thank you.” That’s pretty much what somebody got today. They directed me to their floor level loo in an outhouse and then took almost £200 for five fire blankets. I don’t think I’d have been directed to the distant run down loo if I hadn’t been able to ask in Italian. But at least we got the blankets… This is a colonised place, with many almost lost non-Italian languages, but the thrust of a swell of anger against outsiders is coming from Italian speakers unable to appreciate the irony of their position. “Tourism = destruction,” says the graffiti, in Italian. Italian tourists are fine to the writer. It’s just people who don’t speak Italian. Foreigners. Like us.
One of us got punched by a bouncer the other day. His face was upsettingly badly hurt. He was trying to say “I’m sorry,” after something escalated, but he didn’t know how in Italian. Things clearly got out of hand quickly, and knowing the lad in question he’s got the best intentions. He’s not picking fights. I reckon he fell foul of the wrong kind of nationalist. I let the same lad fuck up in the pizza restaurant the other night. “I don’t need to look at the menu,” he told us all in the Italian pizza restaurant in Italy, with absolute confidence. “I just want pepperoni on my pizza.” I watched the exchange with the waiter. “Pepperoni.” “Peperoncino? Yes. Pepperoni. PEPPERONI.” Of course he got a pizza covered with red peppers and he probably learnt something and to his credit he ate it, didn’t complain, and wryly told the rest of us. We only really learn by our mistakes. I could’ve intervened but nothing would have been gained. But this good solid young man – you need to be really angry to hurt someone like that.
So… There’s anger here. This is much closer to civilisation than we often go with this event and we are bundled up with a rage about tourism the has some basis – this place is lovely but the rash of McDonald’s has started to establish in the conurbations from whence it will spread and bring secondary infections like Starbucks and Burger King. I’m not sure if the American market could ever possibly make everybody in Italy want to eat food that tastes like cardboard and drink coffee that tastes like feet. But Joe wanted pepperoni pizza in the land that invented pizza. I’m not pleased he got punched. I am pleased he got the wrong pizza and ate it anyway. This place is tame. Super-tame. Saudi was tame too really – it’s a vassal nation. They really follow hierarchy even if that involves some extremely sketchy human rights stuff. Some of the other race venues in consideration are much more hostile than this hippy dippy place.
We don’t need an armed escort here. But… the better I can speak the language the easier it’ll be for me to get things. Duolingo is not a practical workbook. It really isn’t. It tries too hard to ground you into apples and boys and bread and girls. How do you teach a language without the person? It’s why some people can do mass and more people can tell you that Caecilius est in Horto, but time travel them to ancient Rome and they wouldn’t have a clue. “Um … Vo est Matella?”
Bloody classical education. Useless. Unless someone needs to know the location of Caecilius. He’s always in the garden. Bloody hippy.