Tales of a wandering lesbian

No capito, ho conosco

There’s a comfort in not knowing the language that’s spoken around me.  A liberation of sorts.  When I’m in a room of English speakers, I have a compulsion to know as much as possible about what is going on, about what is being said.  It’s like pieces of my brain are assigned specific tasks, gathering, analyzing, condensing and reporting back so that I can make an assessment of everyone else’s lives and actions in comparison to my own.  What a trap.  It’s quite exhausting really.

When I came to Italy in May, I noticed that my mind was more at ease.  In a room of rapidly speaking Italians, what I heard was a lullaby.  Stripped from the need, or even the ability to understand the conversations around me, I was able to relax, bathed in the emotion of the experience.  I came to regard the random English conversations of tourists and ex-pats as intrusions into the place I had found for myself.

During that trip, I had the experience that people would often speak to me directly when my family had Italian language interactions.  It was probably because I was the youngest in the group, and there was an assumption that if anyone knew Italian, it would be me.  But that was misguided, as my dad had spent a fair amount of time studying the language before the trip.

As these experiences happened, I found that trying to understand the words – to take apart the sounds and make sense of them – was not that useful, even with the college conversational Spanish I had.  What worked much better is what I call the “magic ear” method.  You remember those books “Magic Eye” from the 90’s?  The ones where you look at a seemingly random image of blurred dots, and by unfocusing your eyes, a 3-D image pops out?  I was never really able to make them work, but when it comes to understanding the conversations around me, I find that unfocusing the ear, and just feeling the experience leads me to a much more accurate understanding than trying to understand the words.

Of course, it’s not an exact science.  I met a lovely woman last night whose energy was gentle and powerful at the same time.  I just wanted to sit near her as she spoke with Sandra and Deb.  When I met her, I introduced myself and told her it was a pleasure to meet her.  Then she said a number of animated things, followed by a smile and “va bene.”  I know those words!  So I repeated, “si, va bene.”  She chuckled a bit and Sandra interjected to let her know I didn’t understand what I was responding to.  We all laughed and went to sit down.

Later that night, in a conversation about how Puritan Americans can be, Sandra told me that Fabiana had told me it was nice to meet me, but I needed not to be so uptight.  Within 30 seconds of meeting me.  Funny.  I guess it’s true.  If I’d been practicing “magic ear” I might have gathered as much.  The beginnings of conversations with new people, just the act of meeting them can be full of tension for me, full of potential, yes, but full of judgment as well.  Adding the element of a new language is a whole different thing.  There’s a twinge of the old tension, but it’s mostly overridden by the twinges of fear that I might say the wrong thing, or hear the wrong thing, or make someone else uncomfortable with my slow ability to communicate.

I guess maybe it’s time to practice “magic brain” or “magic heart” and let some of that go.  Okay, maybe all of it.  Eventually, I will understand the language, and the bliss of being able to hear the language around me as a beautiful song and to experience the emotions of the people in conversation as more pure, without the labels that speech brings, that will change.  I’m hoping that maybe, just maybe, when that happens, I will find that I have changed a bit too.

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1 Nicole { 10.29.09 at 3:15 pm }

Love the commentary. I can hear a change in your “voice” by the way you are writing – Italy seems to have opened a new way for you to express yourself. Beautiful writing that makes me imagine reading it in hardcover someday. Stay safe!

2 Mangia! | Mid Leap { 11.06.09 at 4:29 pm }

[…] surrounded by supportive friends, she smiled, joked, and commanded great attention. It’s amazing what you can understand even when you can’t comprehend. Sandra’s passion and vision were palpable – as were the […]