Le lingue, cont.

I now wonder if I front-loaded too much language in my life, prior to 32, and now, like old data on floppy disks that are now kept in one’s top right desk drawer, their access becomes an increasingly remote possibility. “But all that email from 1995 and 1996,” one thinks. “It’s practically a book, and now I’ll never be able to read it again. I know it’s in there. If I saw the files, and read them, I would recognize them.”

I know that working full-time remote in a position like mine keeps me tethered to English, and unable to snap and enter a truly Italian orbit. I love English. I am writing a lot. I’m a verbal person. English is a transparent user interface to this superuser. Spanish has come very close to that for me, in my life (a bow and a sincere thank you to all my Spanish teachers ever), especially when living in Spain or traveling in Latin America. French has been close. Everything lower than those three on the list have been mere flirtations of my frontal lobes, in Broca’s area. La Discoteca Broca, late at night, dancing to EDM with foam and an extra roll of duct tape in the hours just before dawn – okay, that never happened. Well, maybe it did here.

The four-week hiatus from Italy was interesting, from a linguistic point of view. Jason headed straight to Spokane for work, and so Flavia was traveling with me and the kids. The kids know her so well and always stick to Italian with her. The first and second weeks Flavia and I were all Italian, all the time, and I would break into English with the kids when I was in a hurry, revising into Italian if I needed them to really listen to me. When we met back up with Jason in Portland, the family lingua shifted to English, with occasional dips into Italian a cinque. If the five of us were in the same place, the kids were more often yammering on with Flavia in Italian, while Jason and I sorted out logistics in English to the side.

That’s normal – he and I both grew up monolingual. We have no childhood memories associated with chatter in other languages, save the exception of my estival migrations to Upper Michigan with my mom and brothers, where conversation, especially in the evenings as guests arrived, and all day Sunday, moved into Finnish. Especially if they were over fifty in the seventies. In any case, no one was giving me any orders in Finnish. It flowed as a small stream of language on a distant border of our childhood field, where I was free to dip my toes in or not. I often did, for the sheer pleasure and shock of those syllables, watching people’s faces as they chatted. When I explain my affinity for foreign language to people who don’t know me, I frequently cite those seminal experiences as sparks to my tinder. I had to learn a code. I simply had to have new sounds and new words. I wanted to speak to someone who understood my alternative sounds and words. What new heights might we explore together! what different person might I be with new words and new thoughts running through my brain! what might become clear to me that was now wholly unknown! It would be like sailing a ship to a new land, with a rough paper map drawn from dreams alone.

church in the U.P. where I heard a ton of Finnish as a small child –
my grandfather interpreted at the services

(I digress on this point because I am so often surprised when people ask me if Jason and I have given up English at home. How? I want to ask them. How? We speak a lot of Italian at home, but English is the reversion language of clarification and confirmation.We both grew up with two English-speaking parents in the US; we cannot rewrite our early years, or where we went to school, with teachers who probably all spoke English only, save the foreign language teachers.)

On the flight from Seattle I flipped through the movie options in my in-flight entertainment module. There was a ton of content in other languages, many Asian – Chinese, Japanese, Korean original cinema. O were I to have binge watched everything in a mini-SIFF festival, high over the Atlantic.

I oped instead for two junk-food documentaries: one on Brangelina, the other on Oasis, plus two episodes of Silicon Valley, season four. But I paused on one title in particular, which must have been Argentine, I thought: “I Married a Dumbass.” For “dumbass” they gave “boludo.” I looked at the word again, and again, and thought, holy crap, Spanish slang I have not heard or used for at least nine years, and maybe sixteen. The back of my brain started heating up. (It’s my eyebrows that feel hot when I am learning language – I am not kidding. And I don’t think it’s because I am scowling.) I was whisked away to Argentina.

Like a key to memories, 2001 was suddenly unlocked. I suddenly smelled the heated flagstones of Plaza Dorrego, saw the street dancers’ shirts stained with sweat as they tangoed for tourists in front of tables piled high with dusty, rust-covered chandeliers and candlesticks. I felt the heat of January sun at noon as I scurried for shade. I remembered half a dozen new friends, and our shared hilarity.

Plaza Dorrego, San Telmo, Buenos Aires

I saw the face of the young man talking to me in a bus station in Mendoza, who said, incredulously, “but you speak Spanish with no accent.”  It must have seemed so to him, as Spanish was transparent to me then, and I wielded it with calm joy, as though a lifelong friend were always accompanying me on my adventures, keys at the ready. I think I responded something along the lines of, “my accent is a complete mix, but thank you.” I had gotten to the point by then with Spanish that I cared less and less what I sounded like, and so rambled on, and in my insouciance (and acquisition) became more fluent. My palms didn’t sweat. I didn’t taste adrenaline as I skirted among verb tenses. I wasn’t even thinking about the grammar. I just thought it was fun.

I was surprised at how much Italian I understood yesterday on the bus as the
chatty driver caught up with an old friend, or perhaps a sibling, or an amico coetano, on his hands-free from the driver’s seat. Italian did seem more like an old friend to me too, in that moment. I am regarding that Italian orbit with a new energy and perspective.

Is this the feeling of my brain breaking, or being rebuilt? or both?

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