Oy gevalt! Please save me from my fantasy life.

Much as I might wish it to be possible, there really is no way I shall ever be mistaken for a sophisticated world traveler sitting at ease in a sidewalk café in Firenze conversing in fluent Italian with passers-by. For one thing, I shall never again be young enough to sit at ease on those little wire chairs with their hideously uncomfortable backs and those nasty little legs that are just tippy enough to set you adrift when reaching for a glass of vino. But for the sake of fantasy, I could work with the chairs and the cobblestones, and the wobbly metal tables. However, I know I shall never be soigne, dernier cri, or fly enough to look Italian in my frumpy comfortable shoes with my ever-present tote bag of essentials. I mean even the bare necessities of day-to-day living when gathered together into a carry-all create a clearly audible THUD when dropped from knee height. Not for me the chic little clutch with the signature quilting and the gold chain, nor the killer stiletto sling-backs. However, there really is no reason why I cannot learn to speak Italian. Right? And so it began.

I shall learn Italian, I thought. Why the hell not? I have the time, and it would be good exercise for my ageing brain cells. Plus, it would set me up to really enjoy my next trip to Italy. I would be able to understand what the bus driver is saying so as to not miss my stop. And I would be able to find the toilets when given directions, and could call for help if I were to inadvertently lock myself into a closet instead. The flavors of gelato would be revealed to me, and while the euro to dollar exchange rate would not necessarily cease to be a mystery, I would at least be able to ask for the price of one scoop of rum-raisin. I would be able to understand train schedules so as to ask for a ticket to ride and check arrival and departure times. And then too, there would be the waiter … the cameriere … to converse with. I would be able to ask him for a little bit of something to wedge under the table leg so as to keep it from wonking about when I lean on it. What a blessing it would be to be able to speak the language.

Learning Italian was supposed to be fun. And to begin with it was. My friend and I would get together with our tutor to torque our lips, twist our tongues, and strive to create some semblance of the sounds they make in Belle Italia. Encouraged by the promise of how easy it is to learn we dove into the delicious resonance of the language. We began with a basic lesson … every letter is pronounced and the sounds are as follows … ah eh ee oh oo. It was simple really, until they started to make the exceptions. If an A O or U follows a C it has a hard sound. And if it follows some other letter, or sequence of letters it is soft. Hello! What the F does that mean? Hard? Soft? I have no clue. And as it turns out I don’t know anything about the particulars of past participles or any other parts of speech. Adjectives? Adverbs? Subjective Pronouns? Reflexive Pronouns? It is all a bit much, especially when you make them all male or female and formal or informal. I wonder how they are dealing with transgender nouns in Italy these days. Hmmm.

But despite my complete lack of comprehension I have persevered, and over the course of the past three years, sheer repetition has begun to chip away at my stolid ignorance. I have learned to conjugate and count, to form a question and tell a stranger where I wish to go. I have practiced colors, and seasons and days of the week. The holidays and the weather and what’s on the menu, have all become part of my nascent vocabulary. In fact, I am happy to say I have pretty much memorized the beginner’s book on how to speak Italian. Unfortunately, that does not mean I can actually speak it. I can read it and I can pronounce it … but no, I wouldn’t go so far as to say I can speak it. Putting it all together and making a sentence is beyond me. When it comes time to put two words together to form a thought, all those beautiful Italian words erupt into my brain and have nowhere to go. They most closely resemble a can of SpaghettiOs without the can. The slippery composition of rules, exceptions, past perfect pronouns, idiomatic phrases, and sadly misunderstood conjugations just ooze out, and all that wonderful Italian becomes impossible to organize in any way. The beautiful words just slither hither and yon in their not-quite-Italian sauce and gum up my brain.

Meanwhile my friend in the same amount of time has learned to speak in basic sentences. She opens her mouth and spouts Italian with gestures and inflections and the conviction that she will be understood. God only knows what it is she is actually saying, but then I don’t understand Italian without subtitles, so what does it matter.

This is not the first time I have tried to learn a new language. First there was French in High School when it was evident I had issues. After two years of study, I began to faint and became nauseated if called upon in class to recite or speak in French. In that instance the school nurse prescribed a course in public speaking, which was a happy solution to my problem, as I no longer took French. Eventually, in college I switched languages. But most unfortunately my study of Spanish was interrupted by a semester abroad when I lived in an Italian hotel in French speaking Switzerland. There what little Spanish I knew was useless. Granted, it was wonderful to dwell amidst all that romance language. However, it was confusing because they all sound so similar, and it created some problems in communication. And for sure it has been a real handicap while trying to learn Italian.

However, I go through periods where I feel I have a handle on the basics. I am pretty secure with the first-person present tense of most of regular verbs. And I know a bunch of nouns that are sure to come in handy at some point. I also know how to say, “Per favore parla lentamente. Io non parlo bene l’italiano.” And then there are the times when the translator ap on my phone correctly recognizes what I am saying in Italian and I pat myself on the back and say Tres Bien. Oops! But I am really pleased because now when I catch the error, I am able to correct myself and say, “Ascolta, Costanza. Parlo francese molto bene. Ma per favore, parla italiano.” It turns out that I am quite happy to talk to myself in Italian or French, but then again, I know what I am trying to say. However, I’m not sure the cameriere at the café would be impressed by some doddering old lady talking to herself in three or four different languages. And who could blame him. I’m sure he speaks English, and I bet his French is better than mine. Oy vey! So much for the fantasy version of my Italian travels.


  1. This piece is so funny and well- written! I could especially relate to this one. 667 consecutive days studying Italian on Duolingo and I speak like a toddler! And all the exceptions! And why are some masculine nouns preceded by a feminine article and vice versa?? I have learned a lot ,?but the Spanish I used to speak has gone missing. I was trying to ask a Spanish speaking flower vender if the sunflowers were going to open more and it came out in Italospan!
    Thank you Connie for this ! Loved it. I know , in the long run, we will benefit from our Italian studies. Right?

  2. Dear Connie,
    AS ALWAYS I laughed giggled and envied through your latest marvellous, articulate, picture-making text. As before, I shall exhort you to ditch the writing club and make a beeline for some agents. Maybe an Italian one: a nice, comfy, over-middle-aged (post-menopausal; perhaps even post-cancer) expansive and extrovert woman who is fluent in English so she can ‘get’ every hilarious inflection in your superb and highly enjoyable essays. A big, comfy, honourable Italian woman, who, over a large dish with a good helping of superb chef-made pasta in a locally renowned restaurant, and a couple of bottles of rustically aromatic wine, will casually slip into Italian conversation so you’ll relax sufficiently to discover you can understand, laugh and retort with in an uninhibited indulgence in your beloved favourite second language…. All that before you discuss the large renumeration she will be negotiating with publishers for your latest series of articles.

    All this to come – not long – way beyond the confines of your ridiculously big country, with its absurdly narrow view on the rest of the World. (Oh, and that agent (who has been longing and searching for a new, unpublished, non-egotistical author – someone really interesting – an original, unrestrained, funny, real, down-to-earth and vibrant talent) – she will charge a reasonable and sufficiently affordable commission to the writing artist from Connecticut, for she wishes to broaden her intelligent readership in Europe…and even the USA. For this new undiscovered talent, she will do the work in GETTING YOUR WRITINGS KNOWN.

    Hey presto – or Pesto! I predict that this will prove be the roundabout way in getting a lot more focus and upping the sales on your paintings too. (Remember my previous suggestion – about the gallery way outside your own State?) So give the above a go! PRESTO! (Or is that Spanish?)
    Rxx (Your Irish fan)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *