I have been on a six-week hiatus from my Italian language classes. They’d originally asked me, at the end of my initial ten weeks, if I would mind taking a break. Of course not, I said. You have been more than accomodating to me.
And so they have been, in a language school whose model is dilettante tourists with euros, Argentine pesos, and roubles to burn (there are hardly any Americans), I am a total outlier.
An American professional with a full-time job, settling in as an expat, who does not wish to take 6 hours of intensive Italian a day, who is reluctant to be charmed by the earnest weekly cooking classes in the school’s tiny kitchen at the end of a dim corridor whence emanate various scents, who smiles tolerantly at itinerant tour guides hawking weekend trips to Chianti or Cinque Terre or Siena. Whose children enroll in Italian schools and speak fluent Italian at home, whose husband is practically Tuscan,; she who moves, if awkwardly at times, through centro and its many shades of Florentine, Tuscan, Italian, Euro culture. I have made that risotto before, I know ravioli, I have been to almost every possible side trip in Italy, and if I haven’t, I am so annoyed by hearing about it all the time that I’ll let you know when I feel like going.
[Disclosure: I have never been to Cinque Terre, or Urbino, or, properly, to Naples. Worse, within Firenze, I have never been to the Accademia, or the Palazzo Vecchio, or inside the Battistero, or up to the cupola of the Duomo. As for those last two, they seem easy enough to do, and boy, do they run the numbers on the gathering tourist throngs. These places locally are now all, from the outside, part of my daily circuit and commute; I no more think about paying money to enter them than a lifelong DCer would think about scheduling a tour of the White House.
I could write another piece about all the places I have never been to, in cities where I lived or frequented, including Paris (Louvre, Tour Eiffel), New York (Empire State Building, Statue of Liberty), Barcelona (I moped around the outside of the Sagrada Familia in 1995), Seattle (Space Needle, EMP). Bookmarking for later.]
Finally, the week before last, as I paid my monthly fee for use of office space, I asked the business office staff, what if I want to take more class?
They looked at me with surprise.
I want to take more classes, I persisted. Is Franco teaching?
Well, yes, he is, they hedged, but my dear, he began the new course two weeks ago, and in any case it is too basic for you. Would you like to try Marco’s class?
Of course, I said, when can I try?
Leonardo looked at me for a moment, then said, we owe you one more class from your last package, is that right?
I was floored. Even I only figured that out after a lengthy calculation on paper while consulting a calendar. We rarely signed in, and I had missed a few classes at the end due to schedule disruptions, sick kids, and the like. Franco felt that the sign-in sheet was a sort of affront to in-country civil liberties.
Sure, I said, You do. When can I go?
This Thursday, they said. Same time as Franco’s class. Come at the break to do the second half of the morning.
Marco is about my age, perhaps a bit older, trim, always well turned out in a suit, Elvis Costello glasses, but his defining feature is a shock of hair so black it looks blue, and which appears to be one giant cowlick even though the front must be at least two inches long, waves like seagrass when he talks in his high-animation state. Groucho eyebrows wiggle above his frames. He is full of energy and very well-humored, and spends a lot of time with a handful of change in front of the espresso vending machine in the lounge, being happily harangued by Leonardo.
I already liked him, so I was well disposed to enjoy his class.
Thursday morning, I took my seat at the break. The other students slowly filtered back in. A retired Austrian couple sat next to each other on the corner of the conference table, and a young Colombian woman named Daniela sat on the same site as the husband.
Marco asked me to introduced myself. I pattered on about my family and job for a few minutes, while Marco made notes on a whiteboard about various verbs I was throwing around. I stopped talking.
Why are you in this class, the Austrian wife said in a monotone.
Yes, your Italian is very good, the husband added.
Well, there’s always something to learn, I said. There is a lot I don’t know.
They looked at me skeptically. The Colombian maintained a very diplomatic expression.
We continued to talk and introduce ourselves. The Austrian wife was a retired schoolteacher; her balding, bespectacled husband had been a well-placed functionary in Vienna, also now retired. They did not like their apartment in Careggi. They had one grandbaby and another on the way, which they hoped would be a girl because the wife already bought all the gifts for it.
The Colombian woman was in a gap year from university and aspired to be a child psychologist. She explained her career choices, as well as the cultural differences between Italy and Colombia (few, minus a torrent of comments about the bland food here), and Italy and the UK, where she had also lived (many), and how she anticipated with pleasure her upcoming sojourn in Nice. I was delighted to hear her Spitalian – it was so easy for me to quickly grasp. We covered:
The noise level in Florence
Italians: distracted or focused?
Commuting to Firenze
Public transport in Firenze
Trying to get Wi-Fi fixed in Firenze
Italian food: bland
Colombian food: tasty
Top Indian takeout restaurants
Marco started in on the familiar Italian refrain of how hobbled and backwards Italy is, which I listened to with what I hoped was a straight face. I didn’t want to appear judgemental, but …
They just don’t get it, I always think. They love to talk about how things don’t work in Italy. Everything here seems pretty functional to me, and when it doesn’t work well, there is always commisseration, espresso, pastry, a solid sense of humor, a fresh lunch and delicious dinner, apertivi, omnipresent aesthetics in general … what can we reasonably expect to function smoothly atop more than 2000 years of infrastructure, and the unseen infrastructure of history and government and shortcuts?
Daniela said something about the hardships of being a child psychologist, and Marco jumped on it: disagio. What is a disagio?
Matrimonio, moaned the Austrian. Il matrimonio e un disagio.
Marco looked at me. You understand here is here with his wife?
Why is he explaining this to me? It is very clear to me.
We portaged through that very awkward moment and continued on.
Midway through the class, a knock at the door announced the arrival of a new student. Wow, I thought, so they just drop them in like this.
Our new friend was another retired Austrian from Vienna, this one a former professor of Economics. When Marco asked him to introduce himself, he labored on in decent if halting Italian whose speed I attributed to his advancing years. His introduction was strictly monologue, and when Marco asked him politely if he was finished, he responded with a sincere, “No,” and kept on. We all looked at each other from across the conference room table as he meandered and fumbled for words.
He finally finished, and class was done.
There was a moment in there too at the end where the Austrian wife commented, Everything is easy for Monica. I do not know what we were discussing that prompted such a remark from her. I awkwardly replied, No, c’e molto che non e facile per me, but she looked totally dubious.
I’ll be back. There’s always something to learn.