Yo no hablo español…todovía

Hello everyone. It’s been a while.

Despite what you haven’t seen, this summer was productive for writing — I wish I could share more of it here. A few new pieces are circulating in the ether of Submittable and the bowels of Hearst Corporation, however publishing them on my blog negates their eligibility elsewhere. If they do find homes, I’ll post an update in News and set off several flares in the sky.

With grant and residency application season likewise past, I’m beginning to consider the future, at least the near-term future, which will lead to Bogotá, Colombia, thanks to Brad, who has offered to put me up in January. With that, I’ve also been thinking about closed doors and open windows, the kind that one finds in dense pedestrian-oriented cities established before the automobile.

I’ve just started a piece that begins in Venice, retracing my steps through that sceptered isle full of mysterious doorways that most will never enter. The last time I visited, I had the good fortune of renting an apartment in the Castello sestiere with two Juliet balconies that faced onto Via Giuseppe Garibaldi, a main drag between the Arsenale and the Giardini. For a week, I possessed a clunky skeleton key that unlocked the brown outer doors leading to a tight marble-lined staircase inside.

When passing through the commotion of two restaurants with sidewalk tables, my street-level door located squarely between them, I felt the gaze of tourists observing me, seemingly a Venetian resident. My shopping bags and self-assured gait said that I belonged there. Once the outer doors closed behind me, a motion sensor light illuminated the dark passageway tinged by a metallic odor of old water on concrete. As I neared the staircase leading up to my apartment on the third floor, those floating lights began to blaze, as if commanded by sorcery. After repeating this sequence several times up and down, I felt like I knew what was happening in other palazzi nearby.

The same was true when I appeared on the balcony, looking out first at the shimmering lagoon and then down at the couples making the afternoon passagiatta. The Italians rarely considered me –the sight of a person on her balcony is ordinary– but the stranieri took notice, longing to live in such a place and for the time to sit leisurely, enjoying the warm humidity when others were off to work. When our eyes met, it was easy to place myself down with them on the street. How many times had I, too, passed by quiet street-level doors, wondering who lived there and how much it cost to rent such a place? How often had I paused beneath open windows to hear the symphony of an Italian family making dinner, the clattering of dishware laid on wooden tables, the dull clank of silverware and the sloshing of water and wine into pitchers and glasses?

The voyeur in us seeks these portals into the lives of others. What kind of furniture do they have? What spices does their house smell of? What shape and pattern are the electric plugs and the bathroom taps? We picture fresh vegetables and meats from the butcher gathered on the counter for dinner, perhaps ones that we have never prepared nor eaten before. Americans especially are intrigued by international dining cultures, as we tend to lack ceremony beyond the bookends of religious blessings and store-bought ice cream. One street-level door leads to eight or twelve homes filled with these wonderful secret legacies that many of us will never know.

As my language skills developed over four visits to Italy, these eavesdrops become richer, for I not only absorbed the significance of sounds (making dinner, eating, cleaning up), I understood bits of conversation and radio programs. The Italians discussed politics and romance, family obligations, labor strikes, the Mafia, work schedules. As I came to identify and employ their idiomatic speech, I discovered a doorway leading between them and myself, one that had remained in shadow my whole life. This tenuous passage was akin to the narrow alleyways of Venice, the kind that one scans peripherally and immediately forgets once out into the light; the memory and bonds of a common tongue are both hard-won and delicate.

Though I studied German for four years between high school and university, I have not yet used it in travel. When I came to study Italian in adulthood, I thought often of my German lessons, feeling frustrated that, while German is a language of rules, Italian seemed to be a language of exceptions. Hard as it was to set aside my inborn affinity for systems and rubric, when I left the classroom and language CDs behind, something gestural happened with my communication, both in Italian and English. In living Italian, I began to think and write more passionately, learning to trust in a family of words and ideas that came with few rules and guarantees, and thus, few unforgivable mistakes.

I was also exhausted at the end of each day. Language acquisition, especially for adults, calls for new neural pathways that our aging brains find it tiring to establish and maintain. Now, where I once reached for Italian words only to find German equivalents, I search my cranial card catalogue for Spanish words and find their Italian cousins. This time, there are similarities to build on, or so I hope, as I only have four months to learn a new language that is both familiar and foreign enough to tax my brain. A new door has revealed itself.

On Brad’s recommendation, I’ve begun reading The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vasquez, a beautifully written novel about the impact of the Colombian drug wars on a man’s life, love and family in Bogotá. I also ordered it in Spanish so that I can read back and forth, [hopefully] absorbing colloquialisms and modern forms of speech that my instructional books won’t necessarily provide.

This will be my first foray into a developing nation, a trip that calls for more attention than I have paid in the last few years. Whereas Italy was once foreign to me, I’ve become complacent even in that; many of its doorways are sprung open, at least for now. I can recommend the easiest flights from Seattle to Rome or Venice (Delta/KLM transferring through Amsterdam), I can tell you which train stations are best for transfers and which lines to avoid, and I can navigate my way through the cuisine and streets of numerous cities with relative memory and ease. When in country, I even have a few native friends who I can meet up with for dinner or contact in the event of trouble.

Though it wasn’t that long ago, I recall psyching myself up for those journeys, especially as a solo traveler. While exciting, the tasks of research, language learning and trip planning also seemed gargantuan. This time, enough of my past experiences remain relevant that I can stand atop them. Of course, the assurance that Brad will gently guide my assimilation of language and culture when needed is significant; I won’t be operating as blind as before.

I suppose that’s it, really: there are times when we need to develop a second sight on our own, discovering a sense of self-reliance and resilience via our own means. When combined with the largesse of strangers, independent travel makes small victories seem triumphant and one’s time out of country more meaningful. Other times, friendship is a path to self-expansion, granting a different kind of freedom that empowers us to explore places we couldn’t reach alone.

Where I would have insisted a few years ago that I wanted to do everything myself, alone, on my own, there’s a special delight in knowing that a friend awaits me at the trailhead of this new and foreign road.

That, too, is a wonderful and mysterious door, and an auspicious beginning.

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One thought on “Yo no hablo español…todovía

  1. I salute you, your courageousness and willingness to immerse in a new continent, language, culture…and can’t wait to read your descriptive prose of future encounters! Rememver to take some moments for “invoking a pause” or two…

    Con molto amore….

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