Updated 14 November 2013

My Italian sucks

I was reduced to hand gestures for the three weeks I spent in Italy recently. It was oddly liberating, says Susan Erasmus.

Travelling in a country where you don’t speak the language is the only way to have a real holiday.

Language is my life. I earn a living by writing. Words are important to me.  And it’s very difficult to let go of that, but I had no choice. And then I started to enjoy it.

The ATM is like a word puzzle of which you don’t understand the main point. The machine keeps spitting out your card as the grumbling queue grows longer behind you. You skulk off eventually without money, determined to try your luck again later.  Menus anywhere except in tourist traps are in Italian only. And why shouldn’t they be? It is Italy after all.

But the menus were the least of our problems. I mean, show me a person on this earth who doesn’t know what pizza and pasta mean.  But you can only eat so much of those two.

I ended up on more than one occasion pointing at something on a menu without having any idea what was going to arrive from the kitchen.  It makes you feel as if you’re living on the edge. My luck was in – the most exotic thing that made its way to my table was minced wild boar (chingiale) on something I assumed was couscous. But the one thing I learnt very quickly was to ask for ‘vino rosso’. Once that had arrived at your table, the rest was detail.

Other useful phrases were ‘per favore’ (please) and ‘prego’. The last one can substitute for anything you need it to mean as long as it is accompanied by a smile.

Bill Bryson was right. If you are in a country where you don’t speak the language, you are reduced to being a five-year-old again. You can’t read and you can’t explain what you want. Everything baffles you and no one pays you much attention.

Nothing really matters

No one knows you. No one cares if you’re wearing the same clothes as yesterday.  You can make a fool of yourself anywhere and it will never come back to haunt you. Not one of the people on the streets will ever see you again. You pull on the door you’re supposed to be pushing. You insert your train ticket the wrong way round into the machine. You can’t work out the bus timetable. You don’t understand any announcements or information sheets in museums and churches. And none of it matters.

Because you don’t need language to be absolutely overawed by the Pantheon, by Pompeii, by paintings, statues and priceless treasures tucked away in little forgotten streets. In a minor church round the corner from our apartment was a painting by Caravaggio. I mean, how many of you have ever heard of the Santa Maria in Valicella? I certainly hadn’t.

You don’t need words to sit on a piazza in Tarquinia or Anacapri watching the passing parade, the cobblestones, the medieval towers and the setting sun over the Mediterranean. I was winked at by a Franciscan monk. At my age I have to take my pleasures where I can.

The Italians are extraordinarily patient with tourists. Not one person was rude or impatient with us.  Often  just a pinched facial expression would make people point you to the toilet. But do count your change. And never, ever take a taxi in Grosseto or Sorrento. Walk, even if it kills you or if you’re carrying all your luggage. Unless you enjoy paying R150 for less than a kilometre.

And no, phrase books don’t help at all. What’s the point of rote learning phrases if you don’t understand the answers? What’s more, you don’t have any idea what you’re really saying. You might think you’re asking the way to the nearest place where you can buy a bus ticket, but actually you’re asking,” Do you like the colour of my panties?’ or “Does your mother know where you are?”

If you haven’t been to Italy, sell your possessions, go into debt, take unpaid leave. Go, just go. Do it now. You will not regret it. Take my word for it. Prego.

(Susan Erasmus, Health24)




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