For the best part of a year, our family has planned a trip to Italy. More accurately, Fiona planned a trip to Italy for our family. It’s fuelled her borderline obsession for all things travel and Trip Advisor.
I had one job: learn conversational Italian. It’s not the first time we’ve travelled to Italy but we had more ‘off the beaten track’ plans this time around so my linguistic efforts would be more requisite than polite.
At the end of 2015, as I considered goals for the year ahead, a line entry reflected my mission. Right before ‘Get a (hard copy of my) drivers’ licence’ and just after ‘Do something with a sea container’, there it sat: ‘Learn conversational Italian’.
To be honest, it’s not the first time this goal has made it on to a list of mine. I think I could present three lists featuring the same line entry. A lover of most things Italian, learning some of the language has been a hankering for a while. This year carried extra incentive: I had an end to hold up and a family to impress.
The year started strongly. An inability to run or walk back in January coupled with a desire to turn up at run club sessions and see folk go through their paces, gave me an opportunity to use the time for linguistic pursuits.
Duolingo became my good friend. I devoured modules for a while there. A module a day will keep the nagging alerts away, but I was nailing two or three of them at once. I was a long way off conversational but if all you were after was a table for four, a red wine, and a pizza margarita with excellent manners, I was your guy. I could even introduce the owner of the establishment to my family and let them know that I was from Australia and had a dog called Chipper if they were interested.
I was getting badges, gold stars, high fives and better still, gaining great joy from my growing intimacy with this foreign language. At one point it told me I had a 2% command of the language. Dizzy heights.
Then something wonderful happened. I had cortisone injections in both my knees and was able to do a little running again. The primary context for skilling up on Italian evaporated. The catalyst hadn’t changed nor, arguably, the desire, but something had shifted. There was still plenty of mattine and pomeriggio to ply my craft, but there were now more pressing tasks for my mornings and afternoons.
I didn’t really notice it at first but I started losing my vocabulary and I stopped using what little that I had. Friends who knew that I was trying to grow my grasp of the language continued to ask how I was going and I gave glib responses like “I’ve been a bit busy lately”, “I’ll get back onto it soon” and “I’m still learning, I’m just not…um…doing any learning right now”. I never used “I don’t need to learn Italian to speak Italian”, but I may as well have.
Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them.
Duolingo, the app that had been the constant companion in my goal, wasn’t going to give up so easily. There were alerts: ‘haven’t seen you for while, get back on the wagon and restore your first love (or something to that effect)’. The reminders were frequent but Duolingo was a gentlemen and didn’t badger me. The reminders became less frequent as Duolingo figured I was chasing after other goals now. Until the day I received one last reminder.
It read something like this: “We’ve missed seeing you around and we’ve frequently asked after you but it seems you’re not that keen to learn the language right now. We don’t want to keep bothering you. If you ever want to come back and grow some more, the door (the app) is open”.
Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come and eat with him, and he with me.
A couple of weeks ago, well aware of the depths to which I had fallen, I opened up Duolingo. It was like a foreign language to me but a familiar friend all the same. I was back at the start. All the modules that I’d motored through previously, were being recklessly devoured. I’d forgotten plenty yet this was not unknown territory. I was finding my bearings in this new land again. And there was urgency – I was about to board a plane for Italy.
But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first.
My nine-year-old thinks I’m a master of the language because I can say something after Bongiorno. I’m far from conversational, but I’m getting there. I’m drinking milk but I’m a long way from eating meat. ‘Senza carne‘ and all that.
Let him who has ears hear what the Spirit says.
When it comes to communicating in Italy, it’s not who you know but what you know. I’m so grateful I’ve been adopted into a Kingdom where the reverse is true.
In recent days, I’ve frequently strung together the longest sentence I have going.
Buongiorno! Posso ordinare espresso ristretto con un po di latte, per favore.
In exchange for my efforts, I’ve been getting just the sort of coffee I like.
I think my work here is done. What more does a man need in Italy?