Parlo Italiano?

This is denture adhesive.

I bought it at a farmacia in Viterbo on our second day here. After standing in front of the shelves trying to find a familiar-looking product for an awkwardly long time, I gave up and grabbed what I thought was cheap Italian toothpaste.

Back at our apartment, I slowed down, parsed through the words on the box — and saw the diagram on the back about how to apply it to your dentures — and realized what I’d done.

The mistake became a good joke after about 5 seconds of humiliation, but it was still a glaring reminder that I’m spending the next six weeks in a place where I don’t speak the language.

When I got word in January that I’d be studying in Viterbo this summer, I dove into learning some Italian. I love my language-learning apps, but practicing greetings and verb conjugations on my couch at home is a long way from attempting to buy toothpaste or trying to call a cab or staring at a friendly shopkeeper who not only has asked a question I don’t understand, but also is awaiting an answer I can’t give.

I usually don’t flounder for long, because most people here, especially in their 40s or younger, speak some English. When they hear me stumble through an Italian phrase — or sometimes even when I think I’ve said it really well — they switch languages to help me out.

A good deal of the infrastructure here in Italy, such as the airport and trains, also repeat everything in English.

This is helpful, but I also find it a bit unfair to the Italians. English is one of 6,500 languages spoken in the modern world (that’s not an exaggeration; I looked it up!). And yet, for a long list of reasons — many of them tied to colonialism and other types of injustice — a good portion of the world caters to English speakers.

I know generosity and kindness led the waitress where we had dinner last night to patiently translate the menu and the guy at the caffeteria this morning to gently correct me when I misunderstood how much I owed.

But I also don’t mind the woman at the butcher shop who chatted to me in Italian as if I understood every word, or the taxi driver who said “Ah, you speak English” and hung up on me, or the lady at the farmacia who either thinks I wear dentures or was just fine letting me buy denture adhesive without saying a word about it.

I am thankful when people here want to help me by speaking my language. But I feel responsible to do my very best to speak, listen to and understand theirs when I can.

And I’m making progress! This morning on the train, I listened to one of the USAC staffers here have a conversation with a sweet little boy and his grandfather — and I actually understood it. Pietro loves the train, so his obliging Nonno takes him out to ride it back and forth from their little country town every day.

Of course, this means I have roughly the vocabulary of a preschooler — and probably not even that — but it was a start. Maybe by the end of my time here, I’ll be able to have charming Italian conversations with people on the train and in the shops and on the street, too (or at least correctly identify toothpaste).

I am getting to be a pro at ordering gelato. “Un cono piccolo, ciocolatto e fragola, per favore! Grazie! Molto buono! Delizioso!”

4 thoughts on “Parlo Italiano?

  1. Good morning from Idaho! It sounds like you are doing a great job learning the language & culture. Have a lovely time and post pictures when you can. Ciao bella! ~Mary

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