We landed in Rome after 17 hours of traveling and slowly made our way to the baggage claim.
Previous Adventures Abroad post here.
While I've been excited about this trip, it's excitement mingled with a healthy dollop of terror. I find the thought of being in a foreign country vaguely frightening. Not because of culture shock, or pickpockets, or strange food. It's because of the language issue.
There are only about three things that I'm really good at, and communicating is one of them. Well, actually that's not true, it's not communicating in general, it's use of the English language. In English I'm clever and articulate. I'm funny. I'm persuasive.
If I have a superpower, it's probably my use of words. But now, suddenly I'm visiting a place where there is no yellow sun. I'm going to be powerless, and the thought is troubling to me.
I'm not entirely monolingual. I studied German for four years in high school, but that was a long time ago. I remember phrases like, "At least the sink still works" and "I have too many monkeys playing in my attic."
It would be hard for me to work these into a conversation even if I were going to Germany, which I am not.
Sarah has prepared herself. She listened to language tapes and bought a phrase book. She's proactive
She says, "Are you ready? Here's how you say, 'I don't speak Italian.'"
"That's a pointless phrase," I say. "Within two seconds of interacting with anyone, it's going to be blindingly obvious that I don't speak Italian. Why should I tell someone, in their own language, that I don't speak their language?"
Sarah gives me a look. She has many looks. You would too, if you had to deal with me on a regular basis.
"All I'm saying," I continue. "Is that if I'm going to learn a phrase, it should be something that communicates information that someone can't easily infer on their own. I don't need to learn how to say, 'I have a beard.' They can see that. I should learn how to say, 'I have been stabbed in the guts, and I fear my pericardium is punctured. Would you please summon an ambulance?' Or 'Where is the nearest methadone clinic?' Those might be useful."
"How about 'where's the bathroom?'" she asks.
"I can mime that," I say. "How do you say 'hookers' in Italian?"
That's pretty much where my instruction in Italian stopped.
So here I am, in Rome, walking to baggage claim, and utterly at sea.
Now normally this would be the part of the story where there's a dramatic reversal of expectation. I'm expecting things to be scary, but it's not nearly as bad as I'd feared.
Except it's just as bad as I'd feared. In fact, it's worse. After grabbing our bags, I go to the information booth to ask where I can change some currency. The woman there can't understand me, so she calls over someone else and I ask him. He points me in a direction and I wander off, feeling like a complete idiot. Not an auspicious beginning to the trip.
Another problem was that I'd been focusing on how hard it would be for me to get my point across to others. What I hadn't realized is that with no working knowledge of the language, I was effectively deaf. I can't understand a word being said by anyone around me.
This wasn't really a surprise, of course. But I was startled at how self-conscious it made me. As I walk to the baggage carousel, I pass a group of women who burst into laughter, and I become convinced that they are making fun of my shoes. I pretend that I don't notice, that I don't care. But of course I do.
I've been in another country for 20 minutes and I feel nervous and awkward. I'm confused and self-conscious. I knew there was a time difference between the US and Europe, but I didn't know it was big enough to make me feel like I'm in high school again....