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Since moving away from Italy last July, the opportunities for me to actually speak Italian have been quite limited. And for someone who enjoys learning and practicing new languages (nevermind my abysmal progress in German so far), that has been what I miss most, oddly enough — not really the food or gelato or living there in general. Okay, the coffee sometimes, but there are always Illy caffès for that, the best espresso coffee chain, in my opinion.
Ah but even as I type “caffè” the silly little thrill of those backwards accents (they’ll always seem “backwards” to me since I learned Spanish first, I guess). Pronouncing things with that melodramatic, melodic lilt. It’s one of the biggest differences from Germany, at least the German language — when spoken it is incredibly flat, without cadence. Most Germans don’t actually have that harsh, angry-sounding Werner Herzog type accent (they don’t even seem to know who he is), but quite a good pronunciation in English. Then when they switch to German I’m always surprised at how serious they suddenly sound, even within the same conversation.
I guess this is where that “humorless German” stereotype comes from, although I’ve actually met some of the happiest, friendliest and most carefree people I’ve ever met here (and in Italy I quickly found a thick layer or petulance an perpetual dissatisfaction below the cliched surface of friendliness and liveliness).
Cross-cultural comparisons aside, however, the other day it was a simple pleasure or me to speak Italian again. At my work (a private professional English school) we are really not supposed to speak anything but English with our students, and understandably so, and so i never do, although we have many italian- and spanish-speaking students. But colleagues will often use a little German when having to explain technical matters — scheduling, contracts, etc. and so I took the excuse to use Italian. And it was strange how much such a little thing took me back, in time and space, and how much I realized that this language, although still of course foreign, is a part of me, a part that has been missing.
Luckily a friend and I are planning a quick two-city trip back over Easter, when I will be able to feel competent in a foreign language and country again, not like that stereotypical American: “sprechen Sie Englisch, bitte?”