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)