Sorrento: Pompeii, Brutal Classmates, and more (Week Four)

Ciao a tutti!
Sorrento has been home for a whole month now. As the summer ramps up, the streets in town have become more and more packed with tourists, so I’ve been spending more time further off the beaten path when meeting up with local friends. Class this week went somewhat well, I’ll say. This week I had two classmates who were both over sixty, and they were very sweet people just just awful in class, I must say. One spoke fluidly but butchered just about every word, and the other spoke well but always would forget one word in a sentence and stop the whole world while she thought of it. Worst of all, they constantly interrupted the teacher and themselves, even when the teacher would try to explain something…ridiculous. By Wednesday, I knew what I had to do: join the yelling match. The rest of the week I guess I practiced my quick Italian. when I spoke, it had to be quick and fluid or else I would be interrupted by the other two, so I was able to practice jumping in to conversations. When life gives you two lemons in class…

After classes, I tried to catch up on some frequent vocabulary and brush up on what I did in the first week, which I realized I need to do a bit more of. A couple friends in town had a lot of free time this week, so I was able to hang out while speaking and hearing heaps of Italian. I can see a dramatic improvement in listening comprehension, especially when I have context and hand gestures as aids. Speaking is definitely lagging in comparison to comprehension, but I think that’s normal; it just makes me want to continue expanding my vocabulary so I can quickly call to mind what I’d like to say.

I was also able to talk with a few locals this week about their thoughts on the U.S. Of course, it was impossible to steer clear of talking about Trump, but we covered a good range of topics. Everyone I talked to alluded to Trump being a spectacle and the ultimate unknown. They were most concerned with foreign relations if Trump wins, as again it’s a complete toss-up. I tried to drive the conversations away from politics in general. I tried to focus on perspective of the U.S. as an idea, and here’s some paraphrasing of the responses:
Young man (20 years old): America is open and fertile. You can do anything there. Success is so available, not easy but there for the taking. Imagine if I had been born in Texas: Hi, I’m Mario and I come from Texas–go Cowboys. (He’s a character without a doubt).
Middle-aged woman: People tell me that Italians and Americans are different, but when I talk to Americans I don’t see all the differences. When it comes down to it, I think we face essentially the same challenges and reach for the same goals.
Older gentleman: I could be American. I could have left as a youngster and made myself in America. I could have a beautiful estate in New York right now. The truth is, though, I could have just as easily failed, been the poorest guy around, unable to provide for a wife and kids. (He said this while surrounded by his lovely big family at his farm…I think me made the right choice).

Initially I thought that talking with the older gentleman was more of a story than a perspective, but after sitting with it for a while, I realized that his account in fact was his view of the States. The U.S. to this gentleman, more than anything, represents a chance he had back in the fifties and a hypothetical unravelling of his own life from there–it was incredible to see him dream ever so slightly while speaking of what might have been…and even better to see him finish the story by kissing his wife.

Hearing these thoughts gave me a good sense of the local sentiment, and the variety of responses was refreshing.

It’s hard to believe, but visiting the great Pompeii was a side note to this weeks happenings. Another astounding sight on the Bay of Naples, especially for a student of classics.

Pompeii's amphitheater written about by Tacitus

Pompeii’s amphitheater written about by Tacitus


Sorrento: Individual Lessons and Slang (Week Three)

Written at the end of the third week:

I’ve reached the halfway point of my time in Sorrento–it feels like I’ll never have to leave, but just writing this reminds me to take advantage of every day here.
The individual class was extremely clarifying. I was able to stop at any point and ask a question, direct where the lessons went, and hone in on my weaknesses. On top of that, the instructor this week was a latinist like myself (well, student of Latin) so he was able to relate some of the trickiest parts of the grammar to Latin rather than English, which turned out to be immensely helpful. I was pleasantly surprised to be able to almost never ask for repetition even when discussing some complex words and topics.
Outside the classroom, I was able to get to know my host family much better this week because I was not always running around with my actual family. The three of them are incredibly sweet; the mom and daughter are actually both Russians who are, of course, fluent in Italian, while the father is full-blown Napoletano. Because of this, it is incredibly difficult to understand him at times, but I can still manage. I immediately recognized a ranking of ease of understanding with the daughter being the clearest, followed by the mother, and then the father. So, when the father speaks and I can’t understand, I’ll usually look to the mother then to the daughter for rescue. It can be frustrating at times when I can’t fully express myself or easily jump into a conversation when we’re all gathered, but the exposure alone to the language (and the vocabulary of the home) has been a huge help.
Speaking of Napoletano and some misunderstandings, I’ll fill you all in in some colloquialisms and some slang. First, there is a phrase said often by the youth, which is Napoletano (from the language of the Naples area). I don’t know how to write it, and neither do they as Napoletano is usually only spoken, not written, by locals anymore, nor have I found a sufficient way to translate it into English. It’s along the lines of “who is dead to you,” which does no justice to the phrase, but it carries the weight of: “____ you and your ancestors!” Intense! Although, it is used frequently among the youth (much like curse words in English)…I haven’t dared to use it in a real context, but I know it when I hear it! I asked my host parents about it (in a gentle manner) and they both said that it’s a heavy insult if meant with full force, but they recognize that it is most commonly used among friends. Some of the younger people in town have told me that they’ll use it when a scooter cuts them off while driving or jokingly when with friends–I think I’ll stay away from cursing people’s ancestors for now.
A few other colloquialisms that I’ve adopted, for better or worse are uè, mo, ragà, and the use of “voi”. Uè is a Napoletano greeting word, essentially a substitute for ciao. Mo means “now”, and takes the place of ora or adesso. Ragà is an abbreviation for ragazzi or ragazze, so it translates to “guys” (masculine or feminine) in English. Here in southern Italy, the use of “voi”, the informal plural you in standard Italian, encompasses the formal singular you, informal plural you, and formal plural you. While this is an error in “Standard Italian,” I have become fond of it because 1) it is a living trace of history in southern Italy and 2) it’s much easier than separating everything into Lei, voi and Loro…but mainly because of it’s historical significance.

Thursday of this week was a holiday here in Italy, so there was no class, and I decided to trek the Sentiero degli Dei, the Path of the Gods, along the Amalfi coast with some friends from the school. The scenery and panoramas were incredible. Here’s a peek:

Amalfi Coastline, Gulf of Salerno

Amalfi Coastline, Gulf of Salerno

A presto!

Sorrento: Surrounding Areas (Week Two)

A late week two post–I was waiting on receiving some photos. Written at the end of the second week:

I don’t want to believe it but week two has come and gone, and it included a brief visit from my parents. As far as the classroom goes, there were four of us students this week, and once again the other three outclassed me when it came to fluency. I definitely feel a small improvement in comprehension–I understand the sense of nearly everything said to me, whereas two weeks ago I would have to ask for repetition even in simple sentences or questions. I still struggle to get the words out when I speak, though. I find that starting a sentence is the most difficult part. Once I get going with a thought or story, I do quite well speaking, although I admit that it is hard to remember what I have said because I am always searching for the next word or the next phrase; because of this, I’ve definitely rambled while recounting something as well as omitted a significant detail–precision will come.

Outside the classroom, I divided my time between my parents and the couple of friends I have made in town. Fortunately, it worked out well because my friends usually work during the days and are free at night when my parents were exhausted from a day of tourism. The can’t-miss place for us was Salerno (my last name!), which is a fairly large city about an hour away from Sorrento. While my family does not hail from Salerno (Sicily, actually), it was still neat to see the city whose name I bear. Salerno is much more “Italian” than Sorrento. Sorrento is a grand touristy town that can feel a bit sleepy at times, while Salerno is a larger functioning Italian city. I didn’t see a single tourist there, and the locals spoke really only Italian so I was the translator for my parents when ordering food, shopping, reading political banners, asking for directions, reading inscriptions, etc. One funny occurrence: my mother bought a belt there for my older brother and the proprietor was taken aback when he saw the name on the card–that roused a laugh out of all of us and spurred him on to give us a mini history of the town. He finished by exhorting us to be proud of our last name, all in Italian. The man was so animated and captivating that I thought for a second I was listening to Coach Herb Brooks before the US beat the Russians. That man needs a coaching job ASAP.

The Salernos feel at home

The Salernos feel at home

As a classics major, the visit I took to Herculaneum, one of the ancient towns covered by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D., was one of the most enriching days I could have asked for. Having just taken the Archaeology of Ancient Rome course, it was encouraging that I could look at a fresco, wall, window, or room of a house and remember the purpose of the style or engineering.

Classics major paradise

Classics major paradise

While being a tourist with my parents was fun, the best parts of my week were when I had the chance to further develop friendships with a couple local buddies in the evenings. Those interactions have greatly augmented my learning because I am constantly engaging with them and am called to respond to Italian in Italian about a much wider variety of topics–it’s without a doubt a different vocabulary with friends shooting the breeze from that of the classroom. I look forward to continuing to interact with these friends in the coming weeks.
I am very excited for next week in class because I will be one on one with the instructor–more demanding and more tailored to my weaknesses. A presto!

One piece of the gorgeous Sorrentine Peninsola...I guess I'm embracing the non smiling ways of the older generation here

One piece of the gorgeous Sorrentine Peninsola…I guess I’m embracing the non smiling ways of the older generation here

First Impressions: Sorrento

After a week of Italian courses, I feel like I’m cheating by writing this in English…at the same time a small relief. The travel day went surprisingly well–I was excited that my flight from Chicago to Rome offered Italian newspapers (and that the predominant language spoken was Italian). After reading every article maybe four or five times on that nine-hour flight, I was ecstatic to step foot in the bel paese. A couple train rides and one wavy ferry ride later, I had made it to the imposing outer walls of Sorrento. Following a brief pause to catch my breath, I trudged up the scenic ramp to the upper city just to learn that my apartment for the first week was down in the lower city, but that walk was a nice orientation to the city of Sorrento before I had even unpacked.
I spent the opening weekend before classes walking through the entire city so many times that I knew it like the back of my hand (or so I thought–there is a plethora of hidden gems here). I was eager to start speaking to some locals, and the friendliest ones were usually old men killing time playing cards or watching the city go by. Most of these elders with whom I spoke would speak predominantly Napoletano (the Neapolitan language) and had to struggle to think of Italian “standard” to get me to understand. Despite this, I managed to have some good conversations with them. I met a 93-year-old and an 87-year-old who gave me the classic spiel that starts with, “You know, when I was a kid we didn’t have all these gadgets that you youngsters have nowadays…” I look forward to seeing these guys out and about, playing cards at the local spots or posted up on the benches in the main square.
The school day on Monday started at 08:30 with a brief orientation and final judgement on placement–I was happy to hear that I was placed in the highest level…until class started. Of course the class is completely in Italian which is great and was expected, but the other four students this week all seem to be right on the precipice of fluency. I find myself oftentimes clinging to words I recognize in the teacher’s sentence and then miss the rest of the thought. Each of the other students has been studying Italian for at least 20 years, about 19 more than me. Nevertheless, there are a couple things I cling on to for hope: I rarely err when speaking, although I go at s very slow pace right now, and I sound at least somewhat Italian with my cadence and pronunciation (as opposed to the other students while speaking Italian still sound French or British or Spanish). Now that it is Friday, there is a noticeable improvement in my comprehension and a bit of improvement in speaking. Three of the students are leaving this weekend while one remains for another week–it will be great to see the diversity of students who come and go over these six weeks. The teachers have been great so far and have been very accommodating to my small vocabulary and so-so comprehension skills at the moment. I can’t wait to see my improvements over these next five weeks.
As far as excursions go, I have not done much aside from becoming familiar with Sorrento and taking in the culture around me. In two days I move from my apartment into an apartment in the upper town with a family–slightly daunting but mostly exciting. I look forward to continuing the challenging lessons next week and to exploring some of the surrounding areas such as Capri, Napoli, and Pompeii, to name a few.
A presto, tutti!