I’m not fluent, but I’m funny

by Rebecca Bricker on July 6, 2014

Learning Italian, for me, has been an exercise in frustration. French was the language I studied in school, so when I’m in a panic here and searching for the right words, they often come out as part French, part Italian. I call it “Fretalian.”

During my early days here, I once got in a cab and gave my destination address as “vingt-tre.” Vingt is French for 20; and tre is three in Italian. The cab driver quizzically looked at me in his rearview mirror, amused by my bilingual mash-up. Apparently, I racked up some bonus points for attempting a foreign language (two, in fact). It sparked a conversation, mostly in English, that covered many subjects. When I got out at #23, he asked if I’d ride around with him for a day because he thought I was very funny.

It’s important to keep a sense of humor when attempting to speak a foreign language. One day, I semi-confidently went to the counter at my local pasticerria (pastry shop) and ordered a fresh-squeezed orange juice. I should have asked for spremuta d’arancia. But instead, I said “spermuta.” When the barista laughed, I realized I had asked him for an orange sperm drink. (Mamma mia!)

The language barrier is two-way. When Italians here speak English, I often have to phonetically de-code their words. I was at a bar recently (best place to hone language skills) and asked the bartender to make me a drink that would cool me off on what was a very hot day. He accepted the request with enthusiasm and great flourish. He poured vodka into a shaker, along with some unidentified liquids, and loaded it with ice. He shook that shaker like it was a rattle in a tribal mating dance, which wasn’t exactly cooling me off. As he poured the contents into a frosty copper mug, garnished with ginger and orange peel, I asked him what he called this concoction. It sounded like he was saying ‘moose-go-moo-lay.’ I’m thinking, a mooing moose?¬†And then it hit me: a Moscow Mule.

Then there was the day my former landlady came to my door, a bit late for an appointment she had made with me. “Cows in the street!” she kept saying, in English. It happened to be Dec. 12, 2012, the day Nostradamus had predicted the end of the world. Had he predicted cows in the streets of Florence, I wondered, as I grabbed my camera. She was still going on about the cows. “Mucca?” I asked, putting added stress on the ‘moo,’ as I imitated a cow. She stopped mid-sentence, looking at me like I was deranged. She was saying chaos, not cows. In Italian, ‘chaos’ sounds like ‘cah-os.’ And when you say it fast and repeatedly, it sounds like a herd of stampeding bovines.

This past winter, while I was back in California, I took an Italian conversation class at Pasadena City College. Our wonderful teacher, Manuela from Milano, was so patient and encouraging as we struggled with grammar and the eight ways to say ‘the.’

So when I returned to Florence a few weeks ago, I felt like I could jump into the conversation here – until the plumber rang my doorbell. He had appeared last year when my shower was leaking and we worked out the problem in pantomime. This time, I could follow what he was saying until he asked for a secchio. Not to be confused with specchio, which I knew was a mirror. (Why would he want a mirror to look at my toilet?) My Italian pocket dictionary was sitting on the table. “Secchio, secchio,” I murmured, looking for the word. “A bucket!” I exclaimed. I improvised with a little garbage pail that sat on my kitchen balcony. We had bridged the language barrier, and I added a new useful word to my vocabulary while he emptied my toilet tank.

After finishing his work, the plumber – a tech-savvy guy – emerged from the bathroom with his smart phone in hand. To ensure nothing was lost in pantomime or translation, he had keyed this message for me into his English translation app: DON’T USE THE TOILET UNTIL TONIGHT.

We both burst out laughing. :)