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 9 of Sh*t’s Getting Real. Binge from the very beginning.
“Ho la peste” means “I have the plague” in Italian. The plague, as we all know, refers to the bubonic plague, or Black Death, which struck Italy hardest between 1629 and 1631 and was probably pretty terrifying, since it ended up killing somewhere around a million people, according to most estimates. And, since the Italian plague (or Great Plague of Milan) was one of the much later outbreaks of plagues, doctors wearing the iconic, and extremely terrifying Plague Doctor costume, thought to be created by Dr. Charles De Lorme (1584-1678) could very well have been lurking around through smoke and the bodies and the buboes and the feces and rats and whatnot, which would likely make the whole ordeal vastly more frightening than it certainly already was.
It’s hotly debated whether the plague doctor costumes were actually used during any plague outbreaks. But it seems debatable mostly because, as my extremely cursory research indicates, De Lorme lived way after the majority of the plague outbreaks in Europe took place. However, one need look no further than literally every shop selling literally anything in Venice (shoes, bags, weird Turkmenistan style pizzas, underpants, you name it) in order to find an array of whimsical plague doctor masks prominently displayed for sale: this one looks like a rainbow in the dark! This one is adorned with a delightful canal scene! This one looks like a giant pink plague doctor mask with extra menacing eyebrows. This one features light going into a triangular prism in space and emerging as a rainbow etc. Each one is a great bargain if you love spending way too much money on things that serve no real purpose beyond looking pretty creepy.
I bring this up for a few reasons: the main one is that I’m sick. I have the plague. Ho la peste, as it were. Also, it’s Halloween. And for my money, nothing is quite as visually awesome, horror-wise, as the plague doctor. For those of you who don’t know, imagine the orgy scene in Eyes Wide Shut where everyone is wearing ibis masks. Now imagine them not naked and walking through different kinds of piles of moaning bodies.
The plague doctors wore a getup that was one part butcher, one part Mr. Hyde, and one part Toucan Sam’s junky nerd cousin. The outfit was (theoretically) airtight and made from Morrocan goat leather, head to toe. The boots attached to the pants. The shirts tucked into the breeches. The hats (also made from goat) were worn tight over the head, and goat leather gloves adorned the hands. The star of the show was, of course, the mask. The mask had a large beak that they filled with perfumes and herbs and so forth to keep the plague germs at bay (which is an adorably misguided 17th century medical solution) and also, presumably, to keep the doctors from barfing into their masks due to the massive amounts of rotting and decomposing human flesh they were wading through all the time. Over the masks, they wore glasses. It’s said that these were to make a seal over the eyeholes of the mask, but I’d like to posit that it probably also made it clear they were doctors, as only nerds and doctors wear glasses.
Every time I’ve been to a touristy zone anywhere in northern/central Italy, I’ve seen at least one or two plague doctors roaming around and it’s never clear to me if they’re A) tourists who just can’t WAIT to go out on the town this terrifyingly claustrophobic get up, B) people who sell plague doctor outfits hitting the streets to inspire others to go buy costumes themselves or C) real, honest-to-God horrifying plague doctors that exist . . . ya know, just because who really knows what could happen?
It’s all rather academic anyway. I have the plague myself, and the last thing I want to see right now is a plague doctor in any sort of real professional capacity. I suppose I’d be pretty stoked to see one roaming the streets on Halloween, but that’s only provided that my current plague cure (a cup of tea and some ridiculously spicy ramen from last week’s trip to the weird grocery store [read about it here!]) enables me to survive until everyone turns on their jack-o’-lanterns for the evening. Right now, it’s not looking good, and that’s a bummer because tomorrow I’m going down to the swampy north of Florida, the humid home of disease primeval, where I’ll have to navigate the giant mosquitoes and buzzards drunk on Four Loko to play a concert . . . if I survive.
I was lying awake in bed last night, coughing, wondering how I was possibly gonna be able to sing and play the guitar this weekend while harboring this plague in a sticky hot bog zone, filled with myriad other plagues, when something occurred to me that hadn’t in an extremely long time: I realized that without really thinking about it, I just knew the Italian words for ‘guitar,’ ’play,’ and ‘sing.’ These aren’t words that have been part of my Rosetta Stone training at all, they were just there, in my brain, sort of resurfacing from lessons I took approximately twenty-four years ago. It’s almost as though, like some kinda hyper intelligent ape or something, I’m learning on my own after having been fed the basics.
. . . I realized that without really thinking about it, I just knew the Italian words for ‘guitar,’ ’play,’ and ‘sing.’ These aren’t words that have been part of my Rosetta Stone training at all, they were just there, in my brain, sort of resurfacing from lessons I took approximately twenty-four years ago.
I suppose it makes sense. Similar to last week when I theorized that the frame of mind you’re in when you learn something may dictate what frame of mind you should be in when you hope to access whatever it is you learned (this, you may recall, is why I suggested taking your exams drunk). I feel like just by subjecting myself to these Rosetta Stone lessons each week for the past ten weeks (!!!!) my mind’s “learning Italian” section has finally switched on for real . . . like in a more ‘on all the time’ way.
I feel like just by subjecting myself to these Rosetta Stone lessons each week for the past ten weeks (!!!!) my mind’s “learning Italian” section has finally switched on for real . . . like in a more ‘on all the time’ way.
Of course, everyone knows that the very best way to learn a language is via full immersion. If you travel to, say, the Chubut Valley and just live there for a while, the next thing you know, you’re probably speaking Patagonian Welsh like a local (and probably enjoying the best meat filled pastries on earth, if I had to guess . . . but I digress).
I’d liken the past ten weeks of consistently considering Italian, not only due to continuing my Rosetta Stone core lessons, but also just thinking about this column and really dissecting not only the truth of my experience, but also what’s interesting about that truth . . . and then, synthesizing that what a dumbass like myself can write about while somehow making it seem interesting and readable, to a bit of a language immersion. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting it’s like hanging out in Torino at the local salumerie with grizzled old men for two weeks (but see!?!?! I totally just pulled the word salumerie out of my ass and then double checked it and it was right! [side note, this one salumerie in Torino has, hands down, the best mortadella I’ve ever tried in my life. Cut by an angel, it is]).
. . . Torino has, hands down, the best mortadella I’ve ever tried in my life. Cut by an angel, it is.
Of course there’s no substitute for really, truly living in a space surrounded by native speakers. But I think I’ve figured out what taking this Rosetta Stone course is like now that it’s become part of my routine and thought process. Ready?
Ten weeks into taking and blogging about Rosetta Stone, it’s like a Nerf version of being at the bar with my cousins at that way too late moment when they all switch back into Italian only. Now I know enough that I WANT to be more part of it than I am, and so my brain is working overtime to make the connections that could have otherwise fallen by the wayside were I less invested.
Ten weeks into taking and blogging about Rosetta Stone, it’s like a Nerf version of being at the bar with my cousins at that way too late moment when they all switch back into Italian only.
I want to know what Marcello is saying to Franco over there. I don’t just want to laugh and wonder what le regazze were doing. I want to UNDERSTAND IT, man!
But, since I’m sitting here sick on a snowy Halloween with no drunken cousins anywhere even remotely nearby, I decide to get into this set of lessons like I’m ready to walk out the other side fully riffing in Italian, casual Roberto Begnini style.
However, like any number of bold hyper intelligent apes who have gone into battle before me, I soon found my outsized confidence no match for the new lessons attacking me from all sides. This has everything to do with my incredibly crippling head cold and nothing to do with any sort of sudden jump in the difficulty level Rosetta Stone program, to be clear.
I navigated the usual storms (my headphones deciding intermittently not to work/my son coming up and talking to me and ruining my concentration), only to find that my stuffy nose was keeping me from being as great as I felt I’d become when it comes to punctuation.
Since the last article, I’ve learned from my techs over here at the Stone that the mic software is so sensitive that they have special programs calibrated exclusively for kids’ voices, which I think is pretty amazing, not only in terms of an offering but also just in terms of technology. However, as the ‘grown man with annoying nasally Chicago accent and head cold’ software hasn’t yet been released, I had to settle for lower scores than I’ve grown accustomed to.
I’ve learned from my techs over here at the Stone that the mic software is so sensitive that they have special programs calibrated exclusively for kids’ voices, which I think is pretty amazing, not only in terms of an offering but also just in terms of technology.
The new vocab words were a little more challenging than I expected. Bowl, for example, is “ciotola,” which is not exactly intuitive to my dumb ass. I mean it’s no “woman is donna. You know, how Donna is the name of a woman, dingdong?” So that, likewise knocked me down a peg.
I suppose I should pause right now to reiterate overtly for those who haven’t been following this column since the beginning that these Rosetta Stone lessons never ever use English to teach. It’s as close to immersion as you can get from a device. Imagine if you were the cargo master (or whatever it’s called) on a transatlantic ship that was carrying nothing but a bunch of plugged in, fairly sophisticated Italian vending machines and video games . . . it’s kinda like that, but with less sodas and aliens so far.
But the thing that really struck me this particular time was that my brain was beginning to actually turn on to the Italian stuff that I had previously forgotten, the stuff that I had been too lazy or blind to intuit . . . it’s really starting to come back to me. And it’s clearly not because of this specific week ten lesson, because I didn’t do great in it at all. It’s something else . . .
But the thing that really struck me this particular time was that my brain was beginning to actually turn on to the Italian stuff that I had previously forgotten
Okay, here’s what it’s like: It’s like having kids. I know that sounds weird, but hear me out. Have you seen The Matrix? For those of you who haven’t, there’s a pivotal scene where Morpheus offers Neo the choice of taking a blue pill (this pill will do nothing, essentially, except for keep you cocooned in your illusory bubble of faux peace and comfortable leisure, maaaan) or a red pill. The red pill, once taken, changes everything forever. Neo takes the red pill, of course, and he suddenly discovers he’s a human battery in a gigantic Giger-esqe black skied, rainy ass dystopia, and he has to live on a submarine that exists in the sewer and everyone is either struggling to survive, or on a mad tear to kill him (this is a very, very simplified overview . . . watch this movie. It’s great).
When you have kids, it’s the same thing. Having a kid is taking the red pill. The day before you have a child, you live on a perfectly fine street. The very moment that kid drops, your neighbors drive too fast, your sidewalk is littered with perverts, the stairs up to your place are lousy with splinters. All this stuff has always been there, but now that you’ve been ‘red pilled’ (a term that’s unfortunately been taken over by complete idiot right wing conspiracy theorist puds) you can see the world for what it is: a terrifying hellscape.
And what’s more terrifying than Italian everywhere? KIDDING! Jesus, calm down everyone. All I mean is that after a certain level of understanding, your language learning experience is with you all the time, as you travel through your day to day, whether you’re on a plane or at work or at home or at a cafeteria or at a judo lesson or in a space submarine in a sewer (in Neo’s case all of those are the same thing, actually), and your brain’s natural curiosity for learning language will just kind of creep around the corners of your thoughts and ask you how to say fork or pencil or guitar or sing or little sardine can full of Vaseline that serves as your only meal in this scorched earth subterranean hellscape, and it turns out that when the time comes, you’ll know.
Anyway, I guess the salient takeaway here is that sometimes your development isn’t at first obviously tied to the lessons and it’s only when you’ve found yourself walking through the cold post apocalypse in your plague doctor costume that you realize that you knew how to say “slow down asshole! Kids live on this street!” all along.
HAPPY HALLOWEEN! And remember, if you see me, ho la peste.