I remember when my father told my sister and me we were moving to Rome. He sat us down in our bright kitchen in Caracas, Venezuela, and began to imitate (badly) a Venetian opera solo, trying to hint at where we were moving.
“Rome?” I guessed, a slight grin daring to appear on my face. He touched his pointer finger to his nose. I was right. My sister let out a shriek so loud I was surprised the building’s guards didn’t burst in through the door, expecting a crime scene.
Diplomatic families like ours usually learn of their next post during the last year of their current post. In the beginning of our third year in Venezuela, Daddy was leaning toward two possibilities: Rome and Guatemala. Knowing that we were moving to Italy made the last months in Venezuela bearable. I was ready to say good-bye to getting buckets of water to flush the toilets, constantly reading about murders in the paper, and having to order staple foods online.
The languages in my tool kit at that time were crummy Spanish, basic Hebrew, and fluent English. My mother is Israeli and my dad is American, and I had lived in Peru and Venezuela, so I already had experience with multiple languages. At each of my family’s previous posts, at least one of us knew the local language fluently. This time, everyone was diving into Italian with nothing but some Latin roots to back us up.
After moving to Rome, my sister, Tamar, and Dad took to Italian like fish to water. The other half of the family did not fare so well. My mom and I were still speaking Spanish and praying the supermarket cashier could understand us. My class at my new school was quite small but very culturally diverse. There were native Italians, but the majority were American and international students. Because of my linguistic impediment, my circle of friends was American, and I learned little Italian that year.
Academic Italian classes started in middle school. We learned the absolute basics in the sixth grade: colors, numbers, days of the week, the regions of Italy. While we obviously needed to learn these to support deeper understanding, my classmates found the class boring enough that they ran under the tables and hid while the teacher, oblivious, asked, “What’s-a going on?” We also passed notes to each other … written in English.
Another year followed, and with it a more serious approach to Italian. Verb tenses were a main topic in the curriculum, building on the past two years of vocabulary. Now I could piece my sentences together. The highlight of seventh-grade Italian was the hand gestures Mr. Dattilo, our teacher, made. The most ridiculous was when he bit his fist in mock frustration. His gestures were the avenue that led me to understand the Roman culture as well as the language.
By eighth grade I could finally manage the language comfortably. In Italian class, we learned about literature of all genres and locales, but taught in Italian. We often read pieces originally written in English and then translated to Italian, and we had to analyze them. At first I thought if I just read the original I would understand the story so much better, but I quickly realized that that wouldn’t improve my Italian. The fact that the course was based on reading and writing (things I enjoy) instead of grammar (my academic nightmare) augmented my vocabulary and comprehension.
Then I witnessed an event that furthered my knowledge of Italian. One afternoon, a Smart Car bumped into another car in the middle of my piazza. The two drivers, each impeccably dressed, stopped their cars in the middle of traffic, stepped onto the street, and started yelling at each other. The conversation went something like this:
“Che [swear word] sta facendo?!” exclaimed one man, asking what the other was doing.
“[Swear word]! Solo stavo guidando quando Lei mi ha colpito!” replied the other, explaining that he was only driving when the other crashed into him.
While the exchange was certainly interesting, it was barely audible over the blaring horns of other cars. What I remember most were their gestures. They crunched their fingers and pointed their hands dramatically and exasperatedly. That made me realize something key: language, especially in Italy, is more than just words.
Learning to speak Italian was a slow process for me. At first these foreign words felt like musical notes all twisted in my mouth; they were supposed to sound fluid, but my inexperienced tongue butchered the melody. I realized in sixth grade that the languages in my possession included English and a mix of Italian/Spanish that was neither one nor the other. I spelled quattro as cuatro, mixed up sedia with silla, and replaced ottanta with ochenta.
Dancing in an all-Italian group forced me to endure an extra language lesson twice a week. Communicating with my dance friends exercised my social Italian language skills. Eventually my lips kept up with the music; after four years, I could finally hold a conversation with a native speaker.
Italians encourage you to speak their language and partake of their culture, not only because most don’t know English very well, but because they are willing to help. Engaging with the language of the country enabled me get around better, but that wasn’t what drove me to read short stories and talk to strangers in Italian. I spoke, even with my Spanish accent, to feel like I belonged. I consider Rome my home now – speaking the culture makes it so.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.