Saturday, June 25, 2016

Primo Piatto/ Language Athletes and an Unwanted Public Reading

This was a short school week since the celebration for the patron saint of Florence, San Giovanni, was on Friday. Friday night there were fireworks that we were able to see just over the top of Ponte Vecchio as a reward for muscling into a crowd of tourists and locals and holding our phones aloft while guarding our wallets from pickpockets. We also went to a beautiful concert of baroque music performed by a clavichord, flute and soprano. The concert was in the Santo Spirito church that overlooks one of the liveliest and less touristy piazzas in Florence. We always wondered why the front of the Santo Spirito church is so plain, but this week we discovered that Filippo Brunelleschi, the ingenious designer of the Duomo, was supposed to also build an elaborate façade of that church in the 1400’s and didn’t live long enough to do the project. The façade is left plain, apparently in homage to him. Occasionally, artists will design art that is projected on the front of the church at night.

This week we dug into tough grammar in my intermediate-advanced class. I understood more and more of what we worked on, but realized I still have a long way to go. We had a test over literature on Wednesday. I figured, “Hey, I’m here to participate in every possible thing and learn as much as I can” so I said, sure, I’ll take the test. On the afternoon of the test the school seemed to be empty. I went into the classroom where we had the culture and literature classes expecting a dozen or so students also preparing to take a written test. “You have to go to the office and sign up for the exam” I was told, so off I went to tell the secretary, Desiree, that I wanted to take the test. It turns out that the test was an oral exam (apparently the prof had announced it and I didn’t catch it) and there were only three of us, two Japanese girls and me, taking the test. I didn’t want to back out at that point since I had signed up, and I got smashed pretty flat, since my communications skills are still pretty rudimentary. Right now I can order a meal and ask about the bus with aplomb, but talk at length about renaissance Italian literature, not so much. I felt bad (ambushed, really), but I write it off to a learning experience. I remember feeling the same way early in my immersion experience in Spanish, being unable to communicate as well as I want to; not being able to speak any better than a small child. Jesus said we must accept the gospel with the faith of children, and I think language learning requires similar humility, the willingness to strip off your degrees, your professional and personal achievements and your stronger language(s) and take that naked walk of "incommunication."

After winning five NBA championship rings and a couple of Olympic gold medals, Michael Jordan subjected himself to a similar "stripping away" when he humbled himself to try to play major league baseball. He wound up in the minors, never playing beyond the AA level. I can imagine how he must have felt, riding the bus from game to game with the Birmingham Barons, willing to take several steps down the ladder to pursue a dream. His Achilles heel, his inability to hit the curve, kept him from ever being able to reach the majors and he eventually went back to basketball.

Thursday afternoon I sat down for a few minutes and talked to Muriel, a girl in my class from Chile. We immediately switched from Italian to Spanish, the more comfortable language for both of us. We talked for a good twenty minutes and it occurred to me that all of the complex constructions I more or less easily and smoothly used in Spanish with Muriel were totally out of reach for me when I was learning Spanish in the late 90’s. They took time and study and reading and practice, and I realized I will need to walk that same road with Italian to get to the same point. But I know how to get there. I’m a language athlete. The sport may be different, but I know how to train and complete. And no one will say, (like they didn’t say to Jordan), “Oh, you’re a Spanish professor, here’s an easy pitch you can hit over the fence.” They’ll throw me curves. And I, unlike Jordan, will get to the point where I can hit them. So the training continues.

Today Margaret and I solved the puzzle of the out-of-town bus system and traveled to Siena, a beautiful medieval city just about fifty miles from Florence. We saw beautiful cathedrals and fantastic architecture and breathtaking art and just enjoyed breaking another piece of the code of international travel together. I bought a skinny book in English on the history of Siena and was looking forward to reading it on the bus ride home. But the calm that I counted on for reading turned out to be illusory. The bus back to Florence was packed and we had the misfortune of sitting two rows up from a woman from Mississippi or Alabama. This well-heeled and well-cared for woman felt it appropriate to read out loud from a spiral notebook where she recorded, in excruciating detail, a journal of their trip that had started about ten days prior. Her friend was sitting right next to her, but this woman insisted on reading in a voice loud enough to make me think she intended for people in neighboring villages to hear as we passed. Only her own bowel movements escaped the faithful transcription of her activities. Everything else: the hour of waking, walking over a bridge, being picked up for transportation to the next tour, the food upon which she and her pampered friends dined, the bargains hunted for and procured, were faithfully recorded in longhand and now, proudly read for the edification of a busload of weary, sweaty people who alternately prayed to God that she would die of a stroke and thanked Him for every tunnel through we passed that darkened the bus too much for her to continue reading. She had been transported across an ocean to visit the Cradle of the Renaissance where humanity was pulled out of the Dark Ages, but her commentary was bereft of commentary on art, history and architecture, to make room for detailed overviews of how rubbery and tasteless the eggs at breakfast were, and where she got a good deal on a reversible genuine leather belt.

I guess we travel with different goals. 

Friday, June 17, 2016

Antipasto / Week 1 in Firenze

The first week of Italian classes is done, and so far, so good. We took a test on the first day that put me between intermediate and intermediate/advanced, and after trying the two classes, I opted for intermediate/advanced. My professor is absolutely outstanding. He seems to know exactly what non-native Italian speakers need to work on and he targets those parts of the grammar. Today we worked on relative pronouns (one of the hardest things I had to learn in Spanish, which is curiously more straightforward in Italian). Yesterday we worked on double object pronouns, which I found very tricky. So, we're way beyond learning how to ask for coffee. If we have a question or it's apparent that we're weak on a more elementary part of the grammar, he'll go over that, too. He goes to the trouble to write stuff out on the blackboard and diagram things instead of just talking about them. I write notes as fast as I can for the whole grammar class. His style is pretty old-school (like me, I think). He will ask you direct questions or have another student ask you a question and require you to speak in front of everybody, obviously nerve-wracking, but it makes you much more engaged. It's not that he wants to embarrass anyone, he just knows that unless we speak a lot we'll never get better at speaking. Our section is pretty small, with people from Chile, Finland, Japan, Brazil and Ukraine and one other student and me from the U.S. We have grammar from 9 a.m. to noon, then some kind of a lecture on Italian theater, literature, or culture from 12:15 to 1:45. The first week you waste a lot of energy figuring out when to catch the bus, where the bathrooms are, where to get coffee, etc. I've gotten lost a couple of times and had an adventure with the coffee machine the first day. I dropped in 40 cents, selected cappuccino, saw the little cup drop, heard the liquid pour into the cup and pulled the cup out when I heard it stop. Then, to my dismay and embarrassment, I heard more liquid being dispensed, this time into the little drain on the machine and not into the cup I prematurely held in my hand. After a few seconds of that I heard a little bell go off. I looked into my cup at what was 100% steamed milk with no coffee. Now I know to leave the cup in the machine until I hear the bell.  
I live on the other side of town from school. Riding the bus takes about 30 minutes and fast walking with no stops for gelato or espresso takes about 40 minutes. In the mornings the bus is packed with people amp'd up to get to work. Day before yesterday a man and woman who appeared to be in their 60s got into a shouting match about giving each other room. The only thing I clearly understood had to do with respect. One thing I like about Firenze is that the bicycle is totally integrated into the transportation infrastructure here. There are few bike lanes, but bikes just ride wherever they need to. Nearly all of them are old and clearly made for city commuting like this one: 
Note that the brakes are activated by bars that are linked together, not cables. It's single speed with a chainguard and big comfy seat. The bike is preferred by many folks for commuting to work and running errands. 
They just weave in and out of the lines of cars and buses. No one honks at them or tries to pressure them off the road; they are simply treated as another vehicle as legitimate and valuable as any other. Some cyclists, like this lady, just wear regular comfortable clothes, but the bike is not off-limits for guys like these 

who are styling and profiling (for Italian men, styling and profiling is a 24/7 enterprise).    

Well, Margaret and I are having a great time, trying to see all the non-touristy sights and enjoying Firenze very much. My Italian is getting better at a rapid rate, and I look forward to learning more. Alla prossima settimana! Ciao!

Monday, June 13, 2016

Florence and Florencia: Becoming Firenze

with my boy Dante at the Piazza San Croce
After a full calendar day of traveling that put us in Italy some seven hours ahead of Arkansas time, we arrived to our temporary home in Florence, a lovely apartment near the Porta Romana. I have thought of this place in English as Florence for many years, learned it later as Florencia in Spanish, but if I do it right, it will become Firenze to me over the next six weeks.

My self-study on the language got me to the point where I could have some brief Q&A when I got off the plane with our point of contact here, Rudina in Italian. It was rough, though, and I felt the pressure of trying to communicate with a native speaker in their language while knowing I was making some mistakes at least in pronunciation. I was also able to navigate to and through the process of grocery shopping after we arrived. At one place I asked them what time they closed, but when I said, "a che ora chiude?" I made little double-door closing motions with my hands that made Margaret laugh. But they sang back "mezzanotte" (midnight) and the circle of communication in my new language was complete. But I want to get better, do more, say it smoother, understand it better. And I want to do it soon.

This morning we went to the Universita degli Studi Firenze to take a placement exam. The test was no joke, challenging right from the beginning. The instructions for the test, both written and oral, were totally in Italian. Even the part designed to test elementary reading comprehension required careful attention. The question would not simply repeat a fact or phrase from the previous reading that you could refer back to and winnow out, but would use different words to refer to the same concepts or statements. So you needed to comprehend several different words to have a chance to answer correctly; a sure sign of a tough language test. I got flattened in a section that required me to not only pick out the subject of a sentence and correctly conjugate the verb with it, but choose between two common helping verbs: essere (to be) and avere (to have) and figure out the verbal tense mainly between present, passato prossimo, imperfetto and (I think) passato remoto, the rules for which are different in Italian than in Spanish. I felt bad at that moment for all the students I've put through the same pain in Spanish: those moments where you wish you had studied something better, totally guess at the right answer and cobble together something you know will make the grader roll their eyes. I came out of the test somewhere between intermediate and intermediate-advanced. I'll probably start in intermediate and see how it goes.

Firenze is hot and touristy right now, and the adjustment to the way everything is different from home is in full swing. We are already loving it here, though, and will love it more when our sleep adjusts to the jet-lag.