I’m coming to realize that most of the Italians I encounter probably think I’m a crazy person. I find that I am constantly muttering to myself and slurring words under my breath when I walk around. On the way to class, in the markets, outside of restaurants – my lips are always moving. The Italian language is beautiful and passionate to hear, but it is all the better to speak it. I read street signs and menus, headlines and shopping bags, carefully enunciating to myself.
I took three semesters of Italian at Notre Dame before coming to Rome, but the last time I took a class was in the fall of my sophomore year. I’m taking an Italian course this semester, too. The focus of the class here is so very different from other Italian classes I have taken. Rather than pounding grammar and conjugations into our heads, the JCU professor prefers for the class to simply practice speaking. She’ll correct us along the way or fill in vocabulary terms here and there, but generally she just lets us talk. She’s also clued us in on a few handy tips for everyday, conversational Italian. For example, the future tense that we slaved over in Italian 101 and 102 is basically just used for things that might happen in the distant future. Most of the time, it’s ok to use the present tense, even in regards to things that are planned for the future. It feels like there are so many things that I learned in my 101, 102, and 201 classes that are just clogging up my brain and keeping me from learning new, more practical stuff.
Before I applied to study abroad in Rome, I was warned that Rome was not a very good place to immerse oneself in the Italian language. “Their English is better than your Italian, so they’ll just speak English.” “You’ll only speak in English with your roommates.” That may have been the case in the past when Notre Dame students lived in a different part of Rome, north of Vatican City, but it certainly isn’t the case now.
I feel very lucky to live in the Trastevere neighborhood. Since it’s not a touristy area, the residents here speak in Italian all the time and assume I do too. I couldn’t buy an English newspaper at the corner bar if I tried. I’m forced to speak in Italian when I go to the corner snack bar or to a small restaurant. When I don’t know a word or a phrase, the shopkeepers usually help me figure it out. The small victories are instances when I am able to successfully eavesdrop on a conversation in Italian. Granted, the people I’m able to understand are usually mothers and small children, but I’ve been able to comprehend a few simple conversations (and often the resulting toddler meltdowns).
Last week, I went to a shop near the Pantheon for gelato. After I ordered in Italian, the scooper asked me in English, “D’ya want whipped cream with that?” I was crushed. It was the first time I have tried to use Italian and been shut down. Normally, I’m able to conduct my daily errands in Italian with relative success. I even have a favorite Italian word now – “cucchiaino.” It means teaspoon. The more I practice, the better I’m going to be. For the time being, I’ll just whisper, mumble, and babble to myself.