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.

use your words: confessions of a part-time parent

They turn their tiny noses up at most of what I eat.

I eat coconut chips and turmeric lattes, sautéed greens and tomatoes sprinkled with salt. I try to share. An experiment with some zucchini ends with the zucchini reappearing in the toddler’s mouth after an uncomfortable three seconds where she looks at me as if I have betrayed her. I fetch a napkin, wondering if there was a time I was so averse to anything green, anything strong, anything with…flavor.

My groceries reflect my time with the kids. After a day of serving macaroni and cheese, carrot sticks, my bags don’t include dinosaur-shaped fruit snacks or flavored yogurt. If I shop after a day spent with them, invariably my cart includes black garlic hummus and punjabi eggplant and Gorgonzola piccante so sharp it nearly burns the tongue. I sneak up the stairs, “late,” 9 pm when everyone is sleeping, and I stir turmeric and ginger and honey into hot milk. I sprinkle bright goat cheese onto salads and whisk tahini with olive oil for a dressing. For a midnight snack I sometimes eat kimchi from the jar.

It’s a curious thing, to live in a house with the children that you care for. They depend on me: for a set number of hours each week. I experience moments of tenderness, gently rocking the toddler as she drifts into sleep, and moments of relief: they are not mine. I will now descend into my basement lair and leave the tears and tantrums to someone else.

Taking care of a five-year-old and a toddler, at times I feel impossibly old. No longer the child, I am charged with putting someone else’s needs first, all the time. Their problems are so easily solved, their worlds small. They don’t understand, not really, that I, too, am sometimes scared and confused. That I sometimes long for a hug from my mom. That popsicles and band-aids don’t fix everything.

It’s strange to realize that I am not quite a person for them, or not in the way that I have learned to see people. The complicated interior life. The hopes and dreams. They have seen me cry and their faces don’t change. I wonder what they’re thinking. Empathy, I guess, is something we teach, something we learn.

In some ways, spending time with children is like spending time with people from another culture who speak a language you haven’t quite mastered. They will not understand, or maybe care, about the specifics of your day or just exactly what you think about the book you’re reading. And you, despite trying, cannot express these things. You learn quickly that political debates are out. Quoting The Princess Bride is out. That great pun you thought of, you’ll have to keep to yourself.

So, here, language fails you.

It’s frustrating. It’s strange. If you are really language-oriented, like I am, you’ll wonder who you are without your words. You’ll feel like a paper doll.

And you’ll find that it’s kind of refreshing.

Maybe you kick a ball back and forth or splash in a pool or dance or help cut vegetables for a pizza or play a board game: all things I did with my host family before I attained fluency in French. What I thought about these activities didn’t matter so much. I just did them.

So many times I swallowed that witty comment and I missed the joke and I contributed nothing verbally. And robbed of my words, I found I still existed. I was still appreciated, and loved.

I suppose that it is similar with the children. They don’t know what I feel or think, not really, not usually. But in this case I am not a mute but I am a provider. Of love, of instruction, of fun. Of cheese sticks and open arms and coloring books. Of discipline and library visits and tiny tiny portions of zucchini.

I feel impossibly old sometimes. But I hand them over and head downstairs and I feel young again, the kind of young where I can still be selfish and it doesn’t hurt anyone. The change from my college years is that for the first time, I don’t take this for granted, my freedom.

I can spend an hour on my hair. I can buy new and extremely impractical shoes. I can take my hair and my shoes and a new book to a lounge at a high-rise hotel, and I can sit and watch the sun set, the city a backdrop to my cocktail. And I can do this on a Monday if I want to. I can make last-minute decisions and I can stay up all night. My friends can do the same.

Juxtaposed with the responsibility of caring for the children, though, this stage of life seems for the first time finite. And it’s all the sweeter for it.