Monday, August 1, 2011

I Just Don't Know What to Say Anymore...Really

I’m back in the mountains dog sitting, but this time for two weeks instead of a few days. So far it hasn’t been too bad. The weather is beautiful…cool evenings and warm days. The animals are behaving, thankfully. With two dogs and two cats to keep track of it’s not necessarily easy, but it’s not all that hard either.

Today I had an experience that kind of shook me. The villa we are staying in is really two houses. The owners (and therefore we) live in one part, and there is another part of the house that is rented out to tourists. Right now in this other house there are two couples who live in Barcelona. They are very lovely people who are having a wonderful time visiting this area of Italy.

That‘s not the difficult part. Today they invited us to lunch with them. A three hour lunch held in Spanish, Italian and basic English, all at the same time. I sat through lunch, understanding most of what was said but completely incapable of opening my mouth and joining in the conversation. The few times I was forced to speak (because they asked me a direct question) I opened my mouth to speak and well, I’m not sure exactly what came out. A strange combination of Italian, Spanish and English…I think. I came away from lunch exhausted and started to write this down.

In the last couple of years in Minnesota I have lost my shyness and my discomfort with strangers enough to actually accept dinner invitations from people I haven’t known most of my life. I’m not great at small talk, but I’d reached the point where my hands stopped shaking and I didn’t feel sick to my stomach in new situations anymore. I might not have been eloquent, but I could carry my side of the conversation without resorting to “yes” and “no” answers. That was in Minnesota, where American English is spoken every day by almost everyone.

Here in Italy I’m back to feeling tongue-tied and awkward, which isn’t surprising because I am awkward and slow to speak in Italian. That’s how it works when learning a new language. I was doing all right when I first got here but I can feel myself pulling away from people again. I don’t want that. I have been studying and trying to practice my Italian whenever I can. But I have the luxury of resorting to English when I stumble, and if I don‘t the other person usually will turn to English so the conversation can move on. Then, when I’m with Leif and his Swedish friends I end up hearing and repeating at least a few words in Swedish every time.

Language has become very cumbersome for me. I have so many words in so many languages…English, Italian, Spanish, Swedish…then there are all the different accents I hear these languages in every day. English spoken with a Swedish accent, English spoken by a Swede with a British accent, English with an Italian accent. (Sometimes, and this is scary, I don't recognize English as English, I think it's some other language I have yet to learn.) Swedish with an Italian accent. Italian with a Swedish accent, with a New York or New Jersey accent. So confusing to listen to and understand. I’ve learned so many words and I even know how to use a lot of them, but I just can’t seem to put them together in a conversation. Even my English has to be thoughtful and planned so that the words aren't too complex and the phrases are commonly used ones, or I spend a lot of time explaining the meaning and origins of words and phrases.

Speaking has become like putting together a giant jigsaw puzzle. Not one of the easy kids ones with a picture of a clown cut into 5 pieces, but a picture of a giant pile of fall leaves cut into a thousand tiny pieces. Each leaf fits into the next one perfectly, somehow, but dammit, they’re all leaves. If I just pound hard enough maybe they’ll fit closely enough? Isn’t language like horseshoes and hand grenades, where close is good enough?

No, I don‘t think it is. Speech, in any language, is precise. It follows rules (with a million exceptions, but who’s counting) of grammar, but also social rules. When to say what, and how to say it are sometimes more important than the actual words, and I get so frightened by the thought of unintentionally saying the wrong thing at the wrong time that I say nothing at all, which naturally seems even ruder than saying the wrong thing.

I know I’ll figure a way through this. But I think (for now) I will have to get comfortable with the incredible uncomfortableness of speaking. Unless I want to become a mime, which, honestly, seems like a very good idea some days.

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