Travelling abroad would be so much easier if I stuck with my native tongue. But I can’t, not when I’m standing on foreign soil and know three or four dozen words each of Spanish, Italian and French. Foreign words spew out of my mouth like coins from a slot machine. When I’m lucky, they match the language of the country I’m in.
I was reminded of this inability to control which language rolls off my tongue last summer, when Bob and I were travelling abroad. Waiters and store clerks who realized I spoke English would say “thank you” to me. I knew I should have returned the nicety with “you’re welcome.” Instead, “de nada,” meaning you’re welcome in Spanish, came out not once, nor twice, but repeatedly. This might have sounded a little odd in Spain or Mexico. But I was nowhere near a Spanish-speaking country. I was in Italy.
To make matters worse, I’m unusually adept at rolling my r’s and throwing around the few foreign words I know as fast as an Italian on his third espresso. For that I blame Sister Camille at Christ the King elementary school, who started teaching my class French when we were too young to feel silly mimicking her Quebecois accent. Over time, most of my French disappeared while the accent stuck. I took a beginners’ class several years ago to brush up before a visit to France. The teacher scoffed when she heard me say bonjour. She said I sounded like someone from Marseilles. Really? My accent is that good? Woo-hoo!
The downside of having a convincing accent with a 50-word vocabulary became apparent during my visit to Italy. I was wandering around Mantua, desperately trying to find my way back to the parking lot where Bob was in the car taking a nap. If I could only find the castle I’d passed earlier, I knew I could get back to the lot. I remembered just three or four phrases from the listen-and-repeat Italian lessons I toyed with back home. One I found especially handy was “Capiche l’inglese?” Do you understand English? I sprung it on a woman I thought might direct me to the castle. My pronunciation must have been impeccable. She understood both words. It hadn’t occurred to me that she might say no, which she did. Where and castle were in my Italian vocabulary, so I gave it a shot. She responded with a five-minute monologue I can only assume directed me to the castle. I thanked her and walked away.
The most humiliating misunderstanding I experienced in Italy wasn’t in any foreign language; it was in English, which seems to suffer when I’m overseas. I was shopping in a small grocery store in the seaside town of San Vincenzo. To avoid another exchange like the one in Mantua, I went to the self-service checkout. Everything was going fine until I got to the bananas. I put them down to get weighed and started typing b-a-n. Nothing popped up on the screen. I tried the Spanish word platanos. Again, nothing. I pressed the button for assistance. The cashier across from me somehow sensed that I speak English. She yelled loud enough for everyone in the store to hear what sounded like “you have to wait.” “OK,” I said, forgetting the Spanish equivalent. I could be patient. She yelled again, this time louder: “You have to wait.” What was she talking about? I was waiting. It occurred to me only after she yelled a third time that she was saying, “You have to weigh it.” Of course. There’s a scale and labels in the produce department. I marched back there with my bananas. I weighed them but couldn’t figure out how to print the label. I’m even more inept with technology than I am with Italian. I peeled a label off the roll, wrote the weight displayed on the scale and slapped it on a banana, hoping that would suffice. When it didn’t, I decided to move to the full-service register. I knew no more about cancelling the items I’d already rung up than I did about printing labels. I pretended that didn’t matter as I started putting my bagged items back into the cart. But the register wasn’t about to let me off that easy. It let out a string of loud beeps that again drew the attention of everyone in the store. Finally, the cashier walked over, took the bananas, weighed and labeled them, then finished my transaction. “Scuzi,” I repeated as I grabbed my bags and rushed out the door. “Grazie.”
By the way, I eventually got back to the car in Mantua. I was still wandering in circles when I heard a couple speaking English. Naturally, I asked in Italian if they understood English. They indeed understood the language they were speaking. The pair walked me to the next corner, where they pointed out the direction I should take. I thanked them with an enthusiastic “grazie.” As I walked away, they waved and wished me a “guten morgen” and “au revoir.”