Non un addio, ma un arrivederci

Looking back at my time in Italy, and particularly at my time in Siena, I can say that I definitely got the full-immersion experience. Second language acquisition is much more than classroom learning. Even in Italy, where I was at a school solely dedicated to Italian language learning at the hands of Italian instructors, I experienced the most growth when I was out and about interacting with locals and other university students. I also realized just how helpful it is to know Spanish, especially for the comprehension aspect of learning Italian. I was pleasantly surprised to find that many Italian idiomatic expressions exist in Spanish as well. These similarities made it easier for me to pick up on the nuances of Italian.

My favorite part and the thing that most helped me grow was developing friendships with Italian university students.

One of my Italian professors at Notre Dame once told the class that she wished everyone could experience an Italian friendship. At the time I wasn’t really sure why she said that. I wondered how an Italian friendship could be so different from an American friendship. Now I know exactly what she meant. I don’t mean to say that Italians are superior to others, nor that the friendships I’ve developed in Italy are objectively better than all those I’ve developed at Notre Dame, but I can’t deny that there is something beautifully different about them. Two of the people who made this clear for me were Betta from Bolzano and Giacomo from La Spezia.

It was a shared love for languages that allowed my friendship with Giacomo to grow. He helped me with Italian, and I helped him with English and Spanish.

Betta is one of the most energetic, life-loving people I have ever met, and also one of the most genuinely caring people I know. She was always very patient with me, explaining words or expressions I didn’t understand, and her sense of humor is “top.”

I feel that I did meet my goals for the summer, which included being able to hold a fluent conversation on simple topics and improving my overall understanding of the language.

My worldview has definitely been broadened by my experiences in Italy. I have a better idea of the way people in other parts of the world perceive the US and other countries.

The only piece of advice I would give to anyone preparing to start a summer language program is to not be afraid to take some risks and make friends, because the people one shares these experiences with make all the difference. Without the friends that I met, Italy would have been just another place, devoid of meaning beyond academic endeavors; instead, it has become a place I am eager to come back to, a place of beauty and friendship.

I will continue my study of Italian at Notre Dame, pursuing a double major in political science and Italian, and I am looking forward to studying at the University of Bologna during the upcoming spring semester.

Il Palio

I was fortunate enough to be in Siena for il Palio, a medieval tradition that is still alive today and around which much of Senese life revolves. On July 2nd, ten of the seventeen contrade (something like districts) of Siena face each other in a 3-lap horse race around Piazza del Campo at the town’s center.

This year the winning contrada was girafa.

It was fascinating to see how quickly Siena transformed in the weeks leading up to il palio. The dark streets were lit up by the lamps and banners of the different contrade, the “contradaioli” (important members of the contrade) walked around town with their contrada’s banners tied around their necks, and piazza del campo was turned into an arena transporting one back to medieval times.

Another interesting thing was hearing about different people’s perceptions of the palio. From a touristic point of view, the palio is simply a horse race, a sporting event, something like the super bowl. You go to it, it’s over, that’s it, until next year. But for the people of Siena, il Palio is so much more. It doesn’t end when the horse crosses the finish line, when the crowds rush to surround the “fantino.” No, il palio is what brings life and meaning to Siena. My language instructor, Andrea, always talked about the palio with so much emotion, saying how the advance of technology has tainted it in a way. Andrea is very much an open and welcoming person, but he expressed a bit of disappointment at the way the palio had become such a tourist attraction. He was so eager to help people understand the true significance of the event. A very beautiful description he gave to me of the way life in Siena works was that during the palio, the people from the various contrade are divided, each contrada trying to best the others, but that throughout the rest of the year, the people of Siena look out for one another, regardless of the contrada.

Without this full-immersion experience, I never would have gotten these insights into the true meaning of il palio.

How do you say, “No, I don’t want you to cut my hair, thank you.”??

This week was life-changing, to say the least. I got some great feedback with respect to my ability (or in this case, inability) to express myself in Italian.

A few weeks ago at San Cristoforo, a beautiful church where I like to attend Mass and pray the rosary with some elderly nuns, I met a 68-year-old Italian woman, Pierluisa, who was fascinated by the fact that a Californian was studying Italian in Siena. At least, that’s what I think she was struck by. Anyway, she immediately invited me to her house for lunch the following day, and since all I wanted was to talk to the locals to start improving my conversational skills, I accepted the invitation.

Pierluisa turned out to be a great friend. She introduced me to her husband, son, and daughter, and has had me over several times for dinner and good conversation.

So anyway, a few days ago, she said that I would look great with short hair, and I immediately argued that I would not. But she insisted and offered to give me a cool new hairstyle. My first thought was absolutely not. I would never cut my hair shorter than shoulder-length, but after thinking about it for a while, I decided that it might not be so bad, so I went back to Pierluisas’s house. She then proceeded to give me 3 options for my haircut. I didn’t quite understand what the different descriptions included, but it sounded like the first option was the longest length, so I went with that one. I explained as best as I could that I did not want much shorter than shoulder-length hair, she seemed to understand, so I trusted her.

What felt like an hour later of her snipping away at my hair, she handed me a mirror with a completely different person looking back at me.

That’s right, she had cut it all off. I was in shock, and the next 2 days were horribly traumatic. I was embarrassed to go to school and decided to go to a professional hairstylist to get my hair fixed (how, I had no idea). So the next morning, I went to a salon that one of my instructors had recommended and with fumbling words begged the stylist to fix my hair. Of course she was confused as to what I wanted, and I couldn’t exactly explain in Italian, as my vocabulary regarding hairstyles was still rather limited. So of course, she just sheared off another ton of my hair.

I would say that being put in difficult situations like this one is a great motivator to build up my vocabulary. My consolation is that the summer heat has now become more bearable, and showering takes about half the time it used to.

Pilgrimages and Slang

Last weekend I had the wonderful and completely unexpected opportunity to go on a pilgrimage with my new Italian friends. We walked all night from Macerata to Loreto, about 30 kilometers, praying and singing in Italian. I finally cemented the Italian Our Father, Hail Mary, and Glory Be in my brain (how could I not after saying 100,000 rosaries?). It was a beautiful experience. Before the walk, thousands of people met at a stadium in Macerata for Mass, at the end of which Pope Francis called and gave us his blessing, telling us to meditate on the question Jesus posed to Peter: “Mi ami tu?” “Do you love me?” and encouraging us to always keep walking, to never stop moving forward.

I am happy to note that I understood 95% of what was said during the pilgrimage. It has been tremendously helpful to spend time talking with Italian students that are my age. I do still struggle forming sentences quickly and expressing my thoughts with precision, but I trust that with more time, even that will improve.

The other day in one of my tutoring sessions, I asked my instructor, Andrea, if he had any tips to help me become more comfortable and natural in holding conversations. He said that one of the biggest problems he noticed I had was with self-confidence. I have been rather quiet the last few weeks in class, and I have noticed that I speak very deliberately in order to avoid making mistakes, but this slows me down and impedes my ability to hold a fluent conversation. My goal now is to just talk. Don’t think too much. Just talk.

One of my favorite parts of learning Italian in Italy is the slang that you don’t learn at Notre Dame. My friend Giacomo taught me several slang terms in exchange for some American slang. (His favorites were “So sick! and “You’re bananas,” which I thereafter heard a lot.) Here are a few of the things I learned:

“Bella zio/a!” can be translated as “Bro!” For example, I see my friend and to greet him say “Bella zio!” with a sort of exaggerated hand gesture and an excited tone of voice. Apparently it’s what the cool kids are saying these days.

“Tanta roba!” is a favorite of mine. It’s one of the many ways to say “So cool!” For example, if I see a really beautiful mountain or some guy do a cool backflip, I can (and should) say “Tanta roba!”

“Cavolo!” literally means cabbage. However, it is used as an interjection to express surprise, usually about something negative. For example, I realize I forgot to turn in my homework, so I exclaim, “Cavolo!” It’s almost like saying “darn it!”

Ciao amici!

Progress! I met a group of Italian university students this week! They are from different places throughout Italy, from La Spezia and Bolzano to Rimini and Calabria. They’ve started something of a battle among themselves to teach me their respective accents and expressions, which are sometimes drastically different from each other. For example, in Siena, some consonants are “aspirate”, for example, the “c” is sometimes pronounced more like an “h”. In Siena they don’t say “la coca-cola,” normally pronounced “lah coh-cah coh-lah”); rather, they say “lah hoh-hah hoh-lah”.

My new friends, and most of the Italians I’ve met, seem very intrigued by President Trump and always ask me what I think about the election and the current political situation. For the most part, going off of what the media shows, we all agree that he is somewhat of a “pazzo” (“crazy”). They find it particularly amusing that he wants to build a wall separating the US from Mexico and that he wants to make Mexico pay for it.

After answering some questions about the US political system, I asked about Italian politics. The first response is usually somewhat of a scoff, then I eventually find myself listening to a heated discussion, full of raised voices and gesturing, between two of my friends who have very strong and opposing political ideas.

Starting to Feel at Home

I don’t get lost on my way to school anymore. Classes are going pretty well. I sense my improvement coming in tiny increments, which can be frustrating at times, since I had expected to notice a more dramatic change in my Italian skills after 2 weeks. I would attribute this slow growth to 2 things: 1) I have reached the point at which I have learned all the tenses and most of the grammatical rules and can understand pretty much everything that’s said to me, but have not yet had enough practice talking to native speakers. 2) I have not met many local Italians with whom I can make more than small talk.

I have been attending Mass several times a week, which has helped with my listening skills. It’s interesting to hear the different accents of the different priests and lectors, the subtle differences with which they pronounce their “c’s” and “z’s.” I also love the churches in Siena. Most of them have relics of saints and the architecture and artwork are “bellissime.”

Living with a host family has also been conducive to learning. I’ve picked up several words and expressions from listening to my Italian siblings fight. My favorite is “Cretino!” which basically means “stupid.” My host mom, sister, and twin brothers are very polite and helpful when I ask random things about Italian words I don’t know. I love that I’ve been picking up expressions that I never learned in class. For example, I always learned that “Prego” was the way to say “you’re welcome,” but in Siena, most people seem to respond with “Niente,” which means “nothing.” These little things that I never would have learned in class are what makes studying abroad such an invaluable experience. It makes my speaking seem more natural.

Another interesting realization I’ve had is that every language that I speak brings with it almost a new personality. For instance, I express myself in a totally different way in English than I do in Spanish or Italian.

Buongiorno Italia!

If my first day in Italy is any indicator of how the rest of my summer in this country is going to play out, then I am in for quite the adventure. The one word that comes to mind to describe my first encounter with “la bella Italia” is “hectic.” As soon as I got off the plane at FCO, I was overwhelmed by the number of travelers scrambling around like ants. I was already tired from traveling for so long, and the signs were all (obviously) in Italian, but I followed the crowd and fortunately managed to catch a train from the airport to the city center.

Roma Termini is probably the most chaotic place I have ever been in, and I pretty quickly got lost in the maze of shops and tourists, so I decided to test out my Italian. I walked into a shop, greeted the woman at the counter, and asked in Italian where I could find a store to buy an Italian SIM card for my phone. To my dismay, she responded in English. Strike one for me. Apparently in Rome, everyone speaks English, and as soon as an Italian gets a whiff of tourist, he’ll immediately switch to English. Frustrating for anyone trying to learn the language.

After somehow making it clear to the people at Vodafone that I needed an Italian SIM card and a phone plan, I went to Mass at Santa Maria degli Angeli with my friend Harriet. It was the first Italian Mass I had ever attended, and it was absolutely beautiful. I followed along well with the program, but the homily was difficult to understand. After Mass, Harriet showed me to the station where I was supposed to catch a bus to Siena. I asked the clerk if I could buy a ticket, but he said it was full, so I rushed to the train station and ended up taking the next train.

I struggled to stay awake on the train ride, so as not to miss my connection. Fortunately, I made it in time, after walking back and forth in the station, trying to figure out whether or not I had to buy a second ticket, where I had to validate it, which platform I was supposed to be on, which train it was, etc. I was slightly stressed at that point.

Once on the train, I sat across from an older woman. I smiled and said, “Ciao.” She responded politely, then asked me something that I didn’t understand. So I told her that I didn’t speak much Italian, which sparked a conversation. She was excited when I told her I was from California and that I would be studying Italian in Siena. She let me borrow her phone charger so I could call my host family and she gave me her phone number, telling me to call her anytime and also mentioning that she had a handsome son only a few years older than me. And single.

When I arrived at the train station, in my exhaustion, I accidentally went in a wrong door and ended up in a mini shopping mall across the street. Long story short, it took me another hour to find my host family. I apologized as best as I could in my broken Italian. They just kept saying “Niente. Non ti preoccupare.” I showered as soon as I got home, then went into the kitchen for dinner. They asked if I wanted to dry my hair, something I never did back home. I uncomfortably said, “It’s fine, I can do it after dinner.” They stared at me sort of strangely, and I decided to go find a hairdryer first thing the following day.