this is la bella lingua

* A couple weekends ago, I was waiting in line for the bathroom in the Ferry Market Building in San Francisco. It was Saturday morning - the busiest day of the week because of the huge farmers' market taking place, and the place was swarming with people - tourists and locals and peripheral-suburb locals like me. As such, the bathroom line was nearly a twenty minute wait.

*I stood there as most people do in bathroom lines - one hand crossed over my chest, the other hand holding my cellphone, weight shifted slightly onto one leg, the other hip stuck out little. I alternated between spacing out and mindlessly checking Twitter feeds on my phone. I wasn't really paying attention to the people around me, but I unconsciously eavesdrop (you can chalk it up to my good hearing or my nosiness), and I suddenly heard a sound that I hadn't heard for more than half a year - a mellifluous sound that rolls up and down like waves, a sound that makes me nostalgic and wistful and bitter at the same time - that sound is the Italian language.

*When I arrived in Florence in September of last year, I had no knowledge of the Italian language, save the words that everyone knows - the ones that have migrated into the English language (and consequently been butchered. Case in point: last week in San Diego I heard a man say "moo-zuh-rella." It was so absurd I could only laugh). If you think about it, there's a lot of words that Americans have usurped: opera, spaghetti, pizza, villa, espresso (let's not even get started on coffee), gusto, marinara, stanza, diva, piano, soda, tutti-frutti (it means 'all fruits'), etc. Obviously, that minor, fragmented introduction into the Italian language is reflective of the absorptive nature of the American culture and the beauty of romance languages - not of any true knowledge or linguistic ability. So here I was in Florence, fluent in English, Spanish, and Mandarin but not a drop of Italian, and I was expected to navigate the city alone as well as live with an Italian host family? In hindsight, I realize I must have been foolish or blind not to have been daunted at all by such a task. I dove right in.

*I picked up Italian fairly quickly. I guess that's what happens when learning a language is a matter of survival rather than whim. My host mother and sister did not speak any English, and the first few weeks were filled with many blank stares and helpless silences. Federica, my little host sister, grabbed my wrist to tell me where she wanted me to go, and she pointed out the things she wanted me to take note of. Italian class was also the one class in my academic program that I actually found useful. Spanish gave me a light foundation for the sound and structure of the language, and as a result, by October, I could carry on a decently fluid conversation in Italian. My host family was surprised and told me they had never seen anyone pick up the language so quickly. My accent was impeccable, they said. Had it not been for my skin and hair color, I might have felt a little less like a foreigner.

*Italian is an emotional language whose intonations are mountain peaks and valley bottoms. It is a language that cannot be mumbled, that must be spoken confidently and is most beautiful when articulated brashly. It is as much a loving language as it is a fighting language, and I took as much pleasure in speaking it as I took resentment in hearing it hurled in screams every morning at 7 am. I felt comfortable in its rhythm and flow, but as time went by, I began feeling barraged in part by its assertiveness, but mostly by its strangeness which grew in direct proportion to my homesickness. I have good and bad memories of the Italian language, but luckily, the good memories are the ones I hold onto.


*That day in the Ferry Market Building, I instantly perked up when I heard the old couple behind me speaking Italian. I wanted so badly to turn around and tell them, "I speak some Italian too! Parla italiano troppo! I can be a little bit of your home away from home!" A nervous ball of excitement welled up in my belly as I flip-flopped back and forth between bursting out with a discombobulated mess of Italian words and keeping respectfully silent. The latter wasn't much of an option actually - it was only a matter of how long it would take for me to push myself over the edge. After a few minutes passed by and the old man had walked away, leaving his wife to stand in the bathroom line alone, I turned around slowly, praying that I would not embarrass myself or worse, scare this woman away from America, I asked, "Sei d'Italia? Parlo un po' d'italiano perche ho passato un semestre a Firenze. Are you Italian? I speak a little Italian because I spent a semester in Florence." To my relief and delight, she smiled warmly and instantly began spewing out Italian. "Si! Sono di Firenze! Yes, I am from Florence!" She spoke quickly and like most Italians, was generous and unreserved with her words. From there on out, we spoke only in Italian, and for a moment I felt like I was back in Italy again, thousands of miles away from California. I'm not sure what the people around us made of the whole situation, an Asian girl and an older woman speaking Italian in the middle of a farmers' market in San Francisco, but in the moment, that thought did not even cross my mind. We talked about her vacation plans in the States and where she lived in Florence where I lived in Florence and what I studied while I was there. After 7 months of not speaking a word of Italian, I struggled to recall words and tenses and verbs and could not even remember the street I lived on in Florence. Perhaps I had banished many of those memories from my mind, I don't know.

*By the time we reached the front of the bathroom line, we had been talking for twenty minutes, and as I headed into the next open stall, I turned around, smiled, and said "Ciao." I wanted to say something fancier and more eloquent like "Have a good time in San Francisco!" or "It was nice meeting you!" but the only word I could find in my mouth was "Ciao." I'd like to speak Italian again, but I am not sure when I will have the chance. Despite the baggage of memories that Italian carries for me, I learned to hear and speak it like a whirlwind romance, and that romance is certainly bittersweet and unforgettable. For now, the language lives inside me, in memories, in dreams and in nightmares, in a little pocket of my soul that I will never throw away.

1 comment:

  1. lately i'm longing to learn that language...it has a heady taste.