Italy: Lost in translation

Perugia Fountain

Perugia Fountain

[I will prelude this blog, acknowledging it has been some time since I have posted, and this blog should be the first of many recalling journals from my sketchbook in order to help catch some of you up with the places I have seen and people I have met…]

Sitting in Perugia this weekend, I came to realize there is much I still do not know. Most notably, 4 other languages, or even one language well enough to fake it.

As I was sketching in Piazza Italia, an old man came and sat down next me. After looking over my sketch he began to talk to me. This was the difficult part however. Initially we went back and forth trying to find a language to speak in. I was able to understand enough off the bat, that this old man knew 4 languages. He told me in each language that he spoke that language and how well he spoke it. Italiano, which I came to learn was his native tongue, as he was from Sicilia. Fracese, or French…”tre bien,” he said with his thumb and two fingers together held out high. Deutsch…German…”spreche deutsch,” you could tell this wasn’t his best language, but I’m sure he could find his way around in it. And finally, after telling me of his travels to Tunisia, I found the old man also spoke Arabo…or Arabic, the native language of Tunisia next to French.

Each language the man spoke, he asked me if I spoke that language. I was able to tell him I spoke Italiano, although I knew very little “un poh” “Habla Espanol,” was another phrase I pulled out in desperation, hoping I might be able to find some tongue in which to better identify with my new friend. Unfortunately, he replied he spoke no Spanish. Finally he asked of my native language, with which I replied, English. This actually happened a few times over the course of the conversation, if nothing else, I would guess to make sure I was responding to the right question and understood what he was asking. “Mama mia!………..quattro lingui……….Inglese…….psh!” “Hahaha” With lost words in between, this was what my friend insisted in frustration. “I speak 4 languages!” with which he counted and named each one, “and you speak one.” “Of which is English, which is [no importante in Italia]”

This was truly frustrating. By now I was supremely interested in this old man and his life’s journeys, however I had no way to inquire further.

Our ‘conversation’ continued as he was able to tell me, or rather I was able to finally understand, as I mentioned earlier that he was from Sicilia. He had travelled to Tunisia from what I could infer, and had spent time in a French school perhaps when he was younger. I am still unsure of his history with German, although after so many languages, I suppose one more is of no great difficulty. In my best efforts of fishing for words and linguistic creativity I was able to tell him that I was studying architecture in Rome (studio architettura in Roma) I linked that to my reasoning for being in Perugia, and told him how we traveled from Rome, to Spoleto, Spoleto to Assisi, Assisi to Perugia, and that later that day we would travel back to Rome. Towards the end of our conversation Emile asked my age. Fumbling with my numbers, he told me “scribble!” pointing to my sketchbook. I did after all have a pad of paper and pencil right in front of me. I wrote 24, and he pronounced “ventiquattro.” I asked of his age, and to my surprise he wrote 87, “ottanta-sette.” Now I really was interested in his story. Finally we wrote our names down and pronounced them to one another. I now knew the man I was conversing with went by Emile.

After nearly 40 minutes had passed in our exchange of phrase and frustration, Emile complimented me again on my sketch of the fountain we looked out onto from our bench, said what I’m sure was the equivalent of a “nice to meet you,” and departed off across the piazza.

“Come si diche…’I have a lot to learn’…in Italiano?”

*Originally published on University of Idaho Rome Study Abroad Blog “Idaho-Roma” :

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