I’m amazed that it’s been two years since I started my Italian-language journey in earnest. Strangely, the deeper I go, the less I feel I know. But at the same time, it is a great pleasure when (in certain moments) I stop reaching for words and everything starts to click mentally.
A year ago when I was visiting Rome, I had the luxury of having my friends with me for the greater part of my stay. Yes, I was understanding more things that were said to me. But I had to work very hard at listening and speaking. It felt like I was always two or three steps behind the moment. I was either trying to figure out what I wanted say or trying to figure out the odd word I’d never encountered before. On the whole, I have very good pronunciation. So when Italians hear me speaking, they say, “Oh, parla bene!” and proceed to accelerate to their normal speaking pace—which is way too fast for me! It is then that I must resort to asking them to slow down (“Piano piano, per cortesia!”) It’s like being an elementary student who has been promoted to the first year of college. It’s too much too soon for most of us, I daresay.
With my friends at my side, I must admit I didn’t work as hard. First of all, they speak English, so I could always fall back to that if necessary. Second, they took care of most of the gritty details of speaking and negotiating our way around town. I, in turn, generally kept my mouth closed, smiled, and enjoyed the city in their company. Then came the day when everyone returned to their city and I suddenly had to fend for myself. The good news was that it had been decided that I would meet my friend Margherita at her family’s home in Salerno. We would spend a long weekend there and include a side trip to the fabulous Amalfi Coast. She told me how to take the bus to the train station and I felt secure.
The next day I was over-the-moon excited to be heading to Salerno for a new adventure. I scheduled my morning perfectly, and then headed to the bus stop in plenty of time to make it to Roma Termini for the train. Then I waited . . . and waited . . . and waited . . . and waited! No bus. Time seemed to be going faster. (Egads! Would I miss my train?) No one knew what to think or do. Finally, I saw a group of people standing at a nearby tram stop and hurried over to them in controlled desperation. My mouth flew open and I said, “Che cosa successo?” Without any mental search or “Uhhhs” or “Ummmms,” I said the right thing. Turns out a parade celebrating a saint was coming down the street and traffic had been stopped in anticipation. I wasn’t happy to hear that news, but I spoke well and understood what the people near me were saying. Later, it occurred to me that the intensity of the moment, coupled with my urgent need for information, kick-started the part of my brain that remembers everything. The words were there for me because I needed them to be. It felt as though I hadn’t reached for them. They were simply there at my service.
Did I make it to Salerno that day? Nope. I missed my train and had to go the day after. The experience, though, was worth the lesson. It made me happy to know that I was able to communicate well despite what I thought I didn’t know. It’s those golden moments that keep me soldiering on in the hope that one day all my Italian will be a no-thought, effortless event. Non vedo l’ora. (I can’t wait!)
Allison Eikerenkoetter is from suburban Philadelphia, PA, and now lives in the center of the world – Brooklyn, NY! She will combine her passions for acting, writing and Italy when her first play Geeta and Sid Go to Roam© is produced in New York later this year.
Take your own adventure!