So here I am on my return to Rome for a second stint after living here from 2001-03 and stumbling through the minefield of foreign languages. I live alone on this return to Rome. I have no excuses in not learning Italian. My neighborhood of Testaccio is void of English speakers. It has no hotels. It has no tourists. You have to really hunt to find a postcard. If you don’t know Italian in Testaccio, you will starve. I’m not taking lessons. I took 11 years of them from the one native Italian-language teacher in metro Denver, the ever-patient, multi-talented Adriana Caso. She kept my skills afloat until my retirement in January.
Now on my return to Rome I’m flying solo. Learning a language is a 24-7 struggle, especially in Italy. Nothing is in English. All American movies and TV shows are dubbed in Italian. The only thing bilingual are the menus in touristy restaurants. The New York Times International is the lone English-language newspaper.
There are four areas of language, none can be ignored:
I buy Corriere dello Sport or La Gazzetta dello Sport, Italy’s two national sports newspapers, about four times a week. They are packed with football. A big A.S. Roma football match will have up to 18 stories on it. The Saturday Gazzetta has an added bonus with SportWeek, its weekly magazine which always has a feature — with LOTS of pictures — on one real hot female athlete. After all, this is Italy.
I text and email my friends in complete Italian sentences. They read like legislation in Parliament.
Italian is a very sexy, romantic language — except when I speak it. My Roman friends have said I sound like a Roman street thug. I took it as a compliment. It wasn’t. However, I try. I really try. For starters, I refuse to speak English. All my Italian friends know it. When an Italian addresses me in English, I say, “Scusi. Preferisco Italiano.” I ask vendors in Mercato Testaccio innocuous questions just to see if I can make myself understood. I frankly don’t care where they get their clementines. I also know how to make pasta puttanesca. But I want to start conversations with people who don’t speak a word of English. If I’m in a bar, I will start a conversation with, “Allora, A.S. Roma o Lazio?” meaning which of the two Rome soccer teams do they support. If they say Roma, I reply, “Bellissimo! Possiamo essere amici!” (Great! We can be friends!”) And we talk.
This is where I have struggled intensely. Understanding Italian is like deciphering graffiti from a passing train. It is really tough. On Valentine’s Night I went to the theater to see a play. In a two-hour production, I didn’t understand one single complete sentence. I was in a deep depression for three days. I have since come out of it and I’ve rationalized my struggles. A major problem is Romans speak faster than anyone else in Italy. For me to learn Italian on my return to Rome is like an Italian learning English in Brooklyn. I understand people better in Tuscany, considered the birthplace of the Italian language and where most Tuscans speak the purest form. Even in Sicily it’s easier.
In Sicily they speak Sicilian. Italian is their second language. Their Sicilian sounds like they’re always in an argument. When they speak Italian they sound like graduates from the Columbia School of Broadcasting.
My closest contacts in Rome remain somewhat foreign to me. Alessandro, my best friend the sportswriter, has one of the heaviest Roman accents I’ve heard. He is a Roman for Romans. He doesn’t talk. He growls. One word blends into the next. While it’s always grammatically perfect, our conversations are often stilted and maddening. He is so used to me asking him to repeat that he now just automatically translates comments before I can say, “Come?” (pronounced COE-may?) the Italian word for, “Huh?” My landlady is a harried 44-year-old single mother of a hyper 4-year-old boy. She is constantly stressed. Every time she speaks she sounds like an Alitalia pilot right before his plane crashes into the Dolomites.
But when learning foreign languages, you must turn baby steps into a giant leap for mankind. Blow off the failures. I have seen signs of improvement. I can read sports sections at about a 60-percent efficiency. I can make people laugh with funny emails. I’ve held conversations all over Italy. And I’m starting to understand when the TV commentators want to saint or lynch the national football coach.
I’m here forever so patience is a new virtue. Dimmi, “In boca al lupo.” (Wish me luck.).
(This is Part II of a two-part blog detailing retired American journalist John Henderson’s struggles to learn Italian on his return to Rome. Today: His current status.)