How I Learned (And Forgot) Italian in 34 Easy Steps


The overwhelmingly most popular post on this website hands down is about how I learned Romanian in 37 “easy steps”, an obvious riff on my incredibly awkward, painfully slow but ultimately rewarding journey in speaking Romanian.

But that wasn’t the first foreign language I ever learned – it was Italian.

Come Ho Imparato E Dimenticato L’italiano in 34 Passi Semplici

Step 1 – Entire family moves to Italy at the beginning of August.

Step 2 – My sister and I are both children and of age that going to school is mandatory.

Step 3 – We are all incredibly unprepared for the fact that essentially the entire interior of Italy looks like a post-apocalyptic wasteland as it is brutally hot and everybody and their fratello is on vacation somewhere nice in August, as all right-thinking people should be doing!

Step 4 – I finally realize something weird is going on and I confront my mother.

Me: *nervous chuckle* Mother old dear, where’s the old American school ’round these here parts? I can’t say I’ve heard much talk in this direction.
Mother: *hardens face* My child, there is no American school. There’s no British school either. In September you and your sister will be going to a regular Italian public school.

*ENORMOUSLY LONG PAUSE*

Me: Uh, mom. Was I switched at birth? Do I have a secret twin and some other woman raised me? Do you not realize no one in this family speaks a single word of Italian??

Mom: Well you’ll be fine, I’m sure.
Sister: *faints*
Mom: Oh, and there’s mandatory uniforms.

Step 5 – Get to school dressed in some local version of traditional Italian bambini going to the first day of scuola clothes. One minute I’m a jeans wearing kid and now I feel like I’m dressed up for a Renaissance festival.

Step 6 – Tons of chatter between my mother and the adults, basically in the most disjointed English ever. And once again, we don’t speak Italian. Papers get signed and Mom takes off like a rocket. We’re in the system now.

Sister gets whisked off somewhere to parts unknown. Arrivaderci!

Step 7 – I meet one of my two teachers, a guy named Vittorio. Coolest teacher I ever had in my entire life. Wore leather jackets and smoked cigarettes right during class.

Half the time he teaches the class and half the time a woman, an ancient crotchety, grumpy old lady teaches us.

The bad news: The old lady speaks zero English.
The good news: Vittorio speaks pretty good English.

Step 8 – First day of school Vittorio takes me aside.

Vittorio: I understand you speak no Italian. Is that true?
Me: Yes sir, none at all.
Vittorio: Okay the good news is the school is going to allow me to give you some 1-on-1 tutoring so you can get up to speed and learn some Italian so you can join the rest of the class.

Me: *sighs with visible relief*

Vittorio: The bad news is I can only do this with you for two days. After that, you’ll join the regular class and everything will be in Italian.

Me: *faints*

Step 9 – Since there was no way to do formal lessons, we just walked around town and Vittorio would point at things, say their name in Italian, and it was up to me to repeat it and memorize it. Then onto the next thing.

It was like parachuting into a jungle and meeting a tribe and having to learn their language that way, literally one word at a time.

Step 10 – Get home the first day, exhausted and drained. Since it’s a warm day, outside of my blocco I can hear a bunch of kids playing soccer (duh, what else?)

Yet I am shaken to my core when I keep hearing them shout, “Die! Die!” I crept onto the balcony on my hands and knees and peeped through the cracks to see why they were shouting that. Did they hear we had just arrived in the neighborhood or what?

Months later I realize they’re saying, “Mi lo dai” or “give it to me”, referring to the soccer ball.

Step 11 – Day 3 bam, I’m in class. Welcome to surreal 101. Vittorio occasionally gives me a clue on what’s going on but the crotchety old lady has no tolerance for her Italian students much less some halfwit foreigner.

Step 12 – The Italian kids turn out to be the most jovial, friendly, forthcoming and generous bunch of classmates I ever had in my life, before or since. A few of them speak some English and we end up getting along like gangbusters.

Step 13 – Going to Italian school requires one hell of a lot of specialized supplies, from the exact kind of pencils you have to have, to your special cuaderno for every subject, etc.

The teacher would write the list of supplies on the blackboard and I’d dutifully copy them in my notebook, not having any idea what the things were until we got to the store later and found them on the shelf.

Step 14 – Years later I’d find my old class notebooks from Italy, full of all kinds of entries and doodles and parts of lessons, kicking off a flood of amazing memories.

Step 15 – Ding, ding ding, mandatory at around 10 in the morning every day was the lady who came with a cart and a huge cauldron of steaming hot milk. And every kid had to line up and get their dose of the damn latte caldo whether you liked it or not because it was “healthy”.

Mind you, I hated drinking milk. I always have and I still do. I put up a tremendous fuss but for a couple of weeks I was forced to chug my shot of putrid hot milk every morning.

Finally the milk ladies got sick of me complaining so one day in comes the normal huge kettle of milk and there next to it in a tiny little jug was some latte freddo for me. Jeez! But no matter what I do, they never relent and I am forced to drink the (cold) milk for the entire school year.

Step 16 – On the other hand, the lunches were the most astonishing and wonderful meals I ever ate.

Instead of long benches, we all sat at tables seating only four people. There was always a tablecloth on the table and a place setting for every chair.

Usually the appetizer was already on the table when we sat down. Then about 10 minutes later, the cooks would come in and serve the main entree.

A while later after that, the cooks would come in and clear the dishes and bring us the dessert. And then after that we’d go out and play in a recess period to help digestion. Abbastanza buono!

Step 17 – At home we had a stove that used natural gas but had no pilot light. Therefore every time you had wanted to cook you had to use a new match.

These matches were only sold at a special store that sold cigarettes, matches, lottery tickets and stamps called a tabaccaio. The word for matches is fiammiferi, a tremendous tongue twister for me to say. Every time my mother would use up all the matches, she’d send me down there to mangle that word, with the old guys in driver’s hats and big pot bellies chuckling at me and my accent.

Step 18 – Stand in awe and two entire rows of pasta in the grocery store. Peering through the little windows in the boxes to learn what all the names meant, most of which I’d never heard of.

Step 19 – Catch the linguistic lick of my life when coincidentally my classmates start having grammar lessons as part of the curriculum. My mind boggles when the old crotchety lady tries explaining the various verb tenses, including the “passato remoto” for “only those things that happened a long time ago”.

Interestingly enough, perhaps because I was learning it from scratch, I soon came up with the answers on grammar questions more easily than some of my classmates, which caused no end of consternation.

Step 20 – Got asked a lot of interesting questions, like where do I surf (I don’t – never have), why isn’t my hair blonde (because it isn’t) and what are black people like (people). Most of my classmates had literally never seen a black person in their life besides on TV and in films.

Step 21 – Also lucked out that we studied the history of World War 2 that year. As I was raised with all that rah-rah razzle dazzle American side of things, it was quite an eye opener to see it from the point of view of a country which uh, to put it politely, chose a series of vastly different choices.

A lot of people forget Mussolini was in power in Italy for well over 20 years.

Step 22 – One of my classmates is blind in one eye and nearly blind in his other and wears incredibly thick glasses. Half of his face is slightly melted and quite a shock when you see it.

He was a completely innocent bystander in a terrorist attack. He was in the train station that day, holding hands with his grandma, waiting on his parents’ train to come into the station. Then in an instant his grandmother was blown to jelly and half his face melted.

Step 23 – As a family, we have dinner with some some Italian guy and his wife. Why we went there or who he even was, I have no idea.

At first we sit down to some snacks and the man starts wolfing down cherries from an enormous bowl of them. He’d pop them in his mouth and an instant later spit out the stem and the seed. Then he showed us how he could tie the stem in a knot using only his tongue.

Later, his wife wheeled in an enormous television right next to the dining table, tuned to some big hooplah of a soccer game. He had the volume blaring and with this enormous TV looming over the table, it was impossible to talk so we just watched the game.

Close to the end, a riot broke out and a huge part of the stadium collapsed, right there on live TV before all of our eyes. The announcer was talking super fast in Italian but it was clear that a ton of people had been injured and indeed killed.

Step 24 – On a happier note, I start going over for visits and dinners with some of my Italian classmates and meeting their families. Keep eating tremendously good food, including yep, a metric ton of pasta. It really is not a stereotype in the slightest.

I was also completely unprepared for all the wine my friends’ parents kept offering me. Mind you, it’s rather mild stuff and completely natural but just beyond the scope of what I had known before.

Likewise, when I turned it down, nobody batted an eyelid.

Step 25 – Met a lot of incredibly cute ragazze, the surest incentive to learn a language if there ever was one ;)

Step 26 – As where I was living was extremely safe, I did a lot of walking around on my own, including to and back from school as well as errands to the stores in the neighborhoods.

Met a tremendous number of adults, especially older women, who had no relationship with me whatsoever, in fact had never met me in their entire lives, who felt the best way to get my attention was to pinch me extremely hard in the cheek. Only when I was unable to run away would they tell me their story or scold me.

Step 27 – Watched a lot of Italian TV, including one heck of a lot of Japanese cartoons dubbed into Italian, as well as some of the longest, strangest game shows ever broadcast.

Also note that as long as it’s casual and/or brief, female toplessness on TV on virtually any channel is completely okay.

Step 28 – The school buys a kind of fancy A/V setup to show educational films.

The instruction booklet arrives and it’s printed in a number of languages, one of them English, but not in Italian. I therefore get drafted by the custodians to go help them hook all of this complicated stuff up, which I had never done in my life.

Between the book and me translating what it said, the three of us get it all hooked up and running properly after an hour or so. We sigh with relief and pop the movie in that the students are going to watch.

It’s a two-hour documentary on how to make Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Step 29 – Travel all around the country, seeing an incredible amount of wonderful and amazing places. Quickly realize at least half the country is not speaking anything close to prestige dialect Italian and a lot of it is virtually incomprehensible.

Step 30 – Not only that but even prestige dialect has gone through an enormous amount of changes and anything almost historical, such as the Italian used in operas, is far different than modern Italian.

Speaking of which, one of the greatest heroes of all time in Italy, Christoforo Colombo, spoke such a mishmash of post-Latin dialects that his letters and journals are almost impossible to read by anyone alive today. And they certainly aren’t written in Italian.

Step 31 – About once a month, right in the middle of ordinary school lessons, a fully dressed Catholic priest in all his regalia shows up and gives us a mandatory religion lesson. And it doesn’t matter whether you’re Catholic or not.

A lot of times he’d hand out little comic books that told the stories of “saintly” children who would wow the entire village with their religious purity. Then he’d quiz us on the stories later to see if we’d memorized the plot so we would theoretically emulate these kids’ behaviors.

Rarely he would herd us outside and one of his buddies would whirl a metal pot that had incense smoke pouring out of it. Then the main priest would shake a dipper of water at us.

Step 32 – Being young and being in class all day with Italians speaking Italian (and studying Italian formally), I pick up the language until I can chatter all day long in it with my friends on the playground. Yay!

Step 33 – Move back to the United States, find less and less of a need to speak it, and so my skills rapidly deteriorate.

Finally the only solution is to take an Italian class for a few years, taught by a crotchety but soft-hearted old Italian lady on loan part-time from the community college.

Nonetheless, for all that, the only person I ever use Italian with is Giuliana Rancic.

Step 34 – Years later, I fly back to Italy, excited to see that wonderful country again and practice my old rusty Italian skills.

I walk out of the airport and try to figure out which bus I need to take. There’s a lady standing near the bus. In Italian, I ask her if it goes to my destination.

Turns out she doesn’t know and in fact she barely speaks Italian. That’s because she’s Romanian. The workers in the hotel where I stay are all Romanian. The waitresses in all the cafes and restaurants are Romanian. The gypsies standing on the bridge, playing violins are singing in Romanian.

Between speaking Romanian and English to everyone, I end up using about two words of Italian during the entire trip.

Cosi va la vita :P

E ORA LO SAI!

12 Comments Add yours

  1. Peter says:

    All you need to speak Italian is a moustache: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9JhuOicPFZY

    Like

  2. Lavinia says:

    “Turns out she doesn’t know and in fact she barely speaks Italian. That’s because she’s Romanian. The workers in the hotel where I stay are all Romanian. The waitresses in all the cafes and restaurants are Romanian. The gypsies standing on the bridge, playing violins are singing in Romanian. ” -> big LOL!!! :D

    anway, i hope you don’t mind, i’ve advertised you on my blog:

    http://vrabiutamigratoare.blogspot.com/

    Like

  3. Oana says:

    Where exactly were you in Italy?

    Like

    1. Sam R. says:

      I’ve been almost everywhere in Italy. It’s a gorgeous country! :D

      Like

  4. Anca says:

    I have good news and I have bad news: this was even better than your “Romanian in 37 ‘easy steps'”.

    Like

    1. Sam R. says:

      And why is that “bad news”?

      Like

      1. Anca says:

        Because you’re running a site about Romania! And your Italy stories just upstaged your popular post about learning Romanian. And that’s “bad”. :)

        Like

      2. Sam R. says:

        Well this is true. But lots of Romanians have been to (or are currently in) Italy. I think every third person in Botosani tried speaking it to me :P

        But in a larger sense, it’s also about Romania as well. Because I could just as easily live in Italy or some other European country, but I choose to live HERE :D

        Like

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