Yesterday I spent some time “talking” to Lucia, the owner of the art supply store I frequent on Corso Cavour. I was specifically looking for a large piece of watercolor paper. Although I’ve no idea what I’m going to paint on it, I’m sure whatever or whoever it is will no doubt be unclothed. Not sure of how to ask for watercolor paper, I spent a good twenty minutes beforehand researching the correct way to ask it in Italian as I’ve explained in an earlier post, Lucia doesn’t speak any English. I even wrote down on paper exactly what to say so I could practice on my way to the store – Ho visogno di carta da aquerello. Going above and beyond, I then prepared how to ask if the paper I already bought may work for watercolor – Sara questa carta ho goja comprato fare bene per acqerello?
Ho visogno di carta da aquerello. Ho visogno di carta da aquerello. Ho visogno di ca……..
Sara questa carta ho goja comprato fare bene per acquerello? Sara questa carta ho goja comprato fare bene per aquerello? Sara questa carta ho goja comprato fare be……
Over and over and over I practiced. I have been working on my language skills for months now and this being my eleventh time to Italy, it’s about time. I was proud of myself. I had it down pat. I’m sure I walked with my head held a little higher than usual. “I can do this” I thought. If there is one gift I have it’s the ability to pick up different accents. Having moved around every few years my entire life, I was able to blend in quickly to wherever I was living because of that gift. I may not really speak the language, but dog-gone-it, my accent sounds good. And if a good accent isn’t “La Bella Figura,” I don’t know what is. Crossing the bridge before coming to her place I didn’t even focus on the sunset – I was hell bent on asking properly for my paper. What I didn’t prepare myself for, however, was her answer – and the conversation that would follow. Walking up to the store I saw Lucia standing outside, enjoying the sunshine and people watching. She smiled when she saw me approaching.
“Ciao, come sta?” I said
“Oh bene, bene. E tu?” she responded smiling and followed me into the store.
Then came my big moment. Although…..I felt on the spot…. and forgot what I was going to say…. so I fished my note from my pocket and re-read it while she stood waiting.
“Ho visogno di carta da aquerello.” I finally blurted out in my best Italian accent. My presentation was perfect.
I wondered if she understood me because she had to think about it for a second. I was sure I had translated it correctly. Then she cocked her head and looked at me and said, “Ah, aquerello?”
“Si!!” I responded, as happy as a clam and smiling big. She had understood me! I pulled it off! I had asked for something besides food items or directions in Italian and had finally been understood! All my dreams were beginning to come true, right there, in that itty bitty art supply store.
Then came Lucia’s response. It sounded something like this to me…”Si, questa…akdjfadsjflhdslkfhjadslkfjhds kfjasdkfjad pui grande skfjds;lkfjdslkfja;d e media slfkjalsk es bello djfdskfhldsakflaksdjf;dslkf j;asdlkfj;sdlkfj;asdlkfj;sdlkfjasdkfjk dsjfkas dljfadskjfkdsfjhdksjfkds fjkasfjksdfjds;fkjd skfd;fj asd;lkjfd;kfj sd;lk f;dlskj l;adskjf l;sdkjf;lkdjf;ladkjfl; kjd;lkjdlkjfdlskfjds;lkfjdlksfjdf f al;fdjdflkjdsflkjdfj dsf fldkfjd;lfkjd;lfkjdf aldkjlkd lakdj oajfdkjfl a a;ldkjfdaj fl; f;adkjf dadfljdflkdjf;lkdjf;ldf;jflsdkfja;kfhladhgfkldafdsk akdflkdjf;asdkjf;dsakjf Capice?”
“Cosa? What?” I said; my brow furrowing. It was then, in that split second, that I realized something very important. Because I had memorized a sentence; a tough one no doubt and had pulled it off brilliantly with my accent, I had given Lucia the impression that I’d actually know how to answer with as much fluidity as I asked with. Apparently, I have much to learn about “La Bella Figura” because I most certainly didn’t pull it off yesterday.
I laughed a little and she smiled and slowed everything down for me and used her hands to show me the words/items. She’d say a word then point or make a gesture. In the end, we actually had a long “conversation” and even finally exchanged names. I learned that she spoke German, but didn’t feel the need to learn English, that she didn’t like her name (but showed me how my name would be written in Italian) and that she likes old paintings. She of course didn’t charge me what was on the shelf and even covered my “carta da aquerello” in a pretty wrapping paper so it wouldn’t get anything on it; a perfect presentation.
I left with my paper and as I walked home I thought of one of my favorite books, Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris. In the book he moves to France with his partner Hugh and begins to learn the language. He describes it like this, “On my fifth trip to France I limited myself to the words and phrases that people actually use. From the dog owners I learned ‘Lie down,’ ‘Shut up,’ and ‘Who shit on this carpet?’ The couple across the road taught me to ask questions correctly, and the grocer taught me to count. Things began to come together, and I went from speaking like an evil baby to speaking like a hillbilly. ‘Is thems the thoughts of cows?’ I’d ask the butcher, pointing to the calves’ brains displayed in the front window. ‘I want me some lamb chop with handles on ’em.’” ….. I thought it was funny when I read it a few years ago but walking home from the art shop, I clearly understood exactly how ridiculous and frustrating it is – the whole language thing. Although I’ll continue trying, I’m still in the “evil baby” phase of the Italian language – Just ask Lucia.
P.S. While out this evening with my friend Michelle, her husband Eros and a few of their friends I happen to mention my little language fiasco. Michelle teaches English to doctors, lawyers and other professionals and has lived here in Italy for twenty-four years. Needless to say, she knows the language well. Her response to me was, “Well they speak with a different dialect here, so not all Italian words will be the same anyway.” She then gave me the book, La Bella Figura by Beppe Severgnini as a gift to read so I can “understand Italians.”
Really? I mean really? Now I have to think about dialects?? Ugh?