Today I went uphill both figuratively and literally.
Let’s start with the figurative.
After a weekend of mostly speaking English, it felt like I had to shake my brain back into Italian. Even walking to school this morning, I was thinking, “How am I going to speak Italian in class today? I feel so out of it.”
Class began with some conversation about what we did this weekend. I’m still really struggling with understanding Italian when I listen to it. I get some words here and there, and then I try to guess at filling in the missing words in between. Sometimes I completely misunderstand the meaning. For example, when we first arrived, I thought my landlady had said something to Katie and me about going to a cafe for dinner, but instead she had offered us “caffe” (coffee)! Oops. I had said yes to drinking coffee at 6:00 p.m.
Sometimes I also have trouble saying exactly what I want, even when I know the words I want to use. For example, the other day I was waiting at a busy piazza for Katie. There were a lot of guys trying to sell selfie sticks and “discount” tickets to the Vatican museums. As I looked around for Katie, a guy walked up to me and said in English, “Are you looking for something?” I didn’t want to get caught up in any tour he was going to try to sell me, so I responded back in Italian, “Aspetto un’amica.” (I’m waiting for a friend.) However, I said it so rapidly, I think it came out as “Aspetta (not aspetto) un’amica.” That one little letter difference changes the subject and meaning entirely. Instead of saying “I’m waiting for a friend,” I think I told him to go wait for a friend! No wonder he seemed a bit shocked by my response! Imagine asking a person who you think is a tourist if she is looking for something, and she tells you, “Go wait for a friend!” Well, at least, he left me alone after that. These salespeople near the Vatican can be really pushy. If another person tries to sell me a selfie stick, I shudder to think how I might respond.
Anyway, all of this is to say that I’m feeling a bit discouraged by my progress in Italian. I’m so envious of Elizabeth Gilbert who wrote in Eat, Pray, Love that she kept waiting for Italian to open up for her and eventually, it really did. This morning, I felt like Italian would never really open up for me. That it would never let me in to really be a part of it. It felt like a terribly uphill climb.
Not only an uphill climb, but a climb up a hill that seems to have no top in sight. It’s a never-ending uphill climb.
And thus, I went uphill figuratively this morning.
After class, I decided to wander Gianicolo, a hill between the Vatican and Trastevere. I’d never been there before, but I’d heard there were lovely views of the city.
Of course, getting to a lovely hilltop means making a literal uphill climb. As I wandered the switchback streets (a little reminiscent of San Francisco), I thought about how my literal uphill climb paralleled my figurative uphill climb with regard to learning Italian.
First, there’s no way to get to the top without moving uphill. If you want the great views from the hilltop, you’ll have to make your way up there one way or another. Sometimes that means lots of switchback trails that seem to take forever and only get you a small way up the hill. Other times, you find a little staircase that lets you skip up a whole level in a fraction of the time.
Learning a language is like this, too. Sometimes you work and work and work and don’t seem to get very far. Other times, something happens, and a whole section of the language opens up. You learn to conjugate verbs in past tense, and now you can say all sorts of things you couldn’t say before. Or you learn the vocabulary for a particular topic, and you can have conversations about things you previously had known nothing about.
Next, sometimes you just have to rest for a while. It’s good to stop for a little “riposo” along the way. Halfway up the hill, I stopped near a beautiful viewpoint to catch my breath and drink some water.
There was a fountain, and some little boys were playing ball. The red ball fell into the fountain. The bambini stretched their hands out into the water, but the ball only seemed to float away more. Finally, a man came along and rescued the ball for them. The whole time the boys seemed happy. I guess they just figured the ball would come back to them eventually. I smiled as I watched the stranger return the ball to them.
When learning a language, it’s okay to take a break now and then, and there’s no point getting upset if the language seems to get away from you for a while like that red ball got away from the boys. Eventually, someone will help you out, and you’ll get back in the game.
Finally, the effort seems to make the results all the more worth it, doesn’t it? At one point, I debated how much farther up the hill I should go. I had a long walk back to the apartment still. Also, I wasn’t entirely sure if there was a path down on the other side. But I hadn’t quite gotten the viewpoint I’d wanted yet, so I decided to press onward (er, upward?). Finally, I came to a spot with a gorgeous viewpoint. As the view of Rome below me came into view, I got a little teary-eyed. What is it about this city that does this to me? Or was it just the effort of climbing all the way up there and then having it finally pay off?
Someday maybe I’ll get to the “top of the hill” when it comes to learning Italian. Maybe it will finally reveal itself to me as it did to Elizabeth Gilbert. Maybe its full beauty will be laid out before me just like the city of Rome was today.
And maybe, just maybe, I’ll get a little teary-eyed again.