Italians Speak Italian§
writer: russell j.t. dyer; posted: August 13, 2007; revised: April 24, 2018; readers in past month: 667
In thinking about why I’m not yet fluent in Italian after nearly two years of being here, a profound thought occurred to me: Italians speak Italian. That might seem absurdly obvious, but let me point out a couple of things. I’ve read that culture is “the shared way of life of a group of people.” I lost my community when the hurricane hit New Orleans and I left town afterwards. The culture, the way of life that I shared with that community is lost in a way. I miss it. Now I’m here amidst another community with its own culture, it’s own shared way of life. I can either live in isolation like a lost tribe of one and cling to my cultural ways and resist change, or I can share in the Italian culture and join the community around me. I very much resist cultural participation here, I have no obvious interest in it.
I do participate a little, but not much: I don’t drink their coffee very often; I don’t close my shutters at night; I don’t hang my clothes on my back balcony or around my apartment to dry; I don’t watch their television programs; I don’t go on vacation in August; I don’t even wake up or take long lunch breaks when they do. Italians seem to be confused by me not doing these things. At the heart of it all and the worst of it all, I don’t speak Italian. Italians speak Italian. Italians that I know well, they bug me about not speaking Italian, ask me why I don’t speak it all of the time, why I’m not fluent. I think they bug in this way because they intuitively understand that if I’m not speaking Italian, I’m not one of them. I’ve been here long enough and they like me and want me to be part of their community, but until I speak Italian, I’m not. They seem to realize that I’m resisting Italian because I’m resisting joining them. And I think that I’m resisting joining the community fully because I miss my old community and am afraid that if I join this one, not only will it feel as though I’m betraying the old community, but I will be admitting that it’s gone, or at least that I’ve abandoned it. That upsets me, facing that reality.
Here are two observations that support this analysis a bit: one time when I was feeling a surge of camaraderie, a feeling of wanting to join the community (without realizing that’s what I wanted), I went to the supermarket. In the produce section, you’re supposed to use a plastic glove to pick up the fruit and vegetables that you want. Until recently I thought that was absurd: I buy whatever I touch and you’re supposed to clean any fruit or vegetables you buy. But on this particular day, I decided to join in in the custom and took a glove and have used them ever since. Also, on this particular day, while in the produce section, I bought a rosemary plant. Italians all seem to have herbs growing on their balcony or by their back door. I’ve always resisted that and just use the dried spices they sell in bottles. But on this particular day when I was feeling akin to Italians, I brought home a rosemary plant and repotted it and put it by my back door.
The second observation: when I went to Sicily, I chattered away in Italian to my cousins there. You couldn’t stop me. I wanted to be part of them, their community. They were long, lost family that I dream of since I was a boy. When I came back, I was feeling good about being Italian and spoke Italian smoothly with neighbors and friends. They even commented on how surprised they were about my improvements in the language after only a few days of being away. In fact, when I go to the United States and come back, I get a boost to my Italian language skills. I used to think it was the break that allowed my brain to settle and sort things out regarding my language interpreter. Now I’m thinking that maybe the absence makes me fonder of my new community.
If my assumptions are true, the next questions are, “Do I want to be part of this community or not? Assuming that I do, then how do I walk myself towards this acceptance in a way that doesn’t cause me to buck?” I could just force myself to embrace the culture: study the language diligently, close my shutters, drink espresso several times a day, etc. That would only be beating down the symptoms and not dealing with the causes. Eventually, I would go back to my old ways. I think I need to accept that I live in Italy now and that I’m part of this community. I think that I also need to realize that although I may be forsaking my previous community, it’s what I want to do.∗ Perhaps the old community will be fully restored — it has in part — and perhaps I may return to it one day, but for now I’m here and I need fully to be here if I’m to be happy. Once I accept this, then I can begin slowly to do little things to bring myself into the community, like have an espresso, occasionally.
∗When I wrote this sentence, saying that foresaking my previous community was what I wanted to do, I stopped typing and could not go on for quite some time. It made me think and reflect. I’m still reflecting on it and absorbing it. I did not know that this is what I wanted until I happened to write it.