Seven years ago (December 23rd, 2003, to be exact), I arrived in Italy totally unprepared for what I would find. I knew that Alessandro would be here, essentially acting as a guide, much like I had done for him in the States. However, he'd had one advantage there: he spoke English. Not perfectly, not fluently, but well enough to get by and ask all the essential questions. I, on the other hand, spoke no Italian at all, in spite of his attempts to teach me over the phone and when we were together in the US for his three-week visit.
Next thing I knew, I was in Italy and like one of the songs on the mix CD Alle had given me said, I was "senza ali e senza rete – without wings and without a net". Although I've lived in various parts of the United States, I've never lived in a bigger city there. I'd only taken a public bus once – and that was in London, with a friend leading me around. I'd never taken trains anywhere as a matter of public transportation – and that was something Alle took for granted. Suddenly I was in a place where this was the norm, and I didn't know how to do things.
Worse yet, I couldn't ask anyone – except Alle – for help at all. Without the language, I was essentially without a voice.
Anyone who knows me knows that this is a strange situation. I'm talkative, once I get to know someone and get past that initial shyness. Actually, "talkative" is a misnomer. I'm difficult to shut up, once I get going. When I'm home alone, I talk to the cat. Or myself. Failing that, I sing along to whatever music I'm playing. As a result, finding myself so silent was a surprise even for me.
But silent I was. My first attempts at Italian were dreadful, and this saddened me. What magic formula was I missing out on? Where was I going astray? Why was it so hard to say a simple "Ciao" or "Buongiorno" to someone when they'd said it to me?
Then Alle asked me to marry him, and I said yes. The panic came later: I was going to live in Italy, and I couldn't handle the simplest linguistic exchanges. Was I nuts?
Since I didn't speak the language, I had to learn it. While Alle went to work, I sat at a desk in his old bedroom with several books on learning Italian in front of me. I struggled with the words. I practiced aloud, and sometimes even tried words and phrases out on Alle's father – who spoke no English – and felt no closer to my goal. I couldn't get the words out. It was understood that I'd need an interpreter for the wedding, because I wouldn't be able to understand the civil laws surrounding it. No interpreter, no wedding. I was already picking up the written word – I was reaching a point of properly getting the gist of newspaper articles and parts of stories – but spoken conversation eluded me. I couldn't match the sounds to the words.
I studied harder, but the words still didn't come easily. In time, I could greet the people in the building. My buongiorno had become comprehensible at last, and buonasera and salve soon followed. Soon other phrases I heard frequently began to sink in: Allora filled some awkward silences, and Va bene did, too. Dai, fa schifo and a few others were made clear in context. It wasn't long before I was uttering my own "Uffa"s and "B'oh"s along with the others. Then came "permesso" in the crowds, along with "scusi" and "scusate" when I'd inadvertently stepped on someone's toes (literally).
The big surprise came after the wedding, after my trip back to the US for my visa application, when I returned again to Italy to truly start my life here. Time passed, and I started picking up the words with greater ease. One day I realized that I was reading street signs and billboards with full comprehension. Menus were less confusing – most of the food terms I'd picked up reasonably quickly, needing clarification for unfamiliar foods less and less often. Alle still ordered food for me, but it was becoming less necessary.
My confidence grew in small bursts. I learned how to give directions quickly because whenever I went for a walk by myself I was stopped by someone asking how to get to the hospital. "Vai alla sinistra al semaforo, e poi dritto, dritto – l'ospedale è sulla sinistra. Okay?" I'd manage, then pray I'd gotten it right. (I had, more or less.)
Naturally, the "naughty words" were the easiest to pick up. It wasn't long before I had a full arsenal at my disposal. Of course, Alle doesn't understand where I picked such bad words up – but hey, I watch TV and films here too, you know!
A funny thing began to happen. The readjustment to life in the US during my visits took longer each year. I started forgetting English words. When I'd go to the US, I'd find myself looking for things in the supermarket under their Italian names. I greeted people with "Ciao!" or "Salve!" or "Buongiorno!" or thanked them with "Grazie" without thinking about it. In Italian restaurants, I'd order in Italian, occasionally leaving the servers confused. (I gave this trait to Emily in Ask Me if I'm Happy, as well.)
Usually I find the English word in time, but some of them seem to be lost forever. I think that's okay, though. Besides, some English words fall short in the descriptive category. For me, Vietato is more emphatic than "Forbidden". Amaro, even visually, conveys "bitter" in a visceral manner. (Say it and see if your expression doesn't reflect that taste.) Bacio for "kiss" is another good one: Your lips just beg for one, even as you say it.
I'm not fully bilingual, and I don't claim to be. For example, I have yet to read a whole book in Italian, even though I've read magazine articles with relative ease. It'll happen eventually – and yes, seven years is more than enough time to reach that goal, but I'm a very slow learner. In the meantime, however, I'll continue exploring this space between languages and see what it has to show me. There's always so much more to learn.