Inspiration, People

Episode 10: Your Guess is as Good as Mine

Brendan Kelly learning Italian

WARNING: These articles are intended to be an unfiltered look at the emotional rollercoaster that is my personal journey of learning a language, which by the very nature of me writing them means it’s highly likely that some people will be offended—especially if you have an aversion to the occasional swear, poor grammar, and general surliness. All the views expressed are mine, so any hate mail should be sent to me, not the corporate overlords at Rosetta Stone who are paying me to write them.

This is Episode 10 of Sh*t’s Getting Real. Binge from the very
beginning.

My wife is going to Saudi Arabia day after tomorrow, and it’s weird, the most terrifying thing to me is that I don’t know what’s up there at all. I’ve heard stories where if the powers that be feel like you’re out of line, you’re screwed, regardless of the rule of law? But honestly, I simply just don’t know much about what goes on over there at all, besides stories that are sensational enough to make the news. Beyond the fact that booze is illegal there and that things ended badly for at least one dissenting journalist, my guess is as good as your Fox-News-watching grandpa’s, if I’m really being honest. 

My wife told me all shirts have to cover her butt, and asked me if one that she wanted to bring did. How do you answer that when the shirt isn’t like a knee-length situation, something with tails, or small dress (or gown)? I have no idea what constitutes a covered butt in Saudi Arabia. I live in a godless society where a piece of string counts as your butt being covered, and I’m sitting here looking at my wife in jeans and a long shirt not knowing if that flies or if that’s the kind of thing that gets you thrown in jail forever. It really could go either way, since I just DON’T know. 

I’m aware it’s dangerous to disseminate stuff like this without fact-checking, because it leads to wild ‘us vs. them’ dualities that manifest in horrible racism and jingoism, etc., but my point isn’t that Saudi Arabia is terrifying (unless you’re a journalist or someone who likes butts, I guess) but that I just don’t know anything well enough to know what’s normal and what’s not.

I’m aware it’s dangerous to disseminate stuff like this without fact-checking, because it leads to wild ‘us vs. them’ dualities that manifest in horrible racism and jingoism . . .

Presumably, most people in Saudia Arabia go about their day-to-day lives like anyone else: They wake up, they’re not murdered with a bone saw for having their ass hanging out, and they don’t get arrested for drinking alcohol, since they probably just don’t do it.

Then again, some people clearly DO get arrested for having their asses out/drinking alcohol/having the gall to do journalism/being the uncle of the crown prince, etc., so again, what do I know? I mean, the phrase “repressive regime” has come up a lot when discussing the Saudis lately, and it seems like it’s probably at LEAST as gnarly there as, oh, I don’t know . . .Chicago?

Here’s the thing – people who aren’t from Chicago hear about the crime and gun violence here and think that we all drive around in bulletproof cars and pick freshly fired bullets out of our beautifully uncovered asses before dinner every night, but as someone who lives here, I can tell you that no, it’s really a lovely city. Sure, you CAN get murdered in Chicago, but generally, life is life and you’ll go about your day by just waking up, not getting murdered by a bonesaw and not getting arrested for drinking alcohol.

If you speak English I can tell you these truths from a comforting place of reasonable authority, but if you’re some Saudi guy who doesn’t speak the language and only has your own news channels to go on and whose wife is flying to Chicago day after tomorrow, your notion is probably more along the lines of “Yo! You’d best wear a bulletproof vest the whole time you’re there or you’re gonna end up dead!” and that would be a reasonable thing to think.

I suppose the obvious thing I’m getting at here is that if I spoke a little Arabic, I could quickly know what the culture really is like, how dangerous it is or isn’t for Western women tooling around in packs, feeling the last of the booze drain out of them as they shake like frail leaves in the hot desert sun. But as it is, the language difference really is my biggest barrier to understanding the truth of what my wife is really getting into. I don’t trust any minister of tourism from Saudi Arabia saying everyone is welcome any more than I trust a cop on the South Side of Chicago saying that he had no choice but to draw his gun and fire, but at least in that case I can SMELL the cop’s bullshit. I can speak that flavor of bullshit myself. Not everyone can. This is probably why people are so scared of places they’ve never been but feel right at home in their own corners of the earth, even when it’s dangerous, chaotic or just way, way too loud.

I suppose the obvious thing I’m getting at here is that if I spoke a little Arabic, I could quickly know what the culture really is like, how dangerous it is or isn’t for Western women tooling around in packs, feeling the last of the booze drain out of them as they shake like frail leaves in the hot desert sun.

Speaking of, as I may have mentioned last week, I had to go to Florida this past weekend to play my guitar for a bunch of drunk people with beards. The show was fun, but the upshot here, especially as far as it pertains to this here column, is that I needed someone to stay in my house while I was gone (my wife was also traveling in beautiful bare-ass loving Arizona), since I have two grade school-aged kids and two ancient dogs who are, in no uncertain terms, near death. So my in-laws came to town and are, as of my writing of this, still here.

My in-laws are wonderful people. I really lucked out in that regard. My mother-in-law is great with the kids and keeps the house so spotless it’s almost supernatural (which is saying something, since those two dogs crap literally anywhere they feel like it at this point), and my father-in-law is the kind of guy who decides he’s just gonna jump in and fix the door that doesn’t close right, and replace and paint the rotten wood on the porch and so forth. It’s lovely.

However, my father-in-law is also a realtor, and an older guy, so his phone loudly rings at pretty much any hour you can imagine, which results in him immediately getting on the phone and talking loudly, wherever he is, for as long as it takes. My mother-in-law keeps the house very clean with the help of the vacuum cleaner, and my wife, who is now home from her trip as well, is set to embark on her journey to Saudi Arabia day after tomorrow, and so she’s losing her mind with “Does this cover my butt?” and “holy shit do I need a new phone plan?” and “shut up” and “that’s not an official video from the Saudi tourism board, actually . . .wait is it?” and so on. She travels for work quite a bit, but to say this trip is way different from her usual flight out to NYC to drink martinis in weird clubs with Yanni’s daughter (this is a real thing that happened, btw) is a galaxy-bending understatement.

So the end result is that I woke up this morning, needing to do my Italian lessons and write this very piece you’re reading now, and I found myself in an enclosed space with a blasting vacuum cleaner, a door off its hinges that I needed to help move and replace, intermittent sounds of extremely loud sanding, my father-in-law’s phone ringing off the hook at full volume, my wife losing her mind about international phone plans and so on and so forth. Again, I’m very lucky to be surrounded by such motivated and dynamic individuals, but maaan alive, it was loud and distracting.

. . . I woke up this morning, needing to do my Italian lessons and write this very piece you’re reading now, and I found myself in an enclosed space with a blasting vacuum cleaner, a door off its hinges that I needed to help move and replace, intermittent sounds of extremely loud sanding, my father-in-law’s phone ringing off the hook at full volume, my wife losing her mind about international phone plans and so on and so forth.

There really was no place for me to go to do my lesson. Even if we ignore that there’s a spoken verbal component to the Rosetta Stone’s core curriculum that would have been impossible to do with the noise going on in my house, I couldn’t concentrate enough to get through even the more simple bits of it. So I took off and set out to do all of this from a remote location.

As I said, I live in Chicago, which means a lot of things. If your wife were coming here from Saudi Arabia day after tomorrow and you wanted to know what’s up, I’d tell you something like this: we have great hot dogs and great bars (which, probably worth checking out the legal drinking scene). We have amazing tavern-style pizza everywhere (as well as the deep dish that everyone who isn’t from here thinks of when they think of Chicago-style pizza . . .but which we locals really only eat when you’re in town visiting), and world-class museums. We have the Cubs and Lake Michigan and Soldier Field and dazzling architecture. It’s also colder than shit here about 70% of the year. And today is the day that everything changed. It’s cold now. It’s really, really, really cold. And it’s gonna be cold until June. Which sucks. It’s no hail of senseless South Side bullets, but it’s no righteous Arab Spring in Riyadh, either.

In the past, when I’ve had to evacuate the house, I’ve just gone to the park or whatever to do my RS lessons. I mean, I don’t have that kind of asshole confidence to just go in and do a spoken language lesson out loud at a coffee shop, and it’s not like there aren’t already people in the parks yelling at nothing, so I find I fit in just great standing out there frustratedly muttering into my phone.

But that’s not what’s up today. I could NOT go to the park. It’s freezing. So I sat in my car to go about my lesson. One of the good things about the Rosetta Stone lesson is that you really CAN do it anywhere if it’s quiet enough, but there’s also something that’s apparently really unnerving about seeing a man sitting in his car getting super flummoxed at his phone. I’d guess it looks like a drug deal going horribly awry or something. One second I’m pushing buttons like I’m just texting, and the next minute I can’t get the app to hear or understand that I’ve been saying la camicia perfectly these last twenty-five times and I’m in my car on a side street screaming at the app like it just left me a 20 bag and charged me $60 for it.

Anyway, it’s no stretch to say I was fairly distracted by the time my lesson finally got underway, and my resulting scores reflected that. This was not helped by the fact that my eyes are getting old and no longer have the sniper-caliber sight they used to have. Some of the pictures were kinda small, and I couldn’t really tell what was happening at first (which may just be a problem for my eye doctor). Add to this that this lesson was on clothing, and I already don’t know the difference between, say, a dress vs. a gown in English, much less in Italian (I believe maybe one of them covers your butt?),  so it’s safe to say my confidence was a little shaken by the time we got into the listening review.

The listening review is the part in which the app just says something to you without you being able to see it written down and you have to listen, comprehend, and determine which picture on your screen it’s describing. So for example, you’ll hear a simple sentence like “the boys have three apples” and you’ll have to just poke the picture of the boys with their three apples. Easy enough, right?

Well, this week the lesson really jumped up in difficulty. The sentences in the review section were, to me at least, significantly longer and more complex than they’d ever been. So imagine my delight when I totally nailed the section with 100% accuracy. I really AM getting better! Armed with this new confidence, I went back and scored perfectly on the lesson that had, just 15 minutes earlier, kicked my ass due to my stupid mic and stupider lack of understanding of fashion.

I still don’t know that I can construct complex sentences, but I can determine genders and quantities when I hear them now, and that’s satisfying enough to get by on a level that’s much more advanced than I thought. Even though it’s tough for me to imagine just busting out a full sentence in Italian, this course has definitely shown me that when improvements happen in language, it really can be a bit of an “a-ha!” moment where all the things you’ve been doing suddenly coalesce and make sense, so maybe I’m closer than I thought I was. And that’s what I’m learning: one day you know nothing, and then the next, it seems like you didn’t do anything particularly groundbreaking but suddenly stuff kinda makes sense.

I still don’t know that I can construct complex sentences, but I can determine genders and quantities when I hear them now, and that’s satisfying enough to get by on a level that’s much more advanced than I thought.

In fact, here’s an apt analogy: Right now I know very little about the day-to day-life in Saudi Arabia, but I’ve got a funny feeling that in a few days, I’m gonna know aaaaalllll about it . . .well, I’ll know what a ginger working tourist with a hopefully covered ass is allowed to see of it. Unless they capture her. In which case I’m single now and I guess I’ll have to learn about that. In the unlikely and unfortunate case that she is captured, please send over your dads to finish my stairs and your moms to clean up after these dogs. I mean, I’m helpless over here. I can’t even tell a dress from a gown, for chrissakes.

My email should be on this page.

Thanks in advance. Xo. 

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