It is 3 years to the day since we have moved here. It is hard to believe that time has passed so quickly. It is easy to underestimate the extent of what we have done. It didn’t seem such a brave move; after all, we are still in Europe, within easy reach of the UK and with an extensive knowledge of not only the country but also the area to which we have transferred. We knew what to expect (more or less); we had done our research. We even had a good grasp of the language, admittedly me more so than M. But even so, there are times when it’s not all plain sailing. Things do go ‘wrong’, or don’t go as planned, and then the lack of language combined with being away from all things familiar, not to mention family and friends, becomes hard.
When you are upset, frustrated or angry and cannot express these emotions clearly to anyone but each other, you end up saying nothing. Likewise, when you have an opinion on a current affairs topic that is being discussed around you, but you don’t have the vocabulary to put it across, you either simplify your thoughts or again say nothing. At best, you seem uninterested, at worse, plain stupid! The atrocities in Paris, Nice and Munich, along with Brexit provided particular challenges in expressing a personal response. The opening line amongst most expats we have met, once they know we live here full time, always seems to be: do you speak Italian? But I think what they really want to know is: are you fluent? I often find myself answering with a caveat: I speak Italian but I am not fluent.
After 3 years, I feel I should be fluent. But what does this really mean? I am capable of discussing plumbing and electrical requirements, reporting problems with both the electricity company and water board with reasonable success, and am teaching English to a group of Italian women, using the Italian language to explain English grammar. I sometimes feel I speak more Italian than English when teaching, something clearly is not right there!
I can chat away quite happily amongst friends with a certain level of naturalness and have even started to initiate conversations with strangers. I stopped translating in my head as people spoke to me a long time ago and just listen and respond. If I don’t fully understand, I am at least able to determine if and when a verbal response is required or if a nod of the head and a muttering of certo/è vero/si will do. I can follow dreadful soaps and ‘light entertainment’ programmes, answer some questions on quiz shows, follow recipes and read any number of books, albeit with a dictionary in the other hand. I no longer shy away from difficult situations and deal quite confidently with the accountant/vet/optician/mobile phone provider. On a rare occasion I have even dreamt in Italian.
And yet, I still struggle to follow the evening news and some days, basic words just plain escape me. I walk away from conversations berating myself for forgetting those words I should have said even if what I did say still made sense. Small talk often becomes challenging when we’ve already agreed what a lovely/cold/fresh day it is and if more than one person tries to talk to me at once, then I usually don’t stand a chance. While I can generally explain an ailment to the doctor, understanding the diagnosis is not always easy. More than once I have walked away with a prescription and just hoped for the best!
So will I ever be fluent in the beautiful language? I hope so but speaking another language is a continual learning process, one which I think will never end, certainly not for me. I can’t ever see myself saying: that’s it. I have learnt all there is to know. I hope what will make a difference though is when we have finished all of the main work on the house and I can spend less time speaking English to our builder and more time talking to the neighbours. A job outside of teaching where I would only speak Italian would also help although I fear this will be hard to come by. Given the balance for the last 3 years, then I suppose I shouldn’t be so hard on myself.
And should I ever feel the need for an extra challenge? Then there’s always the local dialect…