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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embracing the absurd

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That long, skinny vegetable.

That colorful thing in the sea.

That thing that you close with a key.

These sound like lines from a fun board game, but are in fact desperate definitions I’ve uttered within the past week when the French term for leek or coral reef or lock escapes me.

I can speak quickly now, producing French at about the same speed as my native English, but that ability doesn’t always disguise knowledge gaps: simple nouns and verbs that I missed or forgot along the way. I compensate with long, looping definitions, often punctuated by you know.

“So we bought some…” My story grinds to a halt. “Tu sais, that long, skinny vegetable?” The listener squints. They don’t know.

“White and green, tu sais, makes a good soup?”

Over five years of dedicated language study and I’m liable to get tripped up on a leek. img_2368

Cooking with a friend really drives the point home. “Could you pass the board for cutting things? Where is the bowl with holes in it? I need the thing for scraping, made of plastic.” I sound weirdly literal, like an alien who has studied human life from afar. Either that or like someone who doesn’t get out much. How have I made it this far and missed colander?

Learning the French language has been a first-class study in the art of French absurdism. This school of thought, motivated by nationwide dejection in post-war France, claims that our very existence is absurd. Certainty is impossible. Does life have meaning? The answer is paradoxical: a definitive maybe. Existentialists sometimes bemoan this fact. Absurdists embrace it. It is by facing the void (and often, by laughing at it) that we can reconcile our absurd state. It is still possible, Absurdists maintain, to live bravely. To seek beauty.

I read playwright Eugène Ionesco’s “La Cantatrice chauve” senior year of college. This “anti play” employs language that does not result in communication. Thanks to the many missteps of my language-learning journey, this idea of language divorced from communication is an area in which I have lots of practice. img_7425

Set in a proper middle-class English interior, the play opens with a Mr. and Mrs. Smith in the midst of a strange conversation. They speak in clichés and then are suddenly cold and literal, as if narrating their own behavior. They make statements and then immediately contradict themselves with no change in expression. Stage directions include: bursts into laughter, then she bursts into tears. Then she smiles. 

Soon, dinner guests arrive. Mr. and Mrs. Martin sit facing each other, without speaking. They smile timidly at each other. The dialogue which follows must be spoken in voices that are drawling, monotonous, a little singsong, without nuances.

The dialogue which follows concerns how this married couple might know one another. Hmm, they wonder. Did we run into each other once, long ago? It seems we are both from Manchester. They deduce, finally, that they share a bedroom, and even a daughter! How curious it is, how strange! Finally, Mr. Martin announces in the same flat, monotonous voice, slightly singsong, that “dear lady, there can be no doubt about it, we have seen each other before and you are my own wife…Elizabeth, I have found you again!”

The play ends with the characters screaming out rhymes, sequences of letters, and one-syllable utterances, shrieking together as the light is extinguished.

But it has not yet ended. The stage lights come on again to show Mr. and Mrs. Martin, now seated as were the Smiths in the beginning. Thus the play begins again, with the Martins speaking the same lines as in the debut. The curtain falls.

I wasn’t expecting my French homework to send shivers down my spine. But this innocuous little play somewhere in the middle of my battered three-hundred page textbook did just that. I was early to class the next day to find out more. img_7390

Funny, creepy, and like nothing I have read before or since, I would certainly recommend it. Click here for the English text and here for French.

When you think about how much can go wrong, the delicate balance of semantics and pragmatics, it’s a wonder that we can even understand each other at all. La Cantatrice chauve takes this idea to an extreme, language’s every possible ambiguity exploited. The results are far from pretty.

Little did I know that I would be installing myself, post-grad, in the Smith’s living room. In France, effortless communication was a thing of the past, replaced by accidental non-sequiturs, wild hand gestures, and desperate expressions. It was only a matter of time, I felt, before I would resort to full-on absurdism, to screaming incoherently into the night.

It is difficult to exemplify the linguistic chaos that I have experienced, for I have tried to erase many of these gaffes from memory. I do have a few recent examples. You need only to imagine the complications that could result from mistaking cheville and chevreuil. These words, which sound fairly similar, mean “ankle” and “venison,” respectively.

Last week I asked for ankle pâté.

My first week in Cannes, thanks to a one-syllable mistake, I asked a woman in a boulangerie if she knew of a nearby store where I could go run a race.

It is moments like these when the absurd is felt fully. I look respectable, I speak confidently and fluently…and I produce a sentence so unintentionally strange that I have learned to recognize a distinctive expression on the faces of strangers. It is marked by a slight widening of the eyes, a furrow between the brows. There is perhaps a reevaluation of my mental state. Those few uncomfortable seconds are an eternity: the time it takes to cross the gulf between language and communication. My heartbeat seems to emanate from my eardrums.

These moments were once agonizing for me. I used to walk around thinking that everyone knew I was une étrangère: my non-native awkwardness surely as visceral as a bright bullseye painted on my back.

It’s not fun to be forced into a starring role in an absurdist play.

Until it is. I took a cue from the Absurdists and I learned to laugh. At myself, at ridiculous situations, at what we call communication.

In hindsight, I see that my seriousness and self-consciousness came from simple fear. There is, after all, something scary and absurd about starting over as an adult, struggling to communicate basic wants and needs. The disparity between my thoughts and the language I was able to produce frustrated me to no end.

Time, experience, and improved language skills eased the fear. But even more significant was learning to lighten up. It’s something I still work on, a skill like any other. But largely, I see my “failures” as funny. It’s not so life-or-death: and why, I wonder now, did I ever think that? There are no French grammar police hiding behind a tree waiting to fine me for incorrectly conjugating the subjunctive. img_7422

Sometimes, even now, a notable language mistake or inability to communicate will make me feel like a child. But maybe that’s not so bad. Babies have a big, beautiful world in front of them, full of unknowns, ripe for the exploring. So do we, the language learners, the close observers, the passionately curious; those of us who choose to implant ourselves into a mysterious new culture and start over: just for the thrill of it. Let’s embrace the absurdity of communication. We need not run screaming into the night.

 

 

To read more about my wrestling with France, try French People Tell Me What to Do: “In my French life, there is almost always a slight sense of bouleversement–disruption–the feeling that I don’t quite know what’s going on at any given time. All the yawning aspects of daily life have been shifted, a bit like that prank where you move every piece of someone’s furniture five inches to the right. I am the one pranked: I don’t notice when I walk into the room, but am surely going to stub my toe.”

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