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I Am Not A Fish (meditations on the Italian language)

Penne: Porta San Francesco (on the far right, you can just make out the entrance to the hardware store)

Wait. Crap. What’s the Italian for “wall anchors”? “Level”? How about “drill bit”? What’s the Italian for about eighty percent of the stuff on the shelves in this place?

I’m standing in the ferramenta, my local hardware store, one of two in Penne, and I’ve stumbled on another lacuna in my grasp of the native tongue. And this one might be as vast as the wasteland where my lexicon regarding motor vehicles ought to be. Though that one also exists in English. It's a small mom-and-pop shop, a local fixture, the kind of store you can barely find at home. You might know an American place like it, one of those neighborhood jewels scratching out an unlikely existence in the economic shadow of hulking boxes fronted by acres of car-friendly macadam. This one’s tucked into a little brick niche just outside the 18th-century Porta San Francesco, Penne’s most beautiful gate. The shopkeeper, with whom I gabbed confidently until conversation turned to the reasons why I’d stepped into the shop, waits patiently and with interest for me to find my words. Like the best of his kind, he’s got an almost occult capacity for summoning enthusiasm about his customers’ home projects. Mine, by the way, is hanging photos and ceramics on a plaster wall. A simple task. For which I am unqualified.  This is true for almost all do-it-yourself activities. I’m the worst kind of homeowner: the helpless, willfully ignorant fool for whom his domicile’s workings remain a mystery. I’ve just never been interested in that stuff. Contractors see me and circle.  

Our living room in progress in Penne. Note the absence of wall hangings.

But I’m determined to hang decor on the goddamn lath and plaster walls. So, here we are. If this guy wanted to talk literature, art, music, or cinema, fine. Nessun problema. If he asked about American politics, I’d give him both barrels. On that topic, I’m loaded for bear. Recent SCOTUS decisions, January 6th insurrection, our meddling in South American, Southeast Asian, and, yes, it’s true, post-war Italian governments. Or the dark roads both our respective democracies now seem to be treading, Italy’s own complicated and fraught past. All of it. I’ve written essays in Italian - I’m told good ones - on that stuff. And more. The impact of social media on cultural norms, human interactions. Italy’s failed attempt to have a referendum on euthanasia, extend equal rights to the LGBTQ population, the disproportionate political power wielded by the Catholic church despite many Italians’ growing indifference to and dismissal of it. The possibilities of reimagining life, creating sustainable and viable economies in Italy’s quasi-abandoned mountain villages. You get the picture. That stuff interests me. Not that my Italian in those cases is perfect. When writing, I’ll make some errors. Usually with capricious prepositions, the language’s whimsical minefield. Their deployment still often baffles me; their rules seem arbitrary. For example, when tackling “going to” a place, why does one go “in ufficio” (“to office”) but “dal dottore” (“to the doctor”), “in Italia” but “a Roma”? Discussing islands, one goes “in Sicilia” but “a Capri.” Whatever. All languages have their quirks. As an English speaker, try explaining to an Italian (or the speaker of any other tongue) why “there,” “their,” and “they’re” are all pronounced the same. Still, my writing in Italian is solid, has its own voice and style. Because I’ve time to reflect, choose my words, construct complex phrases.  

When running my mouth, however, the weaknesses and holes in my understanding manifest. I lean too much on comfortable, familiar constructions, my expression lacks nuance, my vocabulary richness. If I wanted to say “grab,” for example, I’d always use “afferrare.” But there’s also “achiappare,” to catch. Or, if the act included an element of greed, “agguantare.” If one wanted to express figuratively grabbing an opportunity from the air, “cogliere al volo.” Etcetera, etcetera. I’ll also suddenly realize that I’d never learned a quotidian verb. To yawn, for example (“sbadigliare”). How did I go a quarter-century traveling and living in Italy without having to say “yawn”?

Those moments, and this experience in the hardware store, force me to confront a fact: no matter how well I express myself, I will never speak Italian like a madrelingua, a native speaker. Maybe I started my studies too late. I was 35 when I began. My brain had already calcified. It’s also possible, maybe probable that I lack some fundamental capacity for languages. My sorties into Spanish, French, and Mandarin have all left only meagre, vestigial traces. But those were all school-mandated dalliances or brief flirtations. Italian, on the other hand, means everything. It’s been my ticket to discovering my roots, understanding the history and traditions of Abruzzo, my grandfather’s birthplace, the rest of the South, the regions of origin for most Italian Americans. It’s allowed entry into a culture that has changed me and my life profoundly, and I think for the better. Though I never harbored illusions about becoming Italian (I’m American - ok, Italian American, but still - and my identity was formed and will always emotionally reside in a rowhome somewhere in southeastern PA), I longed to one day express myself with the facility I have in English. It was my grail, my white whale. And it ain’t happening. Let me be clear. I speak Italian well, proficiently. Even in a town (Penne) and a region (Abruzzo) in which school-taught Italian mixes liberally or is sometimes supplanted by dialect, especially among folks of a certain age, I hold my own. I can crack wise, construct a joke, weave a good yarn (the one about our insane water bill and the ongoing fight with the utility is a favorite at our local bar, arouses passion and empathy in my audience, and has meant that it’s sometimes difficult for me to pay for my own drinks), and take and respond to questions about life in America - everything from gun violence, our healthcare system, and the Orange Menace, to cuisine (they seem to think we subsist on processed and fast food; they’re only half-wrong), and pop culture trends. It isn’t hard. It’s fun.   But I will never exist in Italian like a native speaker. A native speaker breathes, thinks, moves in their language without considering its presence, like a fish lives in water. Their world and their language are one, inseparable.  

The author Jhumpa Lahiri, whose book “In Other Words” chronicles her own Italian-language journey (much more beautifully and articulately than I’m capable of doing here; it’s a moving work, and a must for anyone who wants to master a foreign tongue), describes Italian as a lake she must swim across. At first, she avoids the deeper areas, and sticks to the shallows where she knows she won’t drown. I’d expand on that metaphor. Italian for me is a great sea. And I’m a pretty good swimmer. But I could be Michael Phelps or (for those of you my age) Mark Spitz, cruising with power and grace across the waves, and I will still never be a fish. I could be Jacques Cousteau with his aqualung, diving to great depths for extended periods. Sooner or later, I’m still going to have to come up for air.  

I enter Italian from a place, English, to which I must return. And that’s true no matter how well I perform in the world of the former, how comfortable I feel there, how much I’d like to stay. When I’m speaking in the language fluidly, when I’ve entered “the zone,“ the place where thoughts and words come and are expressed without pause or translation, and then, suddenly, someone speaks to me in English, requires me to switch tongues, a spell breaks. I’m pulled abruptly from one world into another. And it is hard to recenter, recalibrate, and then reenter that other world. When I’m in Italy and forced to speak English frequently - with Cathy, work colleagues, or friends - the gears in my aging brain take time to shift into Italian. I feel them slip and grind, trying to catch. It makes me anxious.

You might think that this realization about the futility of the goal would be deflating, depressing. And you wouldn’t be completely wrong. But that disappointment is mitigated by the benefits of pursuing the goal, no matter how impossible its attainment. It rewards in ways that are hard to express, that are diminished by explanation. But I’ll try.   Beyond access to the Southern Italian culture and mentality, that welcoming, convivial, humanist, but also often resigned, dark- and dry-humored universe, there’s the exercise of recreating yourself. When speaking a second language, one tends to consider and choose words with greater care.  A lack of complete self-assurance mutes tendencies toward arrogance and snark. The Italian cultural imperative of civility makes this doubly true. People in Italy generally manage to speak to each other without descending into toxic, invective-laced exchanges. The specter of violence is less omnipresent than it is in the US not only because Italians aren’t stupidly, absurdly armed, but also because - despite stereotypes we might have about their volatility and passionate natures - they generally don’t allow themselves to get worked up in that way. So, comparatively, they’re not usually fearful of each other, regardless of how much they might disagree. I’m a hothead and extremely political. But having been exposed to this culturally enforced civility, I’ve come to crave it. I know what the alternative looks and feels like. In Italian, I’m also forced to listen with an openness and attentiveness that aren’t always present in English. This embarrasses me to admit, but it’s true. I must hear, digest, and consider the words of others before constructing a response. Beyond stifling the childish tendency toward one-upmanship, it makes for more honest, meaningful exchanges. Denied the carapace of egotism, I’m humbled, made vulnerable. Perhaps this makes for a kinder, gentler, more considerate comportment. I’ve still got fangs, stockpiles of vitriol, but they are harder to deploy, and I don’t feel comfortable doing so. It seems like failure. My proficiency in Italian offers me entry into the Abruzzese community. I’ve been able to develop relationships, often friendships with the people who sell me wine, cheese, meat, and pasta, the saints who prepare my aperitivos and fashion my not-quite-but-almost-nightly negronis. Cathy and I have been lucky enough to be invited into the homes of friends all over Abruzzo (and other parts of Southern Italy), to meet families, learn first-hand about their work, passions, successes, travails. Farmers, shepherds, shop owners, vintners, cheesemakers, artisans, restaurateurs, musicians, writers, historians, and next-door neighbors have all welcomed us into their lives, enriched our understanding of our would-be home, helped our early, starry-eyed infatuation grow into something deeper, the type of mature affection that sees the object’s defects, unvarnished truths, but loves just the same.  

The house on Vico del Genio, Penne: the view from our bedroom

Penne: view of Gran Sasso from the piazzetta in front of our house

All around us in Abruzzo we see folks from the US, England, Canada, and elsewhere - mostly decent, intelligent people - who, lacking facility with the language (sometimes even after years of residency), form their own separate social niches and never fully enter the community. It’s hard for me to imagine. Is Italy for them a kind of amusement park or resort? Do they lament about services and amenities that aren’t “top-hole” the way an American might at a Sandals resort, as if the whole place existed solely for their satisfaction and entertainment? Are the paesani the “other”? Or worse, just staff, a slightly interactive (sometimes annoying) part of the scenery? How do the locals feel about visitors, generally more affluent than themselves, who don’t really try to blend into the community, meet it at its own level, on its own terms? I think I know the answer to this question. But, as they say in Italian, meglio lasciar perdere. I don’t mean to be harsh or cruel. I mainly just don’t get it. What stranieri (“foreigners”) miss out on when they live this way - not just in regions like Abruzzo, places where English is not commonly spoken, but anywhere in Italy - is everything.  

Back at the ferramenta we’ve pretty much sorted it out. I’m able to describe what I aim to do. I just lack a few nouns. The shopkeeper laughs with me. But not at me. Anyway, that’s my story, and that’s how I’m choosing to interpret it. Acutely aware of my inexperience, he proffers a ton of advice. We shake hands and he walks me out of the shop and waves until we turn out of view through the San Francesco gate. Though, as any handy guy confronting a clueless mook would, he’s probably judged my manhood as compromised. This is a region filled with competent people, usually no more than a generation or two removed from some dire, deprivation-, farming- or shepherding-related, ass by your own bootstraps, O’Henry- and/or Jack London-level stuff. Doing it yourself was, sometimes still is a matter of survival. That’s never going to be me. That’s okay. Because another thing this experience has taught me is how to laugh at myself. Because this is all kind of hysterical.

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Bravo Francis, non ti cocnsco ma ho una storia molto simile a te. You capture so many of the nuances of both the Italian language and culture that speak very closely to my heart. Vengo trovarti un giorno al ristorante e possiamo scambiare nostre esperienze vivendo in Abruzzo! Jeff

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