With this whole language learning thing, I mean. First I started off with Spanish, studying it in school, then majoring in it in college and even going abroad with it to Barcelona (although of course the study abroad thing might have been part of why I did the major…). Then I decided to move to Italy to teach English, despite not knowing anyone here, not having any Italian ancestry or anything like that, and only knowing of the language what I had taught myself from reading in Italian, having picked up a couple silly novels when I had visited Italy.
Now, I still haven’t studied Italian formally but I get by, and I keep finding myself at… The French cultural center in Rome, Centre Saint Louis de France. They have a chock full calender of films, exhibitions, lectures, and book readings, and I just started going when there was a topic that particularly interested me, as a nice way to unwind when I was downtown after work.
There was a lecture about Andy Warhol and religious themes in his work which I thought should be interesting, but I went with low expectations of how much I would understand based on knowing other romance languages. And, in fact, the first speaker I had a hard time with. Slides going along with his points helped somewhat, but what I find difficult about French are the different accents and ways of speaking, some people are just phlegmy and slur and mumble and it sounds really awful, in my humble opinion. The second speaker though I fared better with; he was one of those slow-talkers who sort of has to think of each word himself before he says them, which obviously helped. I took some notes on what I did understand, and looking back at them afterwards I realized I had gotten quite a lot of it.
So at that point I was sort of hooked. Maybe I can learn this one too, at least a little. I went to other talks where I understood really about 1%, films where at least I could follow the basic story. Last week however I went to my favorite event yet, a book discussion with a French author who grew up in Rwanda before the war (if you can call it that) there. I understood enough to be interested in the book at the first talk, in French, and then luckily a few days later he gave another “conversation” at a small African bookstore here, where he had someone live translating to and from French for him, whispering in his ear as the interviewer spoke and so on (and as a geek, I find even little details like this totally fascinating). It soon switched to French though, of course, as most people in the crowd who asked questions did so in French. Still, once you have a little context you can understand more than you might think, if you just try and don’t give up. It was a fantastic experience and I managed to learn a lot.
I got the book (the Italian version though, I don’t want to completely frustrate myself) and it’s fascinating, really creative, a dialog of sorts between two parallel lives, one a mute boy living in the aftermath in Rwanda, and the other a girl who was born there, orphaned, adopted by a couple in Paris, and therefore grew up thinking herself disconnected from what happened. (The title is “Le Passé devant soi” in French if you are interested, I don’t believe it has been translated to English though.)
When I picked up my copy, I had it signed by the author, though I could only pronounce my name and say thank you in the most basic French. His translator offered to read me what he had written, but instead I waited and looked up the words I didn’t know when I got home, and there you have it, my first personal experience in yet another language.
What can possibly cheer me up on yet another of these rainy days?
Taking refuge in a warm bookstore, instinctively drawn to the colorful section of travel books, where covers with jaguars and incredible architecture, and vast sunsets jump out at you. Picking up the ones for the cities I already know, as if visiting an old friend. Looking up some of the places I used to love to go, and their history, those famous names that went to the same cob-webbed bar, down a winding street in Barcelona.
An ever-growing wall in the store of notebooks, of all sizes and types, some simple and austere, others patterned, clever. I know I love using them, but it sort of amazes me that each bookstore in each city sells so many, people manage to fill all their pages. With what? Their own stories, dreams, thoughts, notes for serious studies. Is there some kind of renaissance of personal creativity going on, or have we always been this way? So eager to record.
A big book of someone’s letters, scans of the originals, neatly or haphazardly written on hotel stationery from around the world. And beside, translations. Trying to make someone’s personal thoughts universal, or at least universally accessible.
A young, attractive, happy couple passing through with their tiny child, just forming his first adorable sentences in italian. And maybe it’s just me seeing what I want to see, but there’s an innate calm about the three of them, a smile despite the flooded streets, damp socks inside shoes, struggles with umbrellas and raincoats and strollers. A young family seeming to represent something: that it is possible after all, to actually have it all. And having it, or hoping for it, can get you through any rainy day.
diamond for a nickel
What do they think they’re up to, here? Well, there is the official answer; preparing themselves for life which means a job and security in which to raise children to prepare themselves for life which means a job and security in which. But, despite all the vocational advisers, the pamphlets pointing out to them what good money you can earn if you invest in some solid technical training — pharmacology, let’s say, or accountancy, or the varied opportunities offered by the vast field of electronics — there are still, incredibly enough, quite a few of them who persist in writing poems, novels, plays! Goofy from lack of sleep, they scribble in snatched moments between classes, part-time employment and their married lives. Their brains are dizzy with words as they mop out an operating room, sort mail at a post office, fix baby’s bottle, fry hamburgers. And somewhere, in the midst of their servitude to the must-be, the mad might-be whispers to them to live, know, experience — what? Marvels! The Season in Hell, the Journey to the End of the Night, the Seven Pillars of Wisdom, the Clear Light of the Void… Will any of them make it? Oh, sure. One, at least. Two or three at most — in all these searching thousands.
Here, in their midst, George feels a sort of vertigo. Oh God, what will become of them all? What chance have they? Ought I to yell out to them, right now, here, that it’s hopeless?
But George knows he can’t do that. Because, absurdly, inadequately, in spite of himself almost, he is a representative of the hope. And the hope is not false. No. It’s just that George is like a man trying to sell a real diamond for a nickel, on the street. The diamond is protected from all but the tiniest few, because the great hurrying majority can never stop to dare to believe that it could conceivably be real.
“A Single Man,” Christoper Isherwood, pg 32.
and i worry: is this me?
“She belongs to that sect most swiftly, irrevocably trapped by New York, the talented untalented; too acute to accept a more provincial climate, yet not quite acute enough to breathe freely within the one so desired, they go along neurotically feeding upon the fringes of the New York scene.
Only success, and that at a perilous peak, can give relief, but for artists without an art, it is always tension without release, irritation with no resulting pearl. Possibly there would be if the pressure to succeed were not so tremendous. …
Which is not to say that the world owes [her], or anyone, a living; alas, the way things are with her, she most likely could not make a poem, a good one, that is; still she is important, her values are balanced by more than the usual measure of truth, she deserves a finer destiny than to pass from belated adolescence to premature middle age, with no intervening period, and nothing to show.”
Truman Capote, “New York” in Portraits and Observations.
…Except replacing New York with Europe, which in a way, is similar: the kind of place you move to looking for a fresh start somewhere sophisticated, where the stakes are raised but you hope to finally live up to your potential. But it is just a hope; it doesn’t always work out.
I think part of why I hesitate to really give in to giving creative endeavors a chance is this worry, what if it turns out I am one of the “talented untalented.” It is a sort of trap if you are, an unanswerable question. Or maybe every creative-minded person doubts themselves this way, until they find the right way to express themselves.
I had forgotten how much I love the smell of the sea air.
A brief, but much-needed and appreciated, three days in Venice reminded me immediately. Reminded me, and filled me up. Filled my heart, and my mind, with the reasons why I’m here, and what I’m looking for.
I love the way Truman Capote describes the experience of the city, huge crowds or not, in one of his essays:
“But to avoid anyone in Venice is much the same as playing hide-and-seek in a one-room apartment, for there was never a city more compactly composed. It is like a museum with carnivalesque overtones, a vast palace that seems to have no doors, all things connected, one leading into another. Over and over in a day the same faces repeat like prepositions in a long sentence…”
Truman Capote, “To Europe” (in Portraits and Observations)
platonic friend date #2
I met up with my second language exchange friend in the middle of a sunny afternoon one day last week. Neither of us really knowing exactly how these things work, he suggested that we go see a little church nearby, apologizing that it seemed like a kind of religious thing to do, but I assumed there was some reason to see it so off we went, me trying to decipher his particular accent, and not walk into oncoming traffic at the same time (which is sort of like that old joke about walking and chewing gum at the same time, but it’s actually kind of hard).
A few minutes later we were there, and he had this sort of funny smile on his face so I knew there was something strange awaiting. And there was. There really really was. Down a little hallway, we stepped into a chapel decorated, as it were, with literally hundreds of skulls and other bones, on one wall forming a sort of cross, and peeking out from corners, ledges, everywhere. Apparently they were people who died during the Plague, and never had a proper burial, so someone decided this was an appropriate way to use their remains. It was seriously jaw-dropping, and I slipped back out of my Italian to say “oh my god” about a dozen times. I’ll have to get a picture another time because I was trying to play it at least a little bit cool, not tourist-y. And also there were people sitting and praying there at the time, so we just tried to stay quiet, towards the back. (I mean seriously? Imagine being a little kid and this is the church you go to on Sundays… “It’s like something from that Dan Brown book,” he said. “Yeah, or Indiana Jones.”)
So we were already off to a good start. Most of the time for these conversation things people go for coffee or an aperitif, so this idea was already a sign of a thoughtful person, an interesting one. (And spurred the idea that so far I’m really not pulling my own weight here.) And a good one: he paused to leave some coins for the men sitting outside on the church steps. Not to overanalyze it, but I like people who in tiny ways like this challenge me to be a better person myself, more interesting, more creative, more compassionate.
We went on to a little park (that’s it up there) which was another terrific thing for me to find, a quiet little oasis just a few steps literally from the very busy center of the city. It’s next to one of the city’s various universities (the one he is just now graduating from, actually) so it was filled with a lot of young people talking, lying in the grass, kicking around a soccer ball, playing with their little dogs. We found a shady bench and stayed for hours talking, switching between Italian and English, about what we studied, travel, different cities, music, television, society. And his belief in the 2012 end-of-the-world theory.
So it seems like it was the start of something good; or even if not, a nice little interlude, showing me a little bit more of the real side of this city, away from the busyness and fashion, crisp suits and fur coats. And this gorgeous little park keeps pulling me back for a few quiet minutes reading, or taking in some sun, or just thinking and trying to be that slightly more interesting version of myself.