travel notebook, portovenere: alone in italia, day five

acs_0767By the fifth day of my trip, I am exhausted, and sleep so late I barely have enough time to get ready and leave my room before the lockout hours of 10:30 to 2. It’s raining pretty hard, but I’ve missed the shuttle, so I have my coffee and put on a rain jacket, with a loose plan to walk from the village where the hostel is located–Biassa–down to La Spezia, where I can take the train. It should take an hour and a half to walk those same (traumatizing) hairpin curves and is, quite frankly, a dumb idea.

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Luckily I am saved from myself. Downstairs, I’m greeted with a ciao and a question from a guy I recognize vaguely: the shuttle driver from the first day. He asks if I’m going to La Spezia because he’s heading that way, and he’s just about to leave. His name is Andrea and he’s from La Spezia and has been working at the hostel for just a month. He’s 25.

He speaks in English, punctuated with allora, and I do my best to answer in my rough Italian, which gives me a very clear picture of what I need to work on or learn. I make a mental list: past tense of ‘to see,’ ‘andare’ conjugations in the future, the word ‘before…’

The great thing about speaking to someone my age, who’s not trying to impress upon me a detailed grammar lesson, is the language improvisation muscles I’m able to flex.

My Italian tutor, Gianluca, is a great teacher who provides interesting cultural materials–we read Italian fairytales or articles that discuss the surprising success of Campari in the US–but sometimes I wish we could just have a conversation about Cinque Terre, for example. Or that I could learn how much is that, or, ATM or, can I please have the check, none of which, surprisingly, I know how to say. I may search an everyday conversation kind of partner to bolster the grammar workout I get in my lessons.

Andrea finds parking and then asks me what I’m doing today. The truth, and my typical travel strategy, is I have no idea.

I try to stay as unplanned as possible, and once again, it proves a success. Andrea asks if maybe I’ll go to Portovenere, or rather tells me I will, in that direct European way: allora, you’ll go to Portovenere today.

I’ve got my rain jacket and sneakers, I’m up for anything. Perchè no. 

My other motto: listen to locals. acs_0745

We walk through La Spezia’s morning market where Andrea tells me he used to work- He greets his mamma who is buying cheese. We visit three tobacco shops before we find one still stocked with bus tickets to Portovenere.

“We have coffee now?” He shows me to a Sicilian bar where we continue a conversation in an Italian-flavored English patois. I have a bad habit, I’ve learned. If I don’t know a word in Italian (very likely at this point), I automatically substitute the French equivalent. The problem with that is, most of the people I’m talking with speak much more English than they do French. The result is a garbled mélange of tre languages that does more to impede communication than anything else.

Andrea shows me to the bus stop and I’m on my way to Portovenere, which I know nothing about. The drive is once again nauseating. I observe passengers and concentrate on not throwing up. There’s a little French boy seated next to me, so excited he can’t sit still. He makes me smile, reminding me of my second-grade students from last year.

Portovenere is calm. That’s my first impression. Fresh air. Cinque Terre emptied of the selfie sticks and waiting lines for photo ops. A slight drizzle falls and boats creak in the port.

I enter a striped marble church on a cliff. Inside, a single candle is burning. Outside, through the narrow windows, the sea is stormy.

It is an atmosphere ripe for a Romantic poet, an impression validated when I come to “Grotta Byron.” Engraved over a door made of stones, it is written This grotto was the inspiration of Lord Byron/ It records the immortal poet who as a daring swimmer defied the waves of the sea from Portovenere to Lerici. It must have been a seriously demanding swim to merit recognition like that, in marble, no less. Apparently, the “daring” poet would “defy” the waves in order to visit friend and muse Shelley, who was living in the village San Terenzo.

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The black, stratified rock of the promontory is slick with rain, and I edge down it carefully. Yellow flowers spill over the rocks and the air once again smells of honeysuckle or jasmine. I surprise a seagull in his nest and he squawks at me, loudly, just once.

Staring out at the sea is a woman, gathering her dress in her hands, frozen in an expression of quiet resignation. She’s not real, but she could be. She seems to breathe, almost, and the rain falls down her carved cheeks like teardrops. She sits like someone too hopeless to take shelter from the storm. What’s the point?

I think she is waiting for a lover who will never return, lost to the sea. Mourning, perhaps with just the faintest glimmer of hope: maybe

There is no plaque, no dedication, no direction to listen to Section 6 on your audioguide, and I am charmed by this, by this sad, solid, nameless woman in the same color as the sea.

acs_0701 I start down some stone steps, almost missing the sweet scene of pink petals swept to the ground by the rain. Next to them is the tiniest snail.

I think: that looks like poetry, before remembering the specific piece it brings to mind. Ezra Pound’s one-sentence Imagist poem, “In a Station of the Metro”: The apparition of these faces in the crowd; Petals on a wet, black bough

Famished, I eat at what seems to be the only restaurant still serving. I have trofie (a pasta specific to Liguria) with pesto. I am firmly in basil country here. As noted, they’ve even found ways to include the herb in really delicious gelato.

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I continue my walk, and when some bored waiters see me with my camera they shout in English, “hey! Take our picture!” So I do.

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how to swallow a frog

Speaking Italian is like trying to swallow a frog.

Not in a bad way.

It’s just new. A formidable challenge for my English, French-ified brain. The unfamiliar rolled r’s and smooth vowels might leap from my mouth at any moment.

The nasal ‘u’ I’ve spent so long perfecting in French, the guttural ‘r’ I’m proud of– all of it has to go.

My Italian tutor has me read long pages of text about interior design, the hunting instincts of cats, and the inner workings of the brain. I stumble over sterilizzazione, momentaneamente, diffusissime and he reads the sentence back to me flawlessly, savoring the rolled r’s like a fine beverage. My r’s are subtle and the result of careful concentration. They expire in about a fourth of a second, no match for Gianluca with his breezy norrrrrmale and cacciatorrrrre.

The man luxuriates in the beauty of his language. I respect that, and firmly will my stolid Germanic tongue to participate.

My Italian tutor is a bespectacled, middle-aged Milanese who possesses a voice fit for radio and a symphony of hand gestures. He’s tall, I think…but I’ve only ever seen him seated at a desk. We talk over Skype twice a week for an hour, Sancha the cat occasionally sniffing at the camera.

I found Gianluca on Le bon coin, a French Craigslist. Among the baby clothes and tires was his annonce proposing ten lessons for a bizarrely low price.

Somehow it wasn’t too good to be true. And here I am three months later, a happy amateur with enough knowledge to get around (proven in Florence last month). A year with Gianluca, and I think I’ll really know my stuff.

There is such a thing as teacher-student chemistry when it comes to learning. Gianluca and I were a great match.

Success in language-learning is directly linked to how much of un clown you’re willing to be. It’s like dancing. If all you can think about is how silly you look, it shows. But if you’re thinking about how much fun you’re having–not thinking at all–that shows too.

I’m more than willing to look silly (whatever helps my brain build those neural pathways) and since I think speaking a foreign language is one of the most rewarding kinds of fun, I have plenty of motivation. Gianluca is always ready with some challenging activity to make me think on my feet.

From the first day, he had me reading paragraphs about the disputed origins of the pizza margarita. I didn’t even know what Italian was supposed to sound like, not beyond exaggerated caricatures–mamma mia! ciao beeella!

And he wanted me to read. Off I went, in an accent cobbled together from Mario, a few words my family has tossed around the dinner table, and Cher in Moonstruck. Pronunciation was a mystery. What sound does ‘e’ make in the wild? Which c’s sound like chh?

At first I hesitated. But he knew I didn’t know, and he was waiting. It was freedom to guess, to just try, sans consequences.

Sì,it was probably very ugly. But it was exhilarating. Already I was speaking Italian! Sentence by sentence, I felt things clicking into place, my mind sorting all the new information.

Language learning delights me with its disciplined magic. I love that committing the ‘to be’ conjugations to memory and repeating sentences like “the friends are going into town to eat a good pizza” will one day result in communication.

It’s been quite awhile since I’ve been here with French, yelling “the grass is green! The grass is green!” as I wait for Rosetta Stone to register the phrase.

As an added bonus, my lessons have taught me about my own students. How does Gianluca expect me to remember that, I’ll think. We talked about it once! And then I’ll think, a little guiltily, about how I do that with my classes, and often. What I have sometimes taken for obstinance or indifference on their part might just have been information overload.

I have twenty years on them, but becoming the pupil again taught me empathy. Classes went better once the teacher had her own days of the week to memorize. Lunedì, martedì…

I gave them a lot more time and space to think and remember. I started defining success a different way, one that fit their abilities. I became genuinely excited when they met the little goals I used to take for granted.

Consider me humbled. And isn’t that what learning a foreign language is all about?

 

Photos are from a trip to Menton, France. Click to see the post.