Taking language classes in Sorrento, Italy – because I want to

May 20, 2007 1 Comment »

Taking language classes in Italy
Inside the Blue Grotto on Capri

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There are few times in life in which you simply get to do something in which there is no ulterior motive except for pure pleasure. The thought of taking language classes in Sorrento, Italy seemed adventurous, exotic, and glamorous – like riding the Orient Express, riding a camel in the Sahara, or sailing around the world.

However, I met a woman recently who asked me why I chose to learn the Italian language. She felt it was an odd choice for me since I wasn’t working or living in Italy, nor did I have family ties here, nor did I work for a company that had any association with Italy. She told me she knew a woman with a similar background as me who wanted to take Italian, but decided upon Spanish instead because it was a more useful language. I gave her question and comment some thought, there was a bit of silence, and then I answered her, “Because I want to.”

Why take language classes in Italy?

It was a good question – one that I’ve given some more and more thought to since our initial conversation. Sure – the sensible thing would have been to take Mandarin or Spanish – I could put it on my resume and try to sell my international experience. All of my life I had been making sensible choices…majoring in accounting, getting an MBA, changing jobs for more money and promotions, working on a project because it would look good on my resume, and making sure that I went to the right networking events. However, the choice to spend a great deal of money learning to speak Italian – well – it wasn’t necessarily the sensible choice – yet making a decision purely for your own pleasure…now that’s exhilaration. It’s like crossing the finish line of a marathon, a pure drug flowing straight into your veins, a high like no other. How many of us really get to do what we want to do…not many. The fact that I probably wouldn’t even use what I am learning much beyond this trip…didn’t matter to me…I was simply doing what I wanted to do…not what I should do.

However, doing what you want to do is not always easy…I am reminded of that as I struggle through my Italian classes every morning, yet I am not alone. I have classmates who also have varying degrees of struggle with me. We bond over conversation class when we have no idea what our teacher, Nunzia, is saying. Nunzia has this habit of showing us a picture and asking us what the different things on the picture are called in Italian. We have not learned the Italian word for mouse, but she’s pointing at the mouse and asking me what it is called as if I should know.

This frustrates the hell out of me as there’s no way that I can get it right so I make up words – I try il mouso or fromaggio-mangio-rodento. If she had already taught us the word, and then asked me what a mouse was – at least I would have a chance. If I didn’t get it right then I could only blame myself for not studying enough, but when I never knew the word to begin with…well…there’s just no winning…and I hate losing. I also dislike it when I am learning words that I feel like I will never use. How often do I use the word mouse in a sentence…maybe once every 2 months at best. It is a fact that your brain can only consume a limited amount of new information at one time…so you want to make sure that you are filling it up with the right vocabulary. Vocabulary that you will use – like today, next week, beer, wine, food, sleep, run, travel, good, bad, and no thankyou. Mouse just doesn’t fit into the upper tier of vocabulary words for me. Therefore, I choose to let it go in one ear and out the other with no guilt – I don’t even want it to stop and look around in my brain as it might muddle something else up in there and then I won’t be able to remember the word for beer. Therefore pocket, eyelash, rabbit, and mouse just make a roundtrip through my brain, never to be thought about again.

One of my other pet peeves is when Helena, our grammar teacher, teaches us multiple ways to say the same thing. There are at least 4 ways to ask what someone does for a living, but once I know one way – do I really need to know the 3 other ways to say it? Once again, those other 3 ways just take up valuable space in my brain, space that could be used for things like conjugating verbs, or learning the days of the week. I actually made the comment the other day in class “If I just didn’t know English…this would be a lot easier.” This seemed to make sense when it was rolling around in my head, however, once the words came out I realized that it was absurd. My brain was mush.

Many of my classmates are from the US, and a few are from other English-speaking countries. All of the English speakers are in the beginning class with me – struggling through masculine and feminine nouns that seem to make no sense. We have all gotten to know each other through our 2nd-grade vocabulary with no knowledge of the past tense. This is actually harder than you think. For an experiment – try to go to a cocktail party and meet new people with a severely limited vocabulary speaking only in the present tense. It goes something like this:

“My name is Sherry. I no work. I travel 8 month. I am from New York. I have 37 years. I like Italy and gelato. I no married. I no have kids. I have a cat of black and white. I no have car. I have one sister and one brother. I run the morning. I live with family Italian. I stay 4 weeks.”

Good luck with making new friends with that dialogue. However at Sorrento Lingue, it is quite easy to make new friends…we are all in the same boat, bailing water as fast as we can just trying to stay afloat in the growing waves of new vocabulary and rules that seem to make no sense. Rules such as conjugating verbs convey movement a certain way, however, the verb ‘to dance’ and ‘to run’ aren’t considered movement and they are conjugated differently. My personal favorites – ‘to go to the cinema’ and ‘to go to the theatre’ are different and require different grammar rules. Potato – Potaaaato…it’s all the same to me.

Experiencing the local scene in Sorrento

After one week of class one of my classmates, Natasha, and I decided that we should try to get out on the weekend and check out the nightlife as well as the surrounding areas around Almalfi. We needed a good stiff drink…plus, Natasha thought that maybe if we had a good wine buzz, all of a sudden we’d be able to speak Italian fluently losing any of our inhibitions. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

We went out on Saturday night with some other classmates and then on Sunday we made plans to take a ferry to Capri. The nightlife in Sorrento is small…but fun. We went to a few bars and watched our young classmate, Aireka, get picked up on by molto Italian men…meanwhile, Natasha and I didn’t seem to be getting any more fluent in Italian with the wine so we finally called it a night at 2 AM. The next morning was an early start, a minor hangover certainly didn’t help! We took the high-speed ferry to Capri. Natasha nor I possessed any type of travel book on Italy – so neither of us really knew what to expect, where to go, or what to see. We stepped off the ferry and were bombarded by people trying to sell us boat trips, taxi services, gelato and drinks – the typical tourist town fare. We walked to the information office to find out that it was closed on Sunday…so we continued on with no map, and no idea of what to do.

Touring the Blue Grotto on Capri

Someone back at the school had told me that we should definitely see the Blue Grotto if we went to Capri. However, the Grotto was only open if the weather was favorable and the water was calm. It seemed like a nice day so we went to one of the tour boat operators to find out more about the Blue Grotto. Before we knew it – we were in line to catch the boat.

We took the tour boat to a cove not far from the main port. From there, we had to wait in line with many other tour boats full of people like ours to get in a little row boat in order to go inside the grotto. It seemed like quite the traffic jam and I was simply entertained by watching the rowboats bustle around to the tourists, like bees to honey. There was one man that stood in a little row boat in the middle and presumable directed traffic – making sure that all of the tourist boats were serviced in the correct order and that everyone ‘played nice’. Every so often amongst the various row boats, Italian words would fly in conjunction with hand gestures that didn’t look to friendly. A typical day at the Blue Grotto I suppose.

We waited our turn and finally, the row boats started coming to transport people from our larger boat to the Grotto. Only 4 people could fit in a row boat AND you had to lay down on the boat floor in order to get into the small opening in the Grotto. First, though, you had to go to the floating ticket office to pay the fee. The floating ticket office was basically a row boat with 3 old Italian men on it collecting money…it was quite a racket at $9Euro a person. Our rowboat captain took us to the opening and waited for the exact right time when the waves were low to pull us through the small opening. It took a few seconds for my eyes to adjust to the cave that we just entered – but when they did – I witnessed some of the most spectacular blue water that I’ve ever seen. Inside the large, dark cave the water glowed in a bright turquoise color as if there were lights on the ocean floor lighting it up like a swimming pool. However there were no lights…in fact, the only light was the light from the small opening that we entered. That was enough to make it glow I guess. I don’t understand how it all worked, but I didn’t care as I was busily shooting pictures like crazy. I didn’t want to use a flash, so I was constantly trying to adjust the camera settings to get some sort of picture that would portray what I was seeing with my own eyes.

Find out how to eat pizza like an Italian

We went around the whole large cave as our row boat captain sang out Italian songs that echoed throughout the cave. (I guess that was included in the price…a nice surprise I suppose) Natasha and I were transported back to the larger boat and to our surprise, the tour boat didn’t take us directly back to the port, instead, it took us on a tour around the whole island. Apparently, our one week of Italian courses didn’t work so well when we asked for the boat ticket to the Blue Grotto and back. We somehow got the boat ticket for a complete tour…oh well…we were just beginners after all! I was pleasantly surprised by the remainder of our journey around the island – the vistas were stunning. The coast was rocky and in places, it reminded me of Southern Thailand – large rocks jutting up from the ocean floor.

After our boat trip, we decided to follow the signs to Centro…presumably the center of the town of Capri. Since we didn’t have any guidebook or information – we were surprised to find out that the center of town was up at the top of a large hill. We realized this after we had already walked halfway up…but at least we were working up an appetite. When we reached the centro – it was as if I had stepped off the subway onto 5th Avenue. On this little island, there were some of the best high-end shops that I had ever seen. There were 2 separate Prada stores in a little town that was the size of Washington Square Park. I mean really – do you think that the first Prada store was sooooo busy that they had to build another one to handle the overflow of customers who wanted to drop $500 Euro on a pair of socks? Ok – it was Europe I suppose, but since I’ve been living out of one suitcase for the last 8 months – I guess I have lost my appreciation for the luxury brand shopping. We walked by Armani, Gucci, Fendi, Ferragamo, Furla, Hermes, Roberto Cavalli, Burberry, and the multiple Prada shops and found a place to have some pizza with a great view. We spent the rest of the afternoon walking around the backstreets of the town, building a new friendship, and speaking absolutely no Italian.

We had ample time to reflect upon our Italian language experience and classes. We had some great laughs and bonded over our similar struggle in remembering the massive amounts of new words that have tried to enter our heads but seem to get turned away as if I had a NY bouncer in my cranium. I liked the fact that Natasha reminded me that even though I may get frustrated about my inability to learn the words or at the speed of the course – I’m on vacation…people would kill to be in our shoes right now. I liked her outlook on the whole thing. Sometimes it sucks to be an overachiever…there’s just no ‘off’ button.

As we were eating our lemon gelato Natasha said, “I think I’ve developed another chin in one week. It’s a wine chin”. I chimed in with, “I think I’ve developed another roll around my mid-section…it’s a pasta roll.” We both agreed that after 4 to 6 weeks of living in Sorrento, it wasn’t going to be pretty. Mama Mia!

As we were waiting for our ferry back to Sorrento that evening, we saw a huge group of people gathered around a man with a cart. I assumed that the man was selling some sort of great gelato so I went to see what he had. To my surprise, it wasn’t gelato at all, instead, it was some sort of meat…I believe it was carpaccio. He had huge lemons on his cart and he would slice off a paper-thin slice of meat and then squeeze fresh lemon over the top handing it to one of the many anxious customers. It certainly wasn’t the ice cream man…but he seemed to be just as popular.

As we waited at the port, there was also a stand with a bunch of birds in cages. It reminded me a bit of Asian markets where there were pet shops out in the middle of markets or on the streets. We went over to look at the birds and laughed about how out of place this little pet shop cart seemed among the tourist shops. We wondered how many birds the guy actually sold in a day. We also noticed that he had some guinea pigs, baby turtles, some mice, and even a rabbit. Without thinking I all of a sudden said, “I wonder what the Italian word for mouse is?” Natasha looked at me and we started cracking up. Just when you think that you didn’t need to know a word…you actually did!

That night when I got home, I got out my book and looked up mouse again, il topo – it is now forever committed to memory – and I try to use it every day – just so that it can earn its keep in my brain. I start week 3 of classes on Monday…a new adventure in vocabulary awaits!

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