About Sandi Scaunich
Blogger, social researcher, and mother, Sandi Scaunich writes about the culture, people, and places of Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Italy, and everything in between. With a masters degree in medical anthropology under her belt, she has a weakness for history, myth and legends, and tradition in all forms.
Sandi lived in a tiny village in northern Italy for several years while her husband studied and worked to become a maestro of mosaic. In 2007, they packed up their Melbourne life, and, with their four-month-old son, entered a life centered on this ancient art form.
Her business, Mosaic Republic, showcases the work of talented mosaic artisans, which uphold techniques and traditions passed down through the centuries by the Romans.
Latest Posts by Sandi Scaunich
Let me say right off that I experience joy through writing. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that everything I write about is joyful! In the case of Italy, there are plenty of joyful things to write about, such as beautiful buildings, frescos, vineyards, piazzas and ancient castles. Italian public transport, on the other hand… well, let’s just say that isn’t one of them! So I thought I might share with you my survival guide on the adventure that is ‘Italian public transport’.
If you’re ready, then fasten your safety belts please, stow your tray tables to the upright position and have your tickets ready for inspection…
Let’s start with public buses, shall we? As good a place as any. To me, it seemed as though bus drivers in Friuli-Venezia Giulia forget that their purpose is, in fact, to pick up passengers. They drive so fast! A repressed racing car driver behind the wheel of a mega-ton vehicle can only mean one thing: get your ticket ready! If you hesitate for a moment, whoosh! … the bus keeps on driving. If you don’t hail the bus, the bus will keep on driving. If you run after the bus, you better be wearing comfortable shoes… the bus keeps on driving! And if you have a pram or buggy, well, good luck – get ready for a fight!
Pretty much all of which happened to me on one occasion or another. But on this day… all I’ll say about this day, at this stage, is that I learnt an invaluable lesson in Italian ‘every-person-for-themselves on the bus’ etiquette. This day I was so keen to visit a shopping centre and spend the day lounging around in the food court and buying a few useless items on sale, that I finally worked up the courage to tackle the bus system. After living in Udine for around five months, I found myself craving for a shopping centre – and I wasn’t even pregnant then! It’s crazy the things you miss. But a shopping centre? “Shame” I hear you cry!
Surprisingly, I passed test one – getting the bus to stop, but dismally failed test two – boarding. Apparently, having a pram doesn’t buy you any extra sympathy tickets. I quickly discovered that if you take too long to board, the bus driver just takes off when he feels like it – even with one leg and half the pram inside. This particular bus driver had obviously failed the ‘how long do you give a mother with a pram to board a bus’ question on his test. Glaring at him sternly brought no response – he was too busy jamming his foot on the pedal!
As for my desperation to visit an insufferably bright, chokingly tight, wonderfully warm shopping centre on this day, I will save for another blog post. The lesson I learnt right then was: ‘(S)he who hesitates must walk’.
The following points apply to anyone planning to catch the train while traveling through Italy (which is most of us living or holidaying there).
The number one rule when catching a train in Italy is that you have to ‘validate’ your ticket. Now, this may seem like rather boring and trivial advice. But the thing is, it’s easy to forget because you won’t find coloured signs and glowing billboards to remind you. Nope, you’re on your own, folks! Knowing that you need to validate your train tickets in Italy is a bit like knowing that you should never order a cappuccino after 10am – it just is. And I can tell you from experience that if you don’t validate, you’ll have to pay a hefty fine.
Rule number two states that you should (try to) enjoy the hunt for the validation machines! Imagine that it’s Easter time and you’re participating in a train station ‘chocolate egg hunt’. The validation machines are probably lurking behind stairwells, behind doors, or in some corner. The ‘fun’ is in finding them… right?
Italian trains don’t have maps plastered on the inside walls. This makes traveling by train a little like being on a mystery tour. It’s fine if you like that sort of thing, but if you’ve made plans to actually be somewhere, then you’ll need to follow rule number three, and that’s ‘know your stuff’: Know the name of your destination station. It’s also handy to be able to pronounce the station name in case you need to ask for help (I found out!). And while you’re practicing your pronunciation, get to know the names of the stations prior. It all helps you know where you are (or might be)! Also, know your expected arrival time – that’ll give you a clue as to where you are (or, yes, you guessed it – might be!). All this will enable you to maneuverer down the skinny train aisles with your luggage in plenty of time. Ahh… the bliss of arrival at your destination… Wait a minute, what’s the name of this station…???
Apart from the myriad of dialects and the Italian language itself, there’s also another language that exists in Italy – the language of Italian car horns. Italy is a horn-honking society. The natives are totally comfortable with their horn honking-ness, which can be a bit of a jolt for anyone arriving from a non-honking country such as Australia, where honking is regarded as a somewhat aggressive gesture. Yet rather than being something to scathe at, Italian honking is, for the most part, non-aggressive.
When driving through quaint Italian towns or hectic cities, it’s common to find that traffic lights or roundabouts have acquired their own idiosyncratic rules. In these instances, honking can be your voice and greatest asset.
…Honk to say hurry up…
…Honk to say you need a coffee…
…Honk to say ‘hello’! …
But don’t think that your honk will stop traffic!
That said my advice is this: Sit back. Drive. And Honk. For when in Rome…
And for that matter, when out of Roma, when driving on Italian roads – be it on the autostrada (highway) or in the cities – this cliché comes to mind: The best defence is a good offence. That really sums it up. You see, each region has its own set of road rules. In Napoli, for instance, stopping at a red light is completely optional! Meaning that by their very nature, most Italians are alert and adaptable drivers. So there’s no need to be too timid because they’ll see you advancing and will make allowances. And, if they don’t: honk!
And finally, a few words on pedestrian crossings…
You’re fooling yourself if you expect Italian drivers to stop at pedestrian crossings. Most Italians do not stop at pedestrian crossings. And this is because they don’t see you… or, at least because they don’t want to see you. So to ensure that you’re not ignored, and forgive me for being serious here for a moment – make eye contact with the approaching driver. This way, they’ll know that you know you’ve been seen. Which translates to the cultural rule – they have to stop! Although, this tactic may be a little harder for the traveller arriving from a right-hand driving country… Until I got used to the change of traffic directions being the other way round, I would bat my head about like I was watching a game of tennis, which wasn’t really conducive to making good eye contact!
As a driver (oh yes! Now the sandal’s on the other foot!), I’d sometimes receive a honk or two when stopping at a pedestrian crossing… And this was not because I had stopped suddenly, or had done anything dangerous. No, it was simply because I had stopped. Period!
Needless to say, then, that navigating traffic in all its forms in Italy – buses, trains and cars – can be a… let’s just say a ‘challenge’ for the uninitiated. But it’s all part of the experience of Italy: you just have to “sit back and enjoy the ride…”*
*(2 clichés in the same blog scores double points, you know).
Do you have any Italy public transport tales – good or bad? What was your preferred form of transport when visiting Italy?
Prior to taking a day trip to the town of Longarone, located in the foothills of the Italian Dolomites to visit the hometown of a friend, I’d never heard of it, either. And, for the most part, the majority of Italians had no idea what took place on the evening of October 9, 1963, at 10.39pm, in the far reaches of Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Italy.
That is, until a documentary entitled “Il Racconto del Vajont” aired on Italian national television in 1997, which detailed the circumstances surrounding Vajont. The impact of this documentary was immediate: the nation was shocked and outraged, and Vajont went from being virtually unknown to a household name. Ever since, thousands of visitors have walked along the site, trying to comprehend the enormity of what occurred almost 50 years ago.
The documentary traces the circumstances surrounding the most destructive landslide in Europe’s history. About 270 million m³ of forest, earth and rock slid violently into the Vajont damn, causing a 250-meter high wave to topple over – the force of which was equal to three Hiroshima bombs. The wave crashed into the valley below, causing widespread destruction. The town of Longarone and several nearby villages were completely destroyed, killing approximately 2,500 people – many of whose bodies were never recovered.
But knowing where this tragedy began, and finished, is difficult to say. You see, building a 262-meter damn against a mountain whose very name ‘Toc’ means ‘rotten’ in local dialect should have raised alarm bells from the government, politicians, geologists, engineers and all those involved. And, in fact, it did.
Numerous reports outlined the dangers of building the Vajont damn due to mountain instability. Continuous minor landslides along the valley walls, as well as continual earth movements, were cited and recorded. Local residents raised their concerns to officials on many occasions, but to no avail. A combination of ambitiousness, incompetency and gross human error meant that all unmistakable warnings were disregarded. Once it became clear to those involved that the mountain was eroding, engineers and geologists attempted to rectify the situation by lowering the damn. Sadly, their efforts propelled the landslide because, up until that time, the water had been acting as a kind of make-shift weight, effectively holding the fragile mountain in place. The results were catastrophic.
What followed that October evening could also be seen as a tragedy. Given that the Vajont damn was government owned, the messages that filtered nationally and internationally were carefully controlled. Politicians and authorities attributed the tragedy to an unexpected and unavoidable natural event. In other statements, the collapse was seen as an unfortunate bi-product of post-war industrialization. Overall, reporting was inadequate and, as a result, the issue soon blew-over.
Continuing on, monetary compensations became enveloped in fraud and corruption, whereby large sums of money were funneled into the hands of businesses, lawyers, notaries, politicians and the like. For those few who survived the catastrophe, or were fortunate enough be out of town that night, their entitlements were based upon factors such as age and the number of lost loved ones. This form of testing meant that entitlements were not distributed evenly amongst individuals and families, which in turn fuelled rifts and resentments in an already broken community.
Today Longarone is of a completely different ilk. It bares none of the classic features typical to Italian mountain towns, such as narrow roads, case in linea (attached houses), aging monuments or historical fountains. In its place there are modern buildings, wide roads and plentiful car parking along the main drive.
An architecturally designed museum sits prominently in the centro (town centre). The museum houses salvaged remnants from the old town, including the original church bell. The names of those who died are carefully etched along the entry hall. Here you’ll see dozens of surnames belonging to the same family, suggesting that entire families were wiped out. When questioned, my friend confirmed that, yes indeed, some surnames have been lost forever.
That day, after finishing our home-cooked pasta, we found ourselves wading through old scratchy family photos of deceased relatives, as well as images of lost towns. Our friend’s mother recounted memories of the flood and how her auntie’s naked body was recovered three kilometres from the centro (the force of the shockwave was so strong that it blew the victims’ clothes off). From their tiny balcony, she pointed to a little house up on a near-distant hill, and explained how this historic home is one of the few that survived. Indeed, it stands high and proud – a testament to all that was lost.
Visitors to Vajont can take guided walking tours along paths created by the massive landslide. Faded black and white photographs of those employees stationed at the rig on the night of the tragedy are fixed into the rock wall that separates one of the tallest damns in the world from the busy main highway into Longarone.
Longarone is a town buried in sorrow and unresolved anger. It holds secrets that long to escape, and justice that hasn’t quite prevailed. It is impossible to compress the details surrounding Vajont into a short blog post. So, instead I’ll leave you with the final scene from Renzo Martinelli’s 2001 film ‘Vajont – La Diga Del Disonore’. Remember that this scene is based on actual events… If you’re like me, you may need a cup of tea afterwards.
Friuli could be the next Tuscany. It has everything any holidaymaker to Italy would want: rolling hills, forests, mountains, skiing, vineyards, castles, history, medieval towns, beaches, hot springs, delicious foods like prosciutto and fabulous cheeses … and the list goes on. It’s got everything going for it – well, apart from maybe one or two or several hundred glitches…
… Monstrous, ugly, dirty, ageing eyesores dappled endlessly across the region. Can you guess? I’ll give you a clue… The remains of industry.
In a bid to overcome the economic and social devastation wrought by World Wars I and II, the Italian government propelled Friulan industries and built hundreds of factories. They sprung up like autumn mushrooms in the nearby mountain forests. When asked about this time, the older generations will say it was a glorious period – a boom and a total success.
Flash forward fifty years… Factories abandoned, dilapidated, sitting in prime positions, situated behind or in front of historical and scenic sites. Cohesive and planned development wasn’t exactly a priority!
Friuli’s location doesn’t really help matters either. Tourists from the north typically head further south to Venice or they head east to Trieste where they can explore Croatia and other eastern European countries. Friuli is therefore too far north and not east enough. Rather it’s somewhere in the middle fighting for its own identity… sort of like the middle child.
Yet despite its disorganized landscape Friuli still sucks you in. Put it like this: Germany and Austria have pristine rolling hills and their industrial zones are wonderfully tucked away from tourist cameras. Yet, how often to do hear of someone dreaming to go to Austria? Sorry Austrians, no offence, but most travellers to Europe tend to see Italy first.
We are drawn to Italy because it is a country that has seen tragedy. And through this, beauty has arisen in the forms of art, love, tradition, philosophy, literature and culture.
That said, Friuli epitomizes what holidaymakers to Italy seek: Friuli has seen its fair share of wars, invasions, natural and man-made disasters, and economic hardships. As a result, this region has many stories to tell… Stories, myths, and ruins that fascinate and confound us, and which ultimately leave us wanting more.
Friuli may have its dirty elements, but so do Rome, Milan and Venice. For example, building Italy’s largest petrochemical plant opposite Venice Island seems like a tragic and misguided error on many levels. Only it hasn’t hurt tourism, has it? People still head to Venice in their droves.
There are so many things to see and do in Friuli, but you may have to venture behind that abandoned factory or follow an overgrown path… Perhaps, like us, you’ll see a small sign that somehow snares your interest… and you’ll drive or walk to the destination just out of curiosity, only to find that it’s a cave in the side of a mountain that was actually a fortress and church dating back to the fifth century (La Grotta di San Giovanni d’Antro). We stumbled upon many hidden gems like this, either by chance or after a local told us about them.
Therefore Friuli’s captivation doesn’t lie in initial glimpses: It’s what’s hidden behind that leaves you speechless. So could Friuli be the next Tuscany? Probably not. But then again, it doesn’t have to be.
Winter in northern Italy brings about oversized jackets and matching accessories. In fact, the weather doesn’t actually have to be cold—if it’s officially winter by the Gregorian calendar, then it’s time for winter fashions. Winter in Udine was dark, drizzly and cold.
And I mean COLD…! And long… Six long months!
The cobbled streets, charming as they were, became an unflattering dark grey, and the locals matched their clothes accordingly. Yet plenty of colour was to be found: You might imagine that red leather gloves and Burberry scarfs were the must-have accessories brightening up the dreariness, but actually, the streets of Udine became awash with umbrellas of every colour, stampeding and pushing their way forward.
I spent my first winter trying to avoid being poked by these oncoming colours! And I came to realize that the umbrella was more than just a tool for defending against the rain; it was a dangerous extension of the Udinese will…
But wait, umbrellas are just umbrellas, you say? Please indulge me for a moment while I explain. You see, Udine’s narrow streets don’t allow much room for two umbrellas to pass by seamlessly. So common sense tells us that at some point or another, one passer-by has to bend, extend, lift or change their position entirely to allow for a comfortable transition.
Well, I was always the ‘give-way-er!’ Why wouldn’t anyone else give way? Surely, one glimpse at this mother fumbling, sidestepping and zigzagging along the cobbled streets (charming as they were) while holding an umbrella and a pram would have raised some pity from on-coming foot traffic, right? Not so. Grrrrr…!
By mid-winter, I was well aware of the implicit control that locals have on the streets of Udine, and I decided that I would not yield to the pressure to give-way. So I started to walk like the locals do – steadfast, silent and direct, with little emotion on my face. My umbrella was an embodiment of my inner-strength, and with it I could exert my own brand of attitude and defiance.
One particular umbrella showdown must have really affected me because I wrote about it in my diary: One day, I was walking towards a young man who was well dressed and looking well beyond me. I, though, decided to be equally unbending and ruthless. As we got closer and closer, his upright gaze did not alter. In fact, I could have been wearing a green leprechaun suit and dancing the Macarena and he still probably wouldn’t have flinched! Anyway, with only seconds until contact, I succumbed and bent my umbrella sideways.
Damn! The man hadn’t missed a step or tilted his umbrella in the slightest! What, did he think he was a New Yorker strutting down Wall Street?
Oh well. Besides, delicious smells from a nearby pasticceria provided some comfort from narrowly losing my eyes during an umbrella collision.
By the end of winter I realized that I would never be a true local until I learnt to hold an umbrella with conviction. My lack of umbrella prowess made me stand out like a blonde-haired Aussie during a game of briscola for the over 60s. But perhaps developing critical umbrella survival skills only comes when feeling comfortable in one’s environment…
Hmmm, looking back, who would have thought that an umbrella could reveal so much?
If we were to compare ourselves to an animal, I guess Australians would be kangaroos. We hop all over the world, exploring, discovering… but we essentially love to return home to that favourite, shady tree. Southern Italians (well, my stereotypical view of them anyway) would be dogs – friendly, energetic and ready for an adventure. While northern Italians would be cats – suspicious, closed and territorial. This was my first impression of northern Italians, or more specifically, the Friulani.
Friuli Venezia Guilia is a northeastern region of Italy. My husband’s parents, Egidio and Francesca, were born and raised in a traditionally isolated mountainous area in the far eastern corner of Friuli, the Valli Del Natisone, and they migrated to Australia following World War II. Friuli also happens to be home to Italy’s official Citta’ del Mosaico (City of Mosaics), a small little-known town called Spilimbergo that rests along the mighty Tagliamento River – a plentiful source of colourful stones for mosaics and terrazzo. Therefore, when we decided to pack up and leave Melbourne to pursue Fabian’s dream of becoming a Maestro of mosaics, we naturally gravitated towards Friuli rather than heading to Ravenna, the formal capital city of the Western Roman Empire, and which is plastered in mosaics and home to many artisans.
Our first home was located in the heart of centro Udine, the second largest city in Friuli. We moved to Udine instead of Spilimbergo because we assumed that living in a larger city would offer me plenty to do while Fabian studied at the Scuola di Mosaico, a 30 minute drive away. I would make friends, enjoy long walks down winding cobbled paths, visit museums, drink coffee (oh, the Illy espressi!) and learn Italian while being a full-time mother to our five-month-old son, Leon. Only, it didn’t quite work out that way…
Now, I don’t want to say that all the Udinese I encountered were cold and, well… a-hmm, rude – many were friendly and hospitable and would talk to me despite my limited conversational skills. But friendly exchanges were as far as it went. There were no invites for coffee, no exchanging of telephone numbers or even a “let’s catch up”. And friendly exchanges in a café – buongiorno, salve, ciao – were as fleeting as the espressi I drank religiously every morning. Overcoming loneliness requires feeling part of local life, doesn’t it? And even though I did make friends (with other expats), I never quite shook that feeling of being an outsider.
Initially, I blamed my poor language skills, but as time went on I realized that this reserved politeness was a typical trait of the Udinese. When you’re feeling lonely it’s hard to rationalize that it isn’t YOU but, in fact, part of the cultural ethos. Please stay with me while I explain…
Let me just say, I can’t take credit for this theory as I’ve heard it many times! Anyway, by way of explanation, here’s today’s history lesson: Friuli has been the epicentre of dozens of wars throughout history. None other than a certain Julius Caesar ruled from Friuli during the Roman invasions. Hannibal crossed the Alps to invade northern Italy and Attila the Hun devastated the Northern provinces. All pretty serious!
People from the Valli Del Natisone say that Attila the Hun once occupied a rotting and ruined castle located on a roadside hilltop. Along the way, there were some Slav, Goth and Lombard invasions. Later still, Napoleonic France seized control of the region from the Venetian Republic, and was then supplanted by the Austrian Empire.
And let’s not forget the scars of World Wars I and II. During World War I, Friuli was a fierce battleground wherein the Battle of Caporetto was particularly brutal. I was told that the river running through Gorizia flowed red during the war. Numerous war cemeteries and memorials across Friuli serve as a constant reminder of the devastation wrought by World War I. Redipuglia, located near Trieste (Friuli’s capital), is Italy’s largest war cemetery where over 100,000 known and unknown soldiers lie. A further 60,000 soldiers lie in a war cemetery close to Gorizia and an additional 25,000 are located close to Udine. Although World War II did not see the same level of fatalities, Friuli was nevertheless hit hard by the war. Nazis militarized the area and set up Italy’s only concentration camp with a crematorium near Trieste. After World War II, the area we now know as Friuli was re-annexed back to Italy and was eventually declared an autonomous region.
So who could blame the Friulani if they’re a little wary of strangers? Being the northern gateway to Italy has meant that Friuli has seen countless marches, invasions and wars, and the brutal history has, without doubt, culturally shaped this tiny region. The Friulani have probably been passing on their fears and beliefs, either knowingly or unknowingly, way back from the days of raping and pillaging. Over time, the people became emotionally and physically hardened, somehow mirroring the rocky and formidable mountains that surround them. And when a trait becomes part of the cultural norm, I’m guessing that it would be rather difficult to shake. Ask most Italians, even the Friulani themselves, and they’ll say that they’re known for being chuisi (closed). So maybe this theory has merit after all.
All this was quite a cultural shock given that I’d left Melbourne with ideas of warmth, laughter and being greeted with open arms – all part of the diving in at the deep end! During moments of homesickness and loneliness, my expat friends would comfort me by saying that while the Friulani are difficult to get to know, once they are your friend, they will stand by you forever.
I did eventually find this, but it was a while before I heard any cats purr.
Once the holidays were over and life went back to normal, I decided to face the one thing I’d been avoiding: Italian television.
I avoided watching TV in the evenings for three main reasons. First, it was incredibly exhausting and frustrating to watch something you didn’t really understand. Second, the dubbing drove me a little crazy; that is, having every character, whether Mexican, American or Australian, say “ciao come stai?’’ in exactly the same way was both mildly irritating and somewhat hilarious. And third, the quality of the TV shows was, um, how I can I put it politely? … Vintage? Retro? Not quite. Ok… it was Bad!
Watching evening television in Italy was like being sucked into a porthole to the 80s and 90s. Here they were—Knight Rider, Miami Vice, Magnum, P.I., and Touched by an Angel— all gloriously occupying Italian primetime. I was told that as the crisis in Italy deepens, the standard of TV across the nation proportionally decreases.
Over the decades, Italians have been able to mark major life events according to what season of Walker Texas Ranger was showing. Entire generations have grown up watching Chuck Norris because at the end of a series, the staff at Rai press the rewind button and restart the series from the beginning. (It’s probably fair to say that Silvio Berlusconi doesn’t spend too much time watching his own TV stations!)
I became reacquainted with all the old characters—probably a little too much! I’d change nappies and clean the house with Della Reese’s voice singing the theme song from Touched by an Angel in my head. And I knew which show Kurt Russell was in when he was wearing an eye-patch…
In addition to reruns and old action movies, prime time slots were also occupied by Italian game shows. I became addicted to two of them. The first was Gira la Ruota (Wheel of Fortune), whose hostess happened to have breasts that looked as if they could bounce straight out and hit a home run. The camera always managed to pan her cleavage every time she spoke.
I also loved watching I Soliti Ignoti (The Usual Suspects), in which contestants had to guess each other’s occupations. However, my love for this show became tainted after someone told me that often the winning contestants were a friend of a friend who happened to know the producer, or maybe even Silvio himself! This was actually true, as it had been reported in the papers!
But I didn’t let a few game show scandals stand in my way because, as the weeks went by, I noticed my Italian started to improve. I could actually understand what the emcees and contestants were saying (although, admittedly, game show contestants do tend to say the same things over and over, such as ‘Please, please, please’, ‘Come on, come on…’).
Game shows also taught me a new tense: speaking in the conditional. Instead of saying things like ‘io scelgo’ (I’ll choose), I learnt to say ‘io sceglierei’ (I would choose), which somehow added an element of intrigue and interest to my conversations. (At least that’s what I thought it did! Always speaking in the present tense can get a little boring).
But my absolutely favourite show was probably Il Posto Al Sole (A Place In the Sun), which was a Neapolitan soap opera. I had NO chance of understanding the Napoli accent, so whenever I watched, I put the Italian subtitles on … and read, read, read like crazy! It was tough at first, but eventually I could easily follow the unfolding drama. It was great!
Even today, I’m able to read Italian quite well, and I owe it all to a soapy! And, yes, as frustrating as it is that all Italian film and television programs are dubbed, it forces you to learn the language.
If Walker Texas Ranger had been played in English, I probably wouldn’t have watched it anyway.
Learning another language is a bit like buying a ticket to a rollercoaster that has parts of the scaffolding missing. You think to yourself, Hmmm, it might be a bit unsafe, but it should be ok. Should be… That is, no one has died yet, right? Damn, I wish I’d packed my spanner to tighten those loose screws! Or maybe you decide to be the first person on a rollercoaster to sit on their head. Perhaps it’s ok to scream relentlessly – even on the upwards part!
Put simply, learning a language is a scary ride that you know you’d like to get off, but can’t help find yourself wanting more of – even after polishing off some fairy floss, two hamburgers and some ice cream… and throwing-up near the ticket seller!
My foray into learning to speak Italian was a steep climb up the rollercoaster that seemed to take forever. In the very early days, I couldn’t accept the fact that I was going to make mistakes. And when you’re learning a language you are going to make mistakes! So why couldn’t I accept this? No, I had to say everything perfectly. And if I didn’t know how to say something, well, I just wouldn’t speak at all. Being known as Fabian’s mute wife seemed like a better choice than being known as his blonde ditzy wife who couldn’t tell the difference between a verb and noun.
My brain was so full to the brim with Italian words that along the way my English suffered. I started to say things like “I buyed some pane oggi.” And the more I studied Italian the worse my English became… and the worse my English became the more I realized that I needed to know English in order to learn Italian!
Confused? Yes, me too! I had to get a handle on the basic structure of English – it wasn’t enough that English is my native tongue. Yes I speak English but I don’t think about it. I don’t think about tenses, and I don’t take any notice of the number of contractions I use. It just comes out. Italians, on the other hand, not only speak Italian but they understand the basic principles of how it’s constructed. In fact, Italians are so good with their grammar that I’m sure most could tell you the past participle of the verb to make goat’s cheese without blinking.
Eventually, I realized that if I were to understand how the Italian language is constructed, I would first have to revisit and grasp the basic principles of my own language. Too bad I threw out my English lessons from grade six!
After months of blank looks (coming from me), awkward conversations (all my fault) and plenty of silences (more blank looks), I decided that I needed a tutor. By chance I stumbled across a small sign advertising language tutoring in an unfamiliar part of Udine. We were there to attend Udine’s annual Festa della Castagna (chestnut festival), where I ate plenty of yummy roasted chestnuts and tried to stay warm. Anyway, I followed the sign down a small cobbled alleyway to a little office. There I met Johannes – a Cuban national who primarily taught Spanish and English but was happy to teach me Italian. He was friendly and fun, and learning with him didn’t feel overwhelming or intimidating. We steered clear of passato remoto (remote past) and congiuntivo (subjunctive tense) – phew! – and concentrated on the basics: how to order food, how to greet a stranger, etc. That was what I needed. The only problem was, we would revert back to speaking English all the time. Even though I felt like I was cheating, it was lovely and comforting to have a conversation with no blank looks.
Actually, I had so many horror language moments that I really don’t know where to start. But here’s a good one: I once told Johannes that “io l’ho lecco e non lo faccio” – that I had read it [the exercise] but hadn’t completed it. Well, that’s what I thought I’d said… Instead I’d said, “I licked the exercise and wouldn’t do it”! But it was ok to make blunders with Johannes because I was paying him, and he also happened to be a nice guy. It was the mistakes I made beyond the classroom that filled me with horror…
There are a few ‘hide me now’ moments that stand out in particular. For instance, I told a table full of people that I don’t eat meat because I’m a verdura. I should have said vegetariana (vegetarian), but instead, I told everyone that I was a vegetable. At that moment I could have easily been a beetroot! Once, I confused genitori (parents) with genitalia and told a group that “my genitals live in Melbourne”. I happily carried on, blissfully unaware of my gargantuan blunder. The difference between genitori and genitalia may seem frightfully obvious now, but when your brain is functioning like a muddy pond – nothing is clear.
Oh yes, without doubt, learning a second language was quite a humbling experience.