Saturday, March 26, 2011

How I learned Bulgarian

If the stories of how I learned Italian and Spanish were necessarily sunny, my story of how I learned Bulgarian is inevitably dark. A story of dissent, military drills, adultery and, as you might expect, evil ghosts trying to wrestle souls from the living.

You think I lie. But as a Cancerian, I’m astrologically incapable of doing so.

My relationship with the Bulgarian language – because it is in fact a relationship – began twenty years ago in Bethesda, Maryland. I was only nine and I was about to grasp the practical applications of mathematics. Because it was at nine that my soon-to-be best friend, who was mindbogglingly good at arithmetic and goodness knows what else, was sent up a grade into our fourth-grade class for math period.

She wore a purple T-shirt with a giraffe on it. She had black hair and Mediterranean skin that couldn’t hide the dark circles already shading her eyes with who knows what troubles. She had only just arrived from a planet named Bulgaria.

We became inseparable. We had sleepovers and swapped clothes and pretended she was married to Harry and me to Dick and that our kids were friends too. (Though I always wondered why I was the one who got stuck with Dick.) We rebelled against our suburban entrapment – with questionable success – by jumping off the high boards at the local pool shouting, “We hate blondes!”

Her father was a towering and eccentric dissident writer. Her unhappily married mother wore fine woollen suits that made her look like a Parisian screen goddess. Her brother was an Eastern European Houdini who filmed himself disentangling himself from a series of knots hanging upside down from the tallest tree in their backyard. They only spoke Bulgarian in the home. So I heard the language nearly every day from the age of nine to sixteen, so much so that I thought I spoke Bulgarian.

I didn’t. All I could say was “Blagordarja” (Thank you) and “Mahnetese ot tuka!” (Get out of here!)

But all those years of listening paid off later when, at university in Italy, I opted to study Bulgarian. On our first day of class, all the students sat nervously in a book-lined room waiting for our teacher to arrive. All two of us: Rosanna and me. Bulgarian clearly wasn’t considered a fundamental language outside Bethesda.

Rosanna and I both breathed a sigh of relief as our teacher walked in: petite and fine-featured, she smiled warmly and introduced herself as Iskra. But do not be fooled, as we initially were, by her façade: Iskra drove us like a lieutenant commander drives troops during times of war. Italian was not allowed at any time, for any reason. If we didn’t understand what she was saying, she would write it down and get us to check in the dictionary. We had homework from Day One and were required to write daily in a Bulgarian-only dairy. My first entry was pitiful but very soon, with Iskra’s military training unearthing my latent childhood knowledge, I was writing poetic (and not at all overdramatic) lines such as “Beauty follows behind me as I walk down the street; I can hear her footsteps on the cobblestones and feel her breath on my shoulder, but as soon as I turn around, she vanishes.”

And have I said, oh-so-humbly, that my pronunciation kicked butt?

Rosanna and I went on a month-long intensive language course in Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria. Afterwards, I visited my best friend’s remaining family in Sofia, a city I later returned to for three months. Now I know you all have been waiting for the juicy adultery chapter of my Bulgarian story. But my shame – and the need to protect others’ privacy – prevents me from going into too much detail. So instead I’ve put together a collage for you:

Twenty-two-year-old student on a three-month scholarship to Sofia. Long hair but not-so-long legs. She thinks she’s homely because she’s too young to know that a twenty-two-year-old is almost never homely. Bulgarian man in his late thirties, balding but with a distinct twinkle in his eyes. In the house, his mother and his miserable wife fight. At this, his eyes twinkle even more. He talks philosophy, poetry. Makes the girl understand there is nothing in life but the moment, the now! Twinkle, twinkle.

You get the point. Now the screen goes black and jumps to the next scene, primarily because – ahem – this is supposed to be the story of how I learned a language. In fact, to be more comprehensive, the collage should include shots of the young student who thought she was homely wandering Sofia marketplaces where there was little to buy. Taking notes and doodling during a lecture at the University of Sofia. Putting up her hair with a pen. Trying to look rather sombre because things in Eastern Europe were still quite serious in those days. Having her coffee grinds read in the Turko-Bulgarian tradition. Starting a life-long addiction to toast with honey and feta cheese. Rattling in a tram to Iskra’s home, the cold air seeping up through the gaps, up through her long black wool coat, which all her Bulgarian friends envied solely because it had hidden buttons. Go figure.

During that time, I was staying in a small attic apartment owned by my best friend’s father. In some places the slanting ceiling was so low you had to duck. There was room for very little: a toaster, a bărzovar – a smart but user-beware contraption to boil a cup of water which works like an electrical kettle but minus the kettle shell – a table, and a bed under the rafters.

I never did feel good in that apartment, though I couldn’t put my finger on why. My best friend’s aunts advised me not to spend too much time there, without giving a specific reason. Until one night when I figured it all out.

Let’s say, for simplicity’s sake, that I had a dream. The ‘dream’ lasted all night long and there was no actual plot; in fact, I’m not sure that I was ever truly asleep for any of it. In what I now understand was more of an out-of-body experience, several evil spirits descended from the ceiling. Though I couldn’t see their faces, I could feel their dark, powerful presence. All night long in the dark, they tried to wrench my soul from my physical body so as to take it for themselves, and all night long I fought against them in what was a painful mental and spiritual battle, my eyes opening and closing in and out of lucidity. In the morning, I woke up feeling battered and weak-kneed as if I’d just escaped death. I gathered my things and never slept there again.

Later, the aunts told me they’d thought the attic apartment was haunted. Years later, the Bulgarian Houdini, who also stayed there, told me he fled after experiencing something similar and learning that the previous tenant had hanged himself from the rafters.

It was the single most terrifying experience of my life, far worse indeed than finding myself in a rowboat out at sea with two Turkish fishermen, wearing only a bikini and a sarong.

But at least the ghosts had been speaking to me in Bulgarian.

Monday, March 21, 2011

How I learned Spanish

I know, a more remarkable topic might be “How I managed not to learn Spanish living in East Coast America”. Because growing up in the Washington D.C. area really means you have to learn Spanish. How else are you going to order arroz y frijoles (rice and beans) at the corner Cuban carryout? How else are you going to ask the multi-talented Leon to glue your zapatos (shoes) and cut your llaves (keys)? More importantly, how in the world are you going to get the busboys at Tom Tom’s restaurant, where you pretend to be a competent waitress, to secretly scrape customers’ lamb scraps in a doggie bag for your arthritic retriever?

To be perfectly honest, I’m not quite sure how I learned Spanish. Like everyone else, I took it in school from junior high school onward. But unlike my classmates, I didn’t think Ms. Tyler was a joke at all. In fact, I took notes whenever she pulled out a handy idiom. I mimicked her Argentinean-influenced pronunciation. I used the subjunctive to impress her. To me, she was the linguistic version of the Dalai Lama and, to this day, I have never forgotten her wise Confucian advice that went something like: Language will flow forth unencumbered when pride has finally let go of its hold over the mind. In other words, your Spanish will positively sparkle after you’ve been in a minor car accident and are lying all puffy and sore on a Buenos Aires hospital bed drugged to the eyeballs with painkillers. Your friends will be impressed.

It was probably following Ms. Tyler’s advice that I began reading for pleasure in Spanish. I started with elementary-graded readers and soon made the next logical progression to One Hundred Years of Solitude. I didn’t lose the habit of reading novels in Spanish even after moving to Italy. Once while my brother was doing a university year abroad in Seville, I went to stay with him at Easter for the Semana Santa festivities. When he turned up with a local friend to greet me at the train station, I launched into a detailed Spanish description of my trip, all those interior narratives of the novels suddenly flowing forth unencumbered.

“Wow,” my brother said. “I didn’t know you spoke Spanish so well. How did you learn it?”

In my great wisdom, I replied, “No lo sé.” (I don’t know.)

But I had even amazed myself and continued to do so throughout that entire week of following religious processions through the narrow streets amidst the smell of hot wax and frankincense and afterwards hopping from tapas bar to tapas bar till the moon disappeared. I was intensely motivated to keep up with the conversations my brother and his fellow architecture students were having around tables strewn with jamón and cigarette butts. It didn’t hurt that I developed a harmless crush on one of them. Or that we all stayed up every night well past my bedtime. And the red wine didn’t hurt either.

Naturally, my story of how I learned Spanish involves the opposite sex. To those of you who say, “Oh, no, not again! Can’t you learn a language without a man?” I say, “Can you eat toast without butter?”

Speaking of butter, I have to make a special mention of Alberto. He was the Spanish lettore at my university, the native-language assistant teacher from Barcelona who all the girls had a crush on. All the girls who were studying Spanish but also a few studying Russian and Sanskrit and Japanese too. Why did they all have burning, unrequited crushes on Alberto? It wasn’t just that he was a relatively good-looking foreigner with impeccable hygiene. It wasn’t just the fact that he elegantly rode that fine line between being a professor – our superior, for goodness’ sake – and being a casual friend who wasn’t actually much older than us. No, it wasn’t just that. I think they all loved Alberto because he was so unItalian, so unhairy, so gentle, so soft – and not just in the charming Iberian way he liquefied the hard consonants of the Italian language. He seemed shy and unaware of all the whispering outside the lecture halls. He tucked in his shirt. He had dewy and slightly bulging eyes, a chiselled nose and tapered artist’s fingers. On top of that, his mother was gravely ill. You would have melted too.

A girlfriend wanted to introduce me to Alberto – in a large group situation after hours – so that I could confirm to her how charming he was. Purely out of a sense of rebellion, I was determined not to be effected by Alberto. Still, when we met, I couldn’t help but whip out my most sparkling Spanish. Although reportedly he had never ventured with students past the university cafeteria, I somehow managed to persuade him to cross the city of Naples on foot at eleven o’clock at night to accompany us all to some nightclub. His eyes were particularly dewy in the dim light, his eye contact surprisingly engaging. Inhaling second-hand smoke with every breath, all night we whispered to each other in Spanish, the only way to talk through the blasting music. All my friends looked at us hungrily, as if it didn’t matter who in the end caught that fish, as long as he was caught.

I was flattered that Alberto would be quietly, politely drawn to me: I was just a student, after all. Perhaps, I assumed, he felt an affinity with me because I too was a foreigner in Naples. Or maybe it was the comfort of being able to speak to someone in his own tongue. With the passing hours spent with the lettore Alberto, and our subsequent and mostly spontaneous encounters, my Spanish skyrocketed. By now the language had become effortless, warm honeyed milk I could sip whenever I felt the desire to curl up with it.

One night Alberto accepted a group invitation to dinner at my place in the worst ghetto in Naples, ironically named The Spanish Quarter. He lingered after the others had gone and I remember looking out over the balcony with him, the big moon and the streetlamp competing for brightness. We talked about his mother and about how he would soon have to go back to Barcelona to see her. What followed was a heavy silence, infused with the smell of exhaust and the screeching of Vespa tires across blackened cobblestones. On the railing, our forearms brushed against each other. Then Alberto looked at me, with a solid, unfaltering look I hadn’t seen before. He didn’t say a word but he looked on the brink of blurting out something that he probably shouldn’t say to a student. His gaze infinitesimally dropped to my lips. Or did it? It was hard to tell what in the world was happening. My chest felt pummelled as if I’d fallen under a racehorse. Could he possibly like me, in that way? The soulful, unattainable, beautiful Alberto? The anticipation was leaden and excruciatingly long.

Then suddenly his look softened again and he said, “Bueno, I guess I’d better go then.”

Oh, Alberto! You turned out to be (just) a Spanish teacher after all!

Saturday, March 12, 2011

How I learned Italian

Image by Sam
For a decade I lived, studied and worked in Naples, Italy. Of course, when I first arrived at the beansprout age of sixteen, my first task was to learn the language. So how did I learn Italian? Easy: I talked to the dog, read Hemingway and got a mafioso boyfriend.

One rainy day Mamma Rita, my soon-to-be host mom, came to a local train station in the province of Naples to meet me for the first time. I turned up pitifully soaked like a wet cat and armed with a book called something like “1001 Conjugations of Italian Verbs” as well as a brand-new diary which, if I wrote small enough, might last me the year. I think I mumbled something along the lines of “Encantada”, Spanish for “pleased to meet you”.

Mamma Rita’s home came complete with two grown-up sons, an old German shepherd named Kelly and cracks radiating across the walls like spiderwebs. She probably even told me then that the cracks had already been there for nine years, since the 1980 earthquake, but I’m sure I just nodded and said “grazie mille”.

Kelly had sagging hind legs and long toenails that clicked down the tiled hallway, which was twice-daily mopped with pink rubbing alcohol. She and I shared the same spare room, which benefited me greatly because I got to practice my pronunciation of new words and verb conjugations on her. Never once did she laugh at me. Not even the time when I came into the spare room wiping my dish hands to check the dictionary meaning of olio di gomito just after Mamma Rita’s eldest had advised me, fighting a smile, to purchase this wondrous detergent at the pharmacy to help scrub the bottom of the saucepan I’d been struggling with. Olio di gomito means elbow grease.

I went to a local school, a liceo classico that taught highly practical subjects such as philosophy, Latin and Greek. My conjugation book offered little enlightenment. I often sat in class just furrowing my brow and I’m convinced that the subtle wrinkle that now dissects my forehead started from way back then. I could only hope the professori were never actually planning on interrogating (in exam form) that poor ignorant American who couldn’t speak a word of Latin.

So I took to reading during classtime, in particular the Italian translations of Hemingway that I’d found in my host family’s house. Hemingway’s writing is as lean in Italian as it is in English, and did in fact vastly improve my Italian. One day, the philosophy professor stopped mid-lesson to ask me what I was reading. I started as if I’d just been caught smoking a spinello by a cop. “Emingwei,” I managed to say in my clearest pronunciation. Compassionately, the professor suggested I read Italian authors instead. What a genius idea. So I did.

Eventually my Italian became good enough to get a small-town boyfriend who didn’t speak much Italian at all. Franco spoke a provincial form of the Neapolitan dialect, with the guttural twist distinctive of his Camorra-riddled ghetto, and he was, refreshingly, quite in awe of my proper speech, especially when I inappropriately used words like sgarbato, a highbrow version of the word “impolite”. (Over twenty years later, I still haven’t quite been able to kick the old sgarbato habit.)

It’s difficult to enumerate the benefits of being the girlfriend of a Camorrista: free iced teas in the cafés, numerous loan cars, obsequious tipping of hats. At least among this crowd as an American I was treated with respect. (Never mind that this was because they thought I was John Gotti’s niece from New York.) Plus, all these experiences were excellent fodder for my diary, which was by this point half penned in Italian and racing towards its final pages with detailed descriptions of holding onto Franco’s waist as we swerved on a Vespa through his dilapidated neighborhood, his mom wailing with legs so swollen they looked like tree trunks, Franco weeping in my arms over a friend who’d just been kneecapped. Those were some good times.

But the linguistic benefits of the experience are easier to list. Besides allowing me to let my guard down and enriching my vocabulary with the overdramatic pledges that ill-matched teenage lovers whisper to each other in passionate moments of despair, it also helped me learn some dialect and to understand that there is truly no such thing as one single Italian language. Apart from the fact that there are nearly as many dialects as there are towns, there are also many levels of Italian itself: formal, informal, spoken, written, business, academic, street slang, etc. What I’d learned in my first year was only the tip of the iceberg, the bare essentials with which to order a meter of pizza in six different toppings, swap scrambled philosophy notes in the hallway, whisper sweet nothings on a seaside park bench, and discuss the meaning of life with a baker’s apprentice.

So was it easy to learn Italian? I’ll let you know. I’m still working on it.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

How to become ambitious (Italian-English)

Ci vuole una buona dose di ambizione per diventare scrittrice. Per tollerare i numerosi “no, grazie” e le statistiche deprimenti sugli autori aspiranti. Per non lasciarsi scoraggiare. Per insistere a credere che sì, un giorno quel manoscritto che hai nel cassetto da tre anni verrà pubblicato, che sia con l’appoggio di un particolare agente letterario, o con l’intervento divino.

You need a good dose of ambition in order to become a writer. To put up with the many “no thanks” and the depressing statistics on aspiring writers. To keep your spirits up. To keep believing that yes, one day that manuscript that you’ve had in your drawer for three years will be published, whether that be with the help of a particular literary agent or with divine intervention.

Sfoderare questo tipo di ambizione non è da poco dal momento che si tratta non di un’ambizione qualunque, ma di una lucentezza accecante da bomba atomica, di una forza prorompente da sfondare porte blindate. E tutta quest’energia si dovrebbe reinventare ogni giorno, a cominciare dall’alba non appena il pupo ti sveglia con un calcio nelle budella e con la richiesta di grattargli le punture di zanzara. Perché per poter mantenere per mesi e mesi interi questo genere di ambizione, non si può mollare neanche per un attimo.

To pull out this type of ambition is not easy once you realize that we’re not talking here about any old ambition, but a blinding light like that of an atomic bomb, a bursting energy strong enough to knock down reinforced doors. And you have to reinvent this energy every day, starting from dawn as soon as your little boy wakes you up with a kick in the gut demanding that you scratch his mosquito bites. Because in order to maintain this kind of ambition for months on end, you can’t give up even for a second.

Ciò è particolarmente difficile per una persona come me che è di natura poco ambiziosa. Ossia per una persona per cui il termine ambizione significa qualcosa di vagamente spirituale come “compiere la propria missione nella vita” oppure in senso più concreto quello di “riuscire a fare i piatti prima di andare a letto”.

This is especially hard for someone like me who is not naturally very ambitious. Or rather for a person whose understanding of the word ambition is something vaguely spiritual like “fulfil one’s mission in life” or, more practically speaking, “manage to do the dishes before bed”.

Ma non temete perché io sono la dimostrazione vivente che l’ambizione si può ineffetti imparare, perfino alla mia età. Ecco le mie strategie da autodidatta per imparare e mantenere l’ambizione necessaria per diventare scrittrice pubblicata:

But never fear because I am living proof that ambition can in fact be learned, even at my age. Here are my self-taught strategies for learning and maintaining the ambition necessary to become a publisher author:

1. Recitare un mantra. Il mio preferito del momento è “Il tuo libro ha un compleanno. È solo che non  sai quando sarà.”

1. Recite a mantra. My favorite at the moment is “Your book has a birthday. You just don’t know when it is.”

2. Rileggere il proprio manoscritto assaporando brani particolarmente scintillanti come ad esempio “i passi echeggiavano nelle strade deserte, portando all’uscio di casa antiche donne, come la pioggia porta alla luce i lombrichi” per poi esclamare, “Sono un genio!” (Qui è vivamente consigliato saltare i brani ancora bisognosi di revisione: dopo ben otto revisioni precendenti del manoscritto, non è questo il momento di suscitare dubbi.)

2. Reread your manuscript savoring particularly brilliant passages like “their footsteps echoed in the deserted streets, bringing ancient women to their doorways like the way rain brings out the worms”, after which you exclaim, “I’m a genius!” (Here it is strongly advised that you skip passages still in need of editing: after a full eight revisions of your manuscript, this is not the moment to stir up doubts.)

3. Chiedere l’opinione a tuo marito in domande più o meno dirette come “Ti piace da morire il mio libro, vero?” oppure “Secondo te, sono un genio?”

3. Ask your husband for his opinion worded more or less directly, such as in “You love my book, don’t you?” or “Do you think I’m a genius?”

4. Chiedere l’opinione a tuo figlio anche se ha solo due anni e mezzo e quando dice “Brava, Mamma!” probabilmente si riferisce al fatto che gli hai finalmente acceso la tv.

4. Ask your son for his opinion even if he is only two and half and when he says, “Well-done, Mom!” he’s probably referring to the fact that you finally turned on the TV for him.

5. Sorridere ed emanare un atteggiamento rigorosamente positivo. Questo nonostante la costante preoccupazione che ti cadrà il dente canino già mezzo franato che si trova proprio all’angolo del sorriso e che rischia di sradicarsi se mangi una crosta di pane un po’ troppo tostata, e ti viene proprio da intonare al cielo imprecazioni napoletane ma non puoi perché sai che è solo colpa tua che l’hai lasciato cariare fino a necessitare la decanalizzazione e per udito selettivo non hai ascoltato l’avvertimento del dentista di incapsularlo.

5. Smile and exude a rigorously positive attitude despite the constant concern that your canine, which is already half collapsed and is located just at the corner of your smile line, is going to fall out from the root if you eat a slightly overtoasted bread crust, and you feel like cursing the heavens in Neapolitan but you can’t because you know it’s only your own fault that you let your tooth rot to the point where you needed a root canal and then, due to selective hearing, you didn’t heed the dentist’s warning to get it crowned.

6. Esercitarti a firmare il tuo nome. Quando vai a riprendere il pupo e la babysitter ti chiede di firmare qui e qui e qui i moduli da consegnare all’ente di controllo, firma con estro particolare, immaginandoti di autografare copie all’esordio del tuo libro. Chiedile se vuole una dedica. Alla fine ringraziala per essere venuta. Poi prendi il pupo e torna a casa.

6. Practice signing your name. When you go pick up your boy and the babysitter asks you to sign here and here and here on these forms that she needs to hand in to the regulating body, sign them with particular flair, imagining that you’re autographing copies at your book launch. Ask her if she’d like a dedication. Afterwards, thank her for coming. Then take your kid and go home.

7. Leggere i segni. Non ci vuole un indovino per accedere alle rivelazioni sul proprio futuro offerteti dalla sfera spirituale. Puoi porre tu stesso una domanda agli spiriti, ad esempio “Abboccherà quel agente letterario tizio e caio che ho contatto tredici giorni fa?” e aprire a casaccio il dizionario di sinonimi che hai davanti, e quando il tuo dito ciecamente finisce sulla parola “affari”, puoi rassicurarti che gli spiriti ti hanno appena dato una grossa pacca sulla spalla e offerto un sigaro.

7. Read the signs. You don’t need a fortune-teller to access revelations into your future that are offered to you from the spiritual realm. You yourself can ask the spirits a question like “Will I get a bite from that literary agent so and so that I contacted thirteen days ago?” and open up to a random page in your thesaurus and when your finger blindly lands on the word “business”, you can reassure yourself that the spirits just gave you a big pat on the back and offered you a cigar.

8. Astenersi dalle droghe. Questa strategia è per me la più facile siccome sono da sempre non solo astemia ma anche critica di chi abusa sostanze stupefacenti. È ben noto l’effetto distruttivo che in particolare modo l’alchol e la marijuana hanno sull’amibizione.

8. Don't do drugs. This strategy comes the easiest to me since I’ve always been not just a teetotaler but also very judgmental of those with substance abuse issues. The destructive effect especially of alcohol and marijuana on ambition are well-known.

9. Consumare molta caffeina. Al mattino appena ti alzi, poi a metà mattina ai primi segni di afflosciamento, poi ancora nel pomeriggio verso le tre. Altrimenti rischi seriamente di ammosciarti ed abbacchiarti e quindi di perdere completamente ogni ambizione – oppure la voglia – di pubblicare il tuo manoscritto. Per non parlare di quella di lavare i piatti.

9. Consume a lot of caffeine. In the morning as soon as you get up, then mid-morning at the first signs that you’re fading, then again the afternoon around three. Otherwise you seriously risk wilting and getting down on life with the result that you’ll completely lose every ambition – or even the desire – to publish your manuscript. Not to mention the ambition to do the dishes.