I love learning Italian. Yeah, weird, so left brain … I know.
I’m still learning, of course. And alternate between thinking I’m doing well … “nice use of slang in that joke” … and failing miserably … “did I just use the infinitive, rather than the proper verb tense?”
This is my vision quest, my language quest.
But first I must apologize to all Italians, to all people who are learning English as a foreign language.
EXHIBIT A …
iron (iEARN) … [but, ironically, irony]
woman (WOmin) and women (WImin)
EXHIBIT B …
rough — cough — dough — bough — — through
EXHIBIT C-1 …
too — to — two
EXHIBIT C-2 …
buy — by — bye
EXHIBIT C-3 …
their — there — they’re
EXHIBIT D …
bluff and enough … rhyme?
EXHIBIT E …
LEFtenant / LEW-tenant … AluMINum / aLUminium … PROgress / PROGress (depending on which side of the Atlantic you live)
Italians smile and nod knowingly. I tell them it’s hard for Americans, too, and explain about spelling class with spelling tests. In addition to homonyms and synonyms, British and American have entirely different words. Truck … lorry. Elevator … lift. Zucchini … courgettes. Italians are amused about zucchini.
But I digress. Italian is a beautiful, musical language. The verb tenses are gonna kill ya. There are 14 … plus the gerund (“-ing”) in present and past tenses … plus the imperative. That’s really 17, but who’s counting.
And as logical as Italian is, it’s also full of idiosyncrasies, beginning with the most basic words … keeping new speakers on their toes.
EXHIBIT 1 …
Ci means us (reflexive) and it and here and there.
EXHIBIT 2 …
Vi means you (plural) and there.
EXHIBIT 3 …
La means the (feminine) and there.
EXHIBIT 4 …
Lì means there.
A 22-letter alphabet and several accent marks … gazillions of combinations, yet it seems any 2-letter word means … there.
Not to be confused with sono which means I am … and they’re.
But wait, there’s more. Italians use the subjunctive. In fact, they judge those who don’t use that tense to be badly educated. They also use adverbs. Now I can be a grammar guru in two languages … another nerdy notch. (I appreciate those who said, Not nerdy at all. Thanks Peggy [wink].)
And to make your head really explode, Italy also has lots of local dialects, as well as several separate languages across the peninsula and islands.
Fun Fact … when Italians arrived in the New World, many were from Naples and the south. In addition to spaghetti and pizza and eggplant parmesan, they also brought “prosciutt” and “provolon” and “calzon” … the “Napolitan” dialect that drops the last syllable. Capish …?
When I began my vision quest, I said to myself, “Self, I could teach myself Italian.” I speak French well enough that a Parisian salesperson complimented me. And I didn’t have an American accent … German? Irish? Dutch? … I know that because nobody ever guessed my nationality.
As we considered buying a house, I set out to study. I already knew a few words in Italian … more than just formaggio and maggio. It never occurred to me to go to a private teacher or group class. On Amazon, I looked for CDs at the intermediate level, and found Michel Thomas … an elderly Polish polyglot, according to the description. I clicked “Proceed to Checkout.”
I loaded the 6-CD set into the car and clicked “Play”. The first thing that struck me was his accent, which reminded me of my dad … the Czech man with a mid-European accent who helped me with my French homework. For months on my drive to and from work, I listened and repeated or (if there was a lot of traffic) listened and let the lessons wash over me.
I began reading newspapers, La Repubblica and Corriere della Sera online. On the computer, I watched the Italian TV channel, RAI … which I called R-A-I, but came to realize is called “rye” since Italians read acronyms as plain old words. News or cultural programs like “Customi e Società” and “Medicina 33” and “Si Viaggiare” and, best of all, “Eat Parade” on Fridays. Sometimes episodic programs came through, too. I watched every morning after David left for the studio and I got ready for work. And all day on Saturdays while David golfed … and I cooked. My mom had watched TV to help with her English, so I was in good company.
After several months, I said to myself, “Self, time for verbs”. So I bought a book … 500 verbs. A few months later, “Self, now you need to add more nouns” … so I bought one that had various categories of nouns. I was understandably nervous to actually talk, so started in the car. Oh mon dieu … I had a French accent. That lasted a while … but I rather liked that I didn’t sound American. I practiced rolling my Rs, a key sound that distinguishes this melodic language. I talked to our kitty Carrara, who loved the musicality. No, I don’t anthropomorphize much. On my daily lunchtime walks, I’d take a grammar book du jour. Walks go rather quickly when one is conjugating. (In my nerdy mind’s eye, I still see the chart that I visualized when I studied French … second person singular, third person plural).
And I have to give a shout out to my podiatrist. I was having a toe issue (cured now, thank you for asking), and had numerous trips to see Dr. K. I had the last appointment of the day, and the doctor did not see me now. For the hour or more … ! … that I waited in the exam room, I studied. At my last visit, I thanked him for providing me the quiet, uninterrupted time to improve my Italian.
We bought a house (which I had negotiated in French), and were looking forward to our first visit. I’d finally get to try out my Italian … nervously try out my Italian. Our plan was to stay one night in Florence at HOTEL LIDO where we always stayed with sisters Lucia and Elisabetta, then move into our house.
We drove there … ci vi la lì … excitement in the air.
But the yard looked more like the Addams Family than a villa in Tuscany … the security system beeped constantly … the water pump didn’t work well (pun intended). We went back to the hotel and told the sisters about All. The. Problems. Lucia said her handyman-dad would be happy to help us, and she’d call to explain what needed to be done … in fact, he knew our area well because his mother had been born in the nearby town. The story about that adventure is called CAVEAT EMPTOR.
And then my moment happened! Just a few days later, when I told Lucia we needed help with some new glitches, she handed me the phone and said, “Call him yourself and explain.”
When we moved, we learned that there’s a language requirement for long-term residency. David took lessons … I simply took the exam. Nailed it. La Linda! Thanks dad for the language gene.
La Linda! Ha … Italians actually say that. Really … because they add the article la before all women’s names. But I’m only The Linda to moi … our neighbors call me l’Americana.
Here was my advice to David or any Padawan. Don’t get stuck on one word … by the time your brain translates it, the conversation will have passed you by. Keep listening … sometimes the second or third sentence will make everything clear. Listen … learn … lean in.
And a tip of the hat to some friends who taught me new words … Eric (carta igienica) — Sandra (no c’é la fo) — Marco and Fabio (vespaio) — Enrico (corrimano) — Gloria and Giovanni (gnocca).
I wonder what words I’ll learn next …
SPAGHETTI WITH FENNEL AND SALMON
1 large or 2 small fennel, sliced … and fronds, chopped
Salt and pepper
2 oz. white wine
4 to 6 oz. cooked salmon
1 lb. spaghetti
2 Tbl. bread crumbs, toasted
- In a frying pan large enough to hold the pasta, saute the fennel and anchovies in olive oil.
- When the fennel is soft and lightly browned, add the wine, salt and pepper to taste.
- In a large pot of boiling, salted water, cook the spaghetti until barely al dente.
- Stir in the salmon and, if necessary, some of the pasta cooking liquid so the fennel mixture stays moist.
- Reserve some of the pasta cooking water, then drain the spaghetti.
- Add the spaghetti into the frying pan. Toss well, adding pasta cooking water, if necessary … and a tablespoon or two more olive oil.
- Add breadcrumbs and fennel fronds … toss.