Ciao from Cortina: Learning Italian
November 5, 2014
When we're back in Steamboat Springs for the summer, the question I dread the most is, "How's your Italian coming?" The truth is this: My Italian is terrible. And now that this is our fourth year in Italy, it's getting embarrassing.
The issue of learning Italian is one that lingers constantly in the back of my mind, but I realized I had a huge problem when, last week, my Italian teacher asked me to translate the phrase, "I would like to eat the cake" into Italian.
"Vorrei mangiare," I began, and then, for some reason or other, the French word, not the Italian word, for cake popped into my head.
"La gateau," I finished, immediately realizing my mistake. "Gateau," the French word for cake, is pronounced the same as "gatto," the Italian word for cat.
"You would like to eat the cat?" my Italian teacher asked incredulously, shaking her head. I decided then to seriously commit to improving my Italian.
You would think that learning Italian in Italy would be relatively easy — we're surrounded by it after all. But here we are, in our fourth year, and I realize that we've just skimmed the surface of this wonderful (and difficult) language.
We know the basics: how to order coffee, glasses of wine, dinner; how to get 100 grams of prosciutto from the deli counter; how to swear at hockey games; how to ask a friend how they are; and how to comment on another beautiful day or that it's snowing outside.
We've picked up on the words for "danger," "falling snow" and "slow down" from street signs across town. We know most fruits and vegetables, most farm animals, the numbers from one to 100. All of these words and phrases, we've absorbed here and there the way a toddler learns to speak English. We basically have the vocabulary of an Italian 4-year-old.
Unfortunately, all of our friends are older than 4 and love to tease us about how we've been in Cortina for four years and still don't speak Italian — at the standard that they would like us to, anyway, which is very rapidly.
Deep down, I know they're right though: There's no reason why, after four years, we can't speak better Italian. Europeans, I've noticed, tend to speak multiple languages and make them all sound good. One of my husband's teammates, for example, speaks near-perfect English, Italian and German, but his first language is a very complicated sounding South Tirolean dialect that probably only about 50 people know.
Personally, I prefer to speak what I like to think of as my own dialect, which is a jumbled mixture of half-English and half-Italian. But not wanting to be the ambassador for the "lazy American" image, I'm determined to learn more Italian this year; to be able to speak in the past and future tenses (although, aren't we always supposed to live in the present?); and to be able to effortlessly order a steak from the butcher, which is my scary place.
Yes, Italian is hard. They have phrases like "in bocca al lupo," which translates to "in the wolf's mouth," but means good luck.
They have a million different verb endings not to mention tenses. There is nothing you can do but simply spend hours memorizing all the irregular verbs. Which is exactly what I intend to do.
Until then, I've noticed, all the neighborhood cats are keeping their distance.
Sophie Dingle is a freelance writer living in Cortina, Italy, where her husband and Steamboat native, Ryan, plays professional ice hockey. While in Italy, she loves to eat, cook, explore and drink red wine. You can follow her adventures online at http://www.sophiedingle.blogspot.com.
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