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.