A Night at the Non-Opera

My husband and I are incommunicado here, in Milan.  That’s because virtually the only Italian words we know are some random musical terms (glissando, arpeggio) and food terms (pizza, lasagne).  So we speak English to each other and generally look stupid and eager-to-please.

It’s not the way I like to approach a country.  I usually like to come in knowing more.  But we’ve had no time.  We’re unprepared and ignorant.  We’re Americans, you know.

After a few jet-lagged, incoherent hours, though, I realize there’s something restful about knowing nothing about a language.  If we had some familiarity with Italian, as we do with French, Spanish and German, we’d be straining to listen to and interpret every syllable — then disappointed with ourselves when we couldn’t.  In those other languages, we know enough to be dangerous.  In Italian, our ignorance frees us.

We walk to La Scala, where we are relieved to find there is no opera performance while we’re in Milan.  My husband takes a photo of me looking bereft in front of the theater.  We’ll send this to opera-holic relatives like my brother- and sister-in-law, who have always suspected we were opera haters; they are right.

On the way back to the hotel, I buy a skinny Italian-English phrasebook.  I just want to learn a little Italian.  Trying to learn Spanish after French has already left me parroting something close to Esperanto; the romance-language section of my brain is already way too crowded.  I surrender before I start.

That evening, we sit outside our hotel room drinking wine and trying to maintain a conversation that falters, even in English.  We look like two zombies in any language, stuck in a time zone that’s thousands of miles away.

Suddenly, a loud voice rips through the air.  He’s speaking Italian at top volume — but where is he?  We look down, realizing it’s coming from the grate to the basement, where the hotel waiters must be.  He screams, he cajoles, he lectures, he pleads.

We understand nothing, except for the repeated name “Carolina.”  It doesn’t count as eavesdropping if you don’t speak the language, does it?  No, it does not.

The conversation, we intuit, is not going well.  More volume, more fury.  It’s like an opera without the music.  Knowing no words, we concentrate on the emotion, the rhythm, the sheer beauty of the language.  We’re shamelessly intrigued.

“Ciao, Carolina!” he announces.

My husband and I whisper back and forth.  Is Carolina a girlfriend, a wife, the other woman?  We’ve only heard one side of the conversation.  What’s she been saying?  How upset is she?  What did he mean — “Ciao, Carolina”?  Was that the end?

Evidently not.  A few minutes later, he’s back, emoting at Carolina.  The syllables crash and rumble like ocean waves.  (Love is difficult!  Life is hard!  You torment me!  I’m sick of you!)  (My life has no meaning without you, however.)

Another, “Ciao, Carolina!”  Frosty, final.  We hear no more.

The next morning at breakfast, I watch the two waiters — both sweet-faced and solicitous, eagerly practicing their English on me.  They both look calm and professional.  No red eyes or noses; nobody appears to have been crying last night.

Is it over?  How’s Carolina doing?  Is she across town weeping, incoherent, brokenhearted?

I finish my cappuccino and linger at the table.  My husband and I have made a fatal mistake, I conclude.  Had we gone to the opera, at least we’d know how the story ended.

(Copyright 2009 by Ruth Pennebaker)

8 comments… add one
  • Love this post; got me thinking about how often we are left to wonder about the ending of a story we witness unfolding but not to completion. How odd to do so in another language which makes it all the more rich in possibility.  At once curious, at once empty (and full) in possibility.

    Also funny how guilt-free it is to eavesdrop in another language — like it doesn’t really count.

  • OH…you’ve set up a window seat for me in Italy. How delightful! Please do continue to sort of eavesdrop so that we may hear what happened in the saga of Carolina.

    It’s still a mystery. Might have been arrivederci.

  • I always love your stories. 

    And I always eavesdrop, whatever the language.  I am among the few (apparently)  who would never ban cell phones on trains or buses.  Overheard conversations are often the best entertainment on offer.

    But my advice is, do not learn a few words of Italian and then practice them on the natives!  Unlike the French, Italians love it if you try out their language.  Your tentative syllables will be answered with whole paragraphs, delivered with great speed and preternatural optimism.

    Next thing you know you’re exchanging lockets with the wrong lover.

    We did our best. Think the Italians are very friendly, though, even if no one’s given me a locket yet. Now we’re in Slovenia, where the language is even more completely unintelligible.

  • I adore this Ruth! What a wonderful tale.
    My ‘second’ language was school girl French then after 3 years living in Indonesia in the mid-eighties, street level Bahasa Indonesian. A trip to Paris in 1998 had my brain supplying the ‘right’ item of missing French vocabulary only it seemed that it was Indonesian. My brain knew that the words had to be different and didn’t seem at all concerned as long as it wasn’t English!

    Thanks! It’s always struck me that my brain has a foreign language section that doesn’t distinguish individual languages too well. Also, it’s not getting better with age.

  • Hi Ruth!
    Oooohhh – Italy. All I’m doing is hiking in the North Carolina mountains in search of waterfalls. Hope you are having a wonderful time. Just for fun, and because I love reading your blog I’ve decided to give you a Splash Award. Go see for yourself at: http://holeinthedonut.com/2009/05/31/ive-been-splashed/

    Thank you, Barbara!

  • Chris Link

    Would love to know where you stay in Milan.  We have relatives so we stay in a spare flat of theirs, but some visit, it would be oh so nice to have a real place of our own, beholden to no one.  That sounds so awful, but our evenings are never our own.

    We stayed at the Hotel Regina, which was nice. I do find hotel-staying to be easier, too.

  • What a lovely story, told with your usual dash of humor. I live with an antenna perpetually turned on inside my head. I don’t mean to eavesdrop, I really don’t. But every conversation in the restaurant reaches my antenna, where I process the bits of discussion along with the loving conversation I’m having with my husband. When my eyes go glassy, he knows. “Earth to Donna,” he says. Thank goodness I’m not picking it up in Italian.

  • Sounds so Italian! I’ve never seen people scream at each other at top volume and be best friends the next moment anywhere else in the world…

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