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The Vocabula Review

March 2003, Vol. 5, No. 3

How to Err in Italian David Carkeet

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Day 1

We arrive at the hotel in mid-afternoon. I can't sleep. I leave my wife in the room and wander the streets. Young Romans stop me and ask in English what time it is. It's as if they can see the jet lag on my face and know I am confused about the time. I've read that Italians are fond of subtle mockery. Here it is already.

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Day 2

My guidebook says that prego means "you're welcome." This is a lie. Prego means "You're doing something wrong again." From a museum guard, it means you've entered without a ticket, or you can't use those stairs, or you're going the wrong way. From a subway official, it means that the token you're trying to give him, purchased from a machine deceptively close to his station, is for the public telephone, not the subway.

To travel is to err. To err in Rome is to get a prego.

Day 3

They keep asking me in English what time it is. They do it only when they're part of a group, so I have a new theory: they're showing off their English to their friends. But I still feel mistreated. I'm a windup toy. Hey, look, an American! Let's make him talk English!

At lunch, the Italian couple seated at the next table are talking about us, I can tell. When I respond to something my wife says with a "Yeah," the guy hears it as a "Ja," puts the "Ja" together with my blond hair, and says knowingly to his companion, "Deutsch." A nation of showoffs. Quickly, loudly, I say, "Yes" to my wife. Guess again, pal.

Day 4

Mealtime is a bookish enterprise. My reference guide is Harrap's Super-Mini Italian and English Dictionary ("Acclaimed as the Finest of Its Kind on the Continent"). I look up melanzana, and it says "aubergine." What in the hell is an aubergine? I realize Harrap has puzzled me like this before. Suspicious, I check the copyright page. Harrap is for Brits! The waitress approaches and says, Prego. In a restaurant, prego means "I'm ready to take your order even though you're not ready to give it to me." I give up on melanzana and point interrogatively at another listing on the menu. The waitress says this item has pancetta in it. She watches me flee to Harrap, which tells me pancetta means "pot-belly." I laugh and point to my belly and make a rounding gesture with both hands. The waitress stares. My wife, reading from her menu, says, "What's cervello?" The waitress interprets her question as an order and writes it down. I know that cervello means "brains," and I wave my hands and cry, "No, no, no." The waitress frowns at me. With a pang of despair, I feel that all of my interactions in life have been exactly like this one.

Day 5

At the hotel breakfast buffet, the milk is sour. I must tell the waiter. Harrap gives me three words for "sour": acido, acerbo, and aspro. I don't want to report the milk's pH, so I reject acido. Acerbo scares me. I can imagine the waiter telling the guys in the kitchen, "The American finds the milk acerbic." In mounting confusion, I likewise reject aspro. Let the other guests gag on the milk.

Day 6

When I ask for directions, they talk as if I were fluent. They go on and on. I hear a sinistra here, a destra there; avanti waves hopefully to me from the distance. I can't put the main words together because of all the other words — function words, grace notes. I don't want elegance. I want caveman talk. Having asked for help, I have the urge to tell them to shut up.

Day 7

My wife simply cannot remember that cervello means "brains." She asks me about it at every meal. I am able to remember it because I rely on cognates. I urge her to do the same. "Think of 'cervix,'" I say. "How's that going to help?" she asks. I say, testily, "The cervix is part of the brain." As she stares at me, I suddenly realize I've confused "cervix" with "cerebellum."

Day 8

It is mid-afternoon, and I am fading. I want a cup of coffee. I asked for coffee on an earlier occasion and was disappointed at the goods delivered: a tiny cup containing a few drops of essence of coffee. I suspected mockery and looked around for natives stifling laughter. When I asked the waiter how to get a big cup of coffee, he said I should ask for caffè americano or caffè nero.

Now, in this restaurant, I reject caffè americano because I don't want to proclaim that I have flown thousands of miles in order to drink American coffee, even though I have. I ask confidently for caffè nero. The woman shakes her head. "Tè nero," she says — black tea. I will not translate this successfully until the end of the day. At the moment, when it counts, when I am fading and could really use some black tea, I become locked in a rigid, inescapable misinterpretation. Because the Italian t can sound like a d, I hear her two words as one: dinero. I think she is telling me that I can't buy coffee because coffee does not cost enough "dinero." I arrive at this improbable conclusion because of two prior experiences. First, the day before, when I tried to buy an acqua minerale in a restaurant, I got a shake of the head and a clear explanation, in different words, that I would need to buy a whole meal, which interested me even less than the acqua minerale — a pretext in the first place because I really just wanted to use the toilet. Second, I know that the dinar is the monetary unit of neighboring Yugoslavia because earlier I got a five-dinar coin as change in a shop, throwing me into deep confusion. Thus much learning, experience, and reasoning synthesize to yield my ingenious interpretation of tè nero as dinero.

Day 9 (a.m.)

I have developed rules for walking in Rome. (1) Place your thumbnail on the map and inch it along as you walk, checking your progress every few steps; neglect this for a moment, and you will become lost forever. (2) When crossing a street, look left, then right, then left again. It's astonishing how quickly a menace to your life can fill that empty space to the left.

These are good rules, but I cannot penetrate Italian sidewalk manners. The natives don't yield. They aim right for me and make me yield. I try to telegraph my intent ("I'll take the curb, signore, while you hug the building"), but it has no effect. I become aware of walking body language when a fellow-American approaches and we start to exchange signals from a great distance. The messages are really flowing; we're sending volumes of information to each other. We pass without incident. This gets me thinking. Maybe the natives give signals, but later than Americans, closer to the moment of passing. I will look for the signs.

Day 9 (p.m.)

As a pedestrian, I am transformed. I wait for a late signal from the Italians, and I get it, though I wouldn't be able to say what form it takes. I just get it. I am bodily fluent. I glide through Rome. When I see approaching Americans start to fidget from a block away, I want to shout, "Don't be so uptight!"

Day 10

I have found my caveman. He got us to a distant catacomb in fine style. Good with the hands and quick with the amplifying paraphrase. When he told us to turn at the semaforo, he didn't just leave it at that. With his hands, he created three imaginary circles in the air, one above the other, and he said, "Semaforo. Rosso, ambra, verde. Semaforo." Donald Sutherland needed this guy in Don't Look Now.

Day 11

If I had the Italian with me who thought I was a German, I would give him a new rule for identifying Germans. They look exactly like Americans except for their feet, which always have funny footwear. As for Americans, you will know them by their laughter. It is loud. In groups, it sounds strained, as if it masks deep pain. I've cut way down on my own laughter. Either you're going to glide or you're going to guffaw. You can't do both. Me, I'll glide.

Day 12

It is our last day, and we rent a car for an excursion to outlying sites. But first, we must escape the city. I immediately develop three rules for driving in Rome. (1) If you have an advantage, keep it. (2) Don't send false messages. (3) If lost, follow someone.

An hour into the countryside, an iconic warning light appears in the dash — a line angling from the upper left to the lower right and intersecting a circle. The tiny image looks like a banking airplane on a collision course with us, but I don't think the car is equipped with radar. My wife wants me to stop and have it checked. I put it off for as long as possible, wisely risking a breakdown against guaranteed linguistic chaos in the service bay. But finally I relent and pull into a rural gas station. I beckon to the attendant, who is so strikingly good-looking that I wonder if I have driven onto a movie set. He leans down to my window. I point to the dash light and throw my hands up helplessly. He nods with excitement: he knows what it means. But how to tell me? He doesn't have a morsel of English. He starts to speak and stops. He frowns. He starts and stops again. From out of nowhere, I remember the signs posted near work sites at the Roman Forum, warning of danger. "Pericolo?" I ask. He brightens and says, "No pericolo. No pericolo." Then he sees a little lever in the dash above my knee and pulls it out. The engine revs. When he pushes it all the way in, the engine slows and the warning light disappears. The dash light is a signal for the manual fast idle, which my knee must have engaged. I go "vum vum vum" in imitation of the engine revving, and he grins and nods. I throw him a passionate "grazie" and speed away.

Driving down the road, I replay the moment of breakthrough. "Pericolo?" "No pericolo. No pericolo."

Day 13

At the airport, all checked in and cleared, with Harrap in the hotel trashcan and nothing on my mind, I watch two airport workers discuss something complicated about the ceiling near the gate. They have been discussing it for half an hour even though the ceiling looks perfectly normal to me. They gesture, look overhead, look off in the distance, look at each other. I watch one of them walk a few steps away and then come back — a bit of conversational behavior I have seen many times on this trip.

Here, now, I won't have to speak. I have nothing to say, nothing to ask. I should feel relieved, but I'm not. I realize I have developed a fondness for the halting transaction — the linguistic event in which a native meets you with what he's got, you meet him with what you've got, and your bodies work like the devil to make up for what neither of you has got. The natives, after all, want the same thing you want — to understand, to be understood.

The night before, in the hotel room, my wife had asked me what I liked best in Rome. The Colosseum? The Pantheon? The Baths of Caracalla? If she asked me now, I would point to my two Italians endlessly discussing the mystery of the ceiling. "I like them best," I would say.

David Carkeet

David Carkeet David Carkeet, recently retired from teaching at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, is moving this summer to Vermont, where he will write full time, a goal he set for himself some thirty years ago.

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