Verona, Italy and Carta Da Aquerello, The Best Possible Impression and Evil Babies

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?

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48 thoughts on “Verona, Italy and Carta Da Aquerello, The Best Possible Impression and Evil Babies

  1. Reading Rilke as much as I have for fifteen years now, I know he spent some time in “Viareggio, near Pisa…this southern sea, whose beneficence helped me once before.” If I recall correctly, you prefer the north country there. Any thoughts?

    • I really enjoy Rilke. Especially “Letters To a Young Poet.”
      Yes, I prefer the North. It suites me. Having spent so much time in Rome the last four years, I became accustomed to feeling as though I would never fit in. Though what I have found is that the North, with the mountains, lakes and diverse population – makes me feel at home. I will forever have a love/hate relationship with Italy, no doubt…it is what keeps me coming back. The love/hate of it all…

  2. Great attempt! The Sicilian Language is sooooooooo different than Italians. In every province the dialect is so different I get the UMMM what did you say look. I always say “Mi imparlo Siciliano-Italiano.”

    • Oh, I’ve used that too! However, my Italian friends have pointed out that it won’t work for long, so I figured I had to give it a go….for real this time. Thanks for stopping by, reading and appreciating.

  3. That is the funny thing about learning a language. Your lack of competence tells people what you can handle. As embarrassing as it is to sound like an evil baby, at least it means people only use baby talk to you.

      • Just make more mistakes. It’s easy. And don’t memorize things.

        But actually some people are just better at “foreigner talk” than others. I find kids are often great at it. Try talking to children under 8 and see how that goes. They are either hopeless and you can’t understand a word they say, or they are perfect.

        Congratuations on getting FPed. I enjoyed your post.

  4. I was lucky enough to spend a summer taking French in Grenoble, France. It just happened that I was placed with a house mother who was from Tunisia. So was the cousin staying with her. Their other tenant was German. I learned to say “je suis désolée” a lot because they didn’t speak french-french.

    • What a great story. Although, I’m sure you learned much from the Tunisian women as well…just not French. Interesting though, the friends I have here are not just Italian women, but Australian and Spanish too….

  5. The right words are: “Ho bisogno” not “Ho visogno” But we usually use “Vorrei una carta da acquarello”, that means “I should like” and not “I need”.
    Every language, you know, needs different words.
    I think that Italian language is difficult for foreigners, there are so many verbs, more than in English. It was very difficult for me, when I was a child, because my parents and my grandmother usually spoke in dialect.
    I live near Venice, and in our region (Veneto) people often speak in dialect. Perhaps Lucia too usually speaks in dialect, so it’s difficult for you to understand, isn’t it?

    • It’s all difficult. However, I will say…..it’s becoming easier and easier every day. I have a friend who is Italian and we hang out quite a bit. She has this great way of saying things in Italian first, then English. It comes natural to her….but is helping me immensely. Thanks for stopping by. I’ll be in Venice on Sunday and am hoping for good weather!

  6. I’ve been jealous of your life since I started reading your blog. Now, not so much. The only language I can speak is Spanish and I’m limited there too. Good luck with your journey and thank you for the wonderful stories.

  7. Boy, this felt familiar. I’m a journalist and once went to do an interview with an Italian official. I managed to say hello and sound fluid enough that he then talked for another half hour, assuming I understood Italian. I did not. Agony!

  8. It’s refreshing to hear of someone who wants to learn the language and makes an effort to blend into their surroundings. Keep up the motivation and I’m sure you and Lucia will have some wonderful conversations in no time. 🙂

  9. Great post! I too suffer from dual language problems. I live in Sardinia and my husband speaks the local dialect for which there are no books to study! Everyone in our town speaks dialect, I’m probably the only one that actually speaks Italian! 😉

  10. What a great story 🙂 conversation in other languages can be so stressful, but always rewarding. And when you’re in another country I always think people are more sympathetic and understanding when you make the effort to speak in their language. Fluency doesn’t matter, it’s the mindset!

    • I agree. When I at least try, they appreciate it. Just like I appreciate it when I meet people who try and speak my language. Thanks for the comment. As always it’s thoughtful 🙂

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