Inspiration, People

Episode 8: Lost in the Supermarket

Brendan Kelly learns 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 8 of Sh*t’s Getting Real. Binge from the very
beginning.

When I was first approached about doing this here column for Rosetta Stone, the premise, if you can believe it, was pretty open ended and it was more or less this: “You learn a language using our software and then write about what it’s really like to do in the wake of navigating making time for it and retaining it with regards to your actual day-to-day existence.”

The salient differences between this column (or blog or whatever you want to call it) and lots of others out there were A) that I would talk about the Rosetta Stone program as it actually fit into my life, as opposed to, say, how many different ways I’ve learned to say things that would help me get by on my upcoming trip to Naples, and B) that I would offer an unfiltered look into the tribulations that go along with trying to squeeze in time to do self-improvement-type things on my phone while still balancing a robust professional and personal life. That was, at least as far as I was concerned, what I was tasked with doing.

Now, I realize that my infatuation with older movies, music, TV shows, and making abstruse connections with regards to learning Italian and whatnot have dominated this space for the past seven weeks, but fear not! Because today I’m gonna take you on a journey that involves me trying to Rosetta Stone while navigating my robust personal and professional life, as it were.


. . . today I’m gonna take you on a journey that involves me trying to Rosetta Stone while navigating my robust personal and professional life, as it were. 

For those of you who jumped into this late, or just didn’t bother to remember the dumb details of what my whole day-to-day is like, here’s what’s up: I play in a band that’s fairly popular and semi-active, so when I’m home, I spend a lot of time reading books and articles, listening to music and translating all that into creating my own songs, some of which turn out to be absolutely the best songs you’ve ever heard, and a lot that are just terrible (and end up in the garbage). However, I also spend a lot of time on the road, playing said songs for people who presumably want to hear them.

This became somewhat problematic last week when I had no choice but to do my lessons in a hotel room while my hairy, very patient sound guy sat silently on his bed, presumably just wondering why I was butchering Italian pronunciations and cursing into my phone like a maniac. The piece I wrote that week ended up tonally weird so I had to redo it, but the thing is, living in a hotel in Orange County with a hairy soundman and playing rock shows for wasted strip mall buzzards is hardly in keeping with the notion of shit, as it were, getting real. My life can be extremely unreal, or just generally abnormal at times. Luckily, this week a more pedestrian situation unfolded. Shit, it would seem, has finally gotten real.

I had no choice but to do my lessons in a hotel room while my hairy, very patient sound guy sat silently on his bed, presumably just wondering why I was butchering Italian pronunciations and cursing into my phone like a maniac.

I live in Chicago with my wife and two children (21, 11 and 9, respectively [ah, this bit is just too good not to try to sneak in here, but my wife is actually of a respectable age]) and our two dogs, who are fifteen and sixteen. This week saw the following things go down:

  1. One of the dogs just kinda straight up died in my arms and then came back to life somehow
  2. Chicago Public Schools went on strike

The first thing isn’t relevant at all, except that it had me shaken for like a day and a half, but the second one really, REALLY cut into my time. It is not easy to take care of sick geriatric dogs, read and write interesting things, and also attempt Rosetta Stone lessons when you want to make sure your stinky kids aren’t just sitting around watching TV all day. Add to this that my wife also works from home and has strong opinions about what the kids should be doing but absolutely no time to spare and you’ll see my general quandary. I’m essentially sitting in a room with three hairy sound guys, but instead of sitting on the bed patiently, they’re all blasting various YouTube videos and then moving on to being up my ass about what we’re gonna do today.

On the first day of the strike, I took my son to an Asian market called Seafood City. It’s wild. They have live crabs! They have entire pigs heads! They also have just a pig’s face in a foam tray under cellophane (like the way you usually see ground beef in stores). It looks like a mask . . . it looks like a very bad smelling absolutely revolting mask. Next to the pig masks were literal pints of blood. There was congealed blood, which kinda looked like a big block of scarlet feta floating in its own drool, which was next to the pure liquid blood, which looked like pure liquid blood in the kind of container you may get a small salad in at your local hipster salad place.

Reader, at this point, I was NOT getting my Rosetta Stone lesson in, but I WAS doing something that I’ve discovered on tour is the quickest shorthand way to get to know a culture you’re unfamiliar with: I was in that unfamiliar culture’s grocery store.

As a guy in a band I end up going to a lot of places, and whether I’m in Mexico, Italy, Japan, Greece, Australia, Slovenia, whatever, I ALWAYS try to go to the grocery stores, because the story on display really exemplifies what the day to day life in that area is all about. In fact, were I to host a show about going to various grocery stores around the world, I may call it “Shit’s Gettin’ Real” because it’s the most unfiltered look at the actual meter stick of a culture’s existence.

As a guy in a band I end up going to a lot of places, and whether I’m in Mexico, Italy, Japan, Greece, Australia, Slovenia, whatever, I ALWAYS try to go to the grocery stores, because the story on display really exemplifies what the day to day life in that area is all about.

For example, in Japan, they sell live squid in little bar caddies under the cash registers at the 7-Eleven (imagine the thing they keep lemons and limes and maraschino cherries in in in your local Irish pub), and that’s just the 7-Eleven. Japanese grocery stores are notable because the culture is such that they leave their babies in strollers unattended outside the stores while they shop. They also have tons of weird puffer fish you can catch and net, as well as fruits and vegetables that I’ve never seen before or since. Mexico has the most luxurious selection of sausage-style meats, and a remarkably reserved but still unbelievable selection of cheeses. For us Americans who are used to the Yankified notion of Mexican food, it’s a real wake-up call to realize they’re not reliant on cheese in their dishes like we demand up here (interesting aside: my friend Hiro, who is a Tokyo native, told me that in Japan, no one really eats cheese. They find it to be gross, for one thing, and for another [though this seems to be more or less the same thing said in a much more personally gross way] they claim they can smell Westerners because of the scents leaking out of us due to the dairy that we consume. If that’s not enough to make you want to bleach your pores, I don’t know what is).

In Italy, the country of my chosen RS regimen, you can see cheap little bags of fresh buffalo mozzarella on the shelves just chilling in that drool it floats in. It’s such a luxury in the States, but there, it’s the most basic price of shopping for dinner. Similarly, we think of Harp as a high quality beer, what with its dark bottle and label with the lovingly emblazoned harp on it. Well, in Ireland, Harp comes in a military-grade, aluminum-colored can and the word Harp is slapped across it in a font I could only call Rambo-esqe. One country’s fancy beer is another’s swill . . . or more to the point, one country’s swill can be shipped anywhere and treated as a delicacy.

I consider this when I think of the markup on Jack Daniels and Budweiser in Japan, or when I think of how pho must just be the Vietnamese equivalent of a burger and fries, but it’s imbued with a mystical curative property here in the US because it’s “new” or “exotic.” I thought about this as I was eating the “x2hot!” spicy ramen I got from Seafood City. Even though I am hyper-aware that ramen holds no nutritional value whatsoever, I found the brutal, mind-melting spicy heat of the dish somehow forcing me to concede “this must be good for me.” (It was not, in fact good for me, at least according to my . . . er . . . stomach today).

Anyway, so, you get the idea. There’s a teachers’ strike and the Kelly family is, as a result, killing time as a team. I took my kids to this wild grocery store. I also took them bowling, for ice cream, to the park, to their friends’ houses, to the old-timey diner full of meth-head cooks . . . nothing lasts on these little goblins. You think you’re gonna wear them out and they’re literally putting their shoes on after bouncing around at a trampoline park for 2 hours and they’ll ask “Can Conor and Gavin and Jackson come over?” (Names changed to make them all sound painfully white.) As I type this, they’re carving pumpkins within mere inches of me. It’s a goddamn mess, to put it mildly.

How, gentle reader, was I gonna get in ANY time to do my Rosetta Stone?

The answer is I just kinda did it this morning. I was a little distracted and I was able, once again, to lean into my knowledge of verb forms when I needed to employ pronouns and vice versa. The pronunciation section is getting easier, but I suspect that’s because it’s really marbling in the formalistic differences that are the basis of this next level of the core curriculum. For example, earlier on, the pronunciation would throw, say, eight different things at me: ball, rice, boy, girl, bicycle, bread, teacher, student, and I’d just kinda cycle through them. NOW, it’s things like “The bicycle is white.” “Those bicycles are white.” “The car is white.” “Those cars are white.” It’s easier in a way, but it’s secretly getting me comfortable with transitioning between gendered nouns and singular/plural forms of articles and verbs and so forth.

The pronunciation section is getting easier, but I suspect that’s because it’s really marbling in the formalistic differences that are the basis of this next level of the core curriculum.

I also found that if you really have no dedication (or you’re distracted by a house full of rowdy children) you can kinda scoot through these lessons without really thinking or retaining much at all. I bring this up because I finished a lesson and recognized that my mind had been elsewhere and so as a result I went back and did it again. Strangely, it made for the most resonant part of the lesson. I would liken it to learning to fly.

I finished a lesson and recognized that my mind had been elsewhere and so as a result I went back and did it again. Strangely, it made for the most resonant part of the lesson.

Douglas Adams of Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy fame insists that the best way to learn to fly (and this is obviously without wings or an airplane or anything) is to trip and fall and at the last minute, usually through distraction, miss the ground. There’s something to this when it comes to learning almost anything but it becomes particularly upfront to me in learning language. If I can somehow kind of get the idea without really thinking about it too much, then when I go back and really try to learn it, I know it much more endemically, and that translates to using it without having to employ the part of your brain that thinks too hard about things.

I would liken this to the (probably bad but certainly amazing) theory that if you learn something when you’re drunk, then you should take the test when you’re drunk because the information will be stored in that drunk chamber of your brain and more easy to access if you’re in the state you learned it in. Now, obviously, as a grown parent on the payroll of an educational institution like Rosetta Stone, I can’t condone these kinds of wild awesome party shenanigans, but I WILL say that if I learned anything from this week of being trapped with my kids and having to engage with the RS app as they whirled around me making slime, dyeing their hair, asking me to take them to the video game place, telling me to drive them to the park, etc., it’s that when I applied myself in a sort of necessarily half-assed way and then went back, the lessons actually seemed to resonate more.

. . . when I applied myself in a sort of necessarily half-assed way and then went back, the lessons actually seemed to resonate more. 

And I have a theory why that is:

When you use native language, the last thing you’re doing is thinking about it. So it should stand to reason that if you learn a new language using that exact “I just gotta get by here” part of your brain, when it comes to translating it into you putting it out there, you’ve already got it in that compartment of your brain. I’m sure this is the kind of pseudoscience that has linguists and so forth wanting to punch me in the dick, but it seems to me that if you learn it while you’re just trying to get through the moment, that’s the same brain you’ll have when you’re just trying to get through the moment and order your beer, or your several bicycles or whatever.

The lesson here is that, despite my minor inconveniences, all good teachers’ unions should strike for equitable public school conditions, you should always take tests drunk and always, ALWAYS go to the grocery store of the country you’re visiting. Also if anyone wants two kids and two very old dogs, hit me up at this email address

Peace y’all.

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