by guest blogger Matt
Oh no. My to-do list is down to the two items that are always at the bottom: writing about Italy and learning Italian. In July and August I avoided these chores by setting up our apartment, adjusting to our new life, dressing like an Italian and traveling around Italy. September, October and November brought school for the kids, learning to cook, biking, practicing golf and planning weekend trips. December brought welcomed guests, the holiday and an extended trip to northern Italy. January meant completing the year-end accounting duties I agreed to handle at work. Now it’s February. I have no more excuses. So here I am. Writing. And I’m also learning Italian.
You would think I would want to learn Italian. For six months, the majority of my conversations are with Jill, Tom, and Ray. That’s it. Outside of those conversations, I am limited to small talk. Actually small talk is generous; I am really limited to salutations. “Hi. How are you? It’s cold. Can I have a double espresso? I mean one espresso but with two espresso shots in it. Put it in just one cup, please. Thank you. That is a beautiful espresso. Thank you again. Goodbye.”
I finally decided to take an Italian class – a one-week intensive course. There were only two students in the class, me and Erwin from the Netherlands. Every word, including all the directions, was in Italian. The first night, the teacher gave us a long homework assignment. He told us to conjugate 30 verbs. It took me two hours. The next day he was really impressed. He had only really asked me to list 30 verbs. Well, after five days, I was ready for a break. The lessons helped, but I have a long way to go. Case in point: when I stopped by the dry cleaners, I dropped off my pants and mentioned Jill would be dropping off some more clothes that afternoon. Things happened, and Jill did not make it that day. Several days later, we went back together. When they saw Jill, they looked surprised. They said something to Jill. She gave me a funny look and asked why I told them we weren’t married anymore.
Another misunderstanding happened earlier this year. On my bike route to the golf course, there is a bar that has the same name as a friend back home. I thought it would be nice to send her a picture of me in front of the bar. So I found a customer, and in my best Italian asked if he would take my picture. He agreed. However, instead of accepting the camera from me, he walked underneath the sign and posed. When I realized that he thought I wanted a picture of him, I was too embarrassed to attempt to sort it out. So I took his picture. It’s a beauty.
Fortunately, the weather looked good this week so I bagged the idea of another week of Italian classes. Instead, on Monday, I grabbed my bike and headed out to the golf course. I didn’t make it far. Just about the time I reached the first busy piazza, the sack with my clean golf clothes got caught in the spokes and immediately stopped my front wheel. It sent me flying over the handlebars and flat into the cobblestones. I sprained my wrist and bruised a rib. The bike broke. And that put an end to golfing or biking for the week. Instead I’m sitting on the couch eating Advil and searching webmd.com for home treatments.
We just passed the half-way mark of my sabbatical. Great revelations have not yet found me. However, I do know that being surrounded by over 2,000 years of human history has me feeling insignificant. At first this seemed negative, but the more I consider it, the more freeing it becomes. My logic is, if I don’t matter, then what I do doesn’t matter; and if what I do doesn’t matter, then I should do something I enjoy; and if I am doing something I enjoy, I should do it as well as I can. Since I really enjoy my current work and my family and my friends and the activities I do in my free time, this only reaffirms that I’m on the right track.
And while we’ve tried to assimilate as best we can to the Italian culture, I’m not sure how I can incorporate this lifestyle into my routine back home. It is different over here. There is no hurry; everything takes a long time and everything is done with care and with enjoyment. I experience this from the shop owners in the stores we frequent. The owners are the primary workers, and they work long hours. They take pride in the products they have chosen. And even though they close for three hours every afternoon, it’s with good reason. It’s to have a nice big lunch with their family. Food and family – the two most evident cultural values. The consumer and business person in me hates it. However, my soul loves it. It is inconvenient, but the statement of value is inspiring. And it is not inconvenient to an Italian who couldn’t imagine it any other way.
They say that with pain and discomfort comes growth. I keep reminding myself of this as I bumble through the awkwardness of basic communication, the embarrassments of my cultural incompetence, and the humbling need to be dependent on others. Yes, I think one year is plenty of time for this kind of exposure. At the same time, I have to admit, I’m a little nervous about leaving. There is so much I still want to see and experience here, and there is so much I will miss when we are gone. I will miss two long meals a day with Jill, Tom and Ray; grocery shopping and cooking with Jill; long afternoons playing cards with the boys; weekend adventures in medieval Italian towns that are within a hour’s drive; having everything I want within walking distance; the constant architectural sites around every corner; and of course the coffee and food. While I’ve been trying to reflect on the impact of this year and what it might mean to my life, it’s possible that the real impacts of my sabbatical won’t be known until I return home.