My brother didn’t have a lot to show for his two years in the seminary, but he did pick up this piece of wisdom from his favorite teacher: “The best place to learn a language is in bed.” No, it’s not like that, my brother insists, he and Father T just played handball.
I cannot confirm or deny Father T’s claim; for me, it’s the languages that have made everything else possible. If I tell you that I met my first love in Middle High German class, it won’t surprise you that, when I found myself lonely and free at age 32, I decided to study Italian. Compared to most activities for “singles” (a word that always reminds me of those tiles of cheese product encased in little dairy condoms), the language classroom has much to offer the shy and nerdy. Especially in courses that use the so-called communicative method, people are invited, or rather forced, to talk about themselves. The subject matter is oddly circumscribed (“Do you shower every day?” “What color is your dog?”), but I imagine that the pick-up lines used in bars are not much more edifying.
Why Italian? Well, the people on my Italia dal Vivo cassettes sounded adorable. Also, I had become interested in opera, after steadfastly loathing it for the first 30 years of my life, and my listening had taught me to say in Italian such phrases as, “Every woman makes me palpitate,” “Always free, I must flit in folly from joy to joy,” and, “They call me Mimi, I don’t know why.” Sadly, it was hard to find situations where I could say these things without causing people to back away slowly.
The textbook for Italian 1101 was nearly as bizarre — I think it was called “Eccoci! Italian for Brain-Dead Mall Rats.” Something like that. With some reluctance, I learned how to beg for a discount on a hot little jeans skirt: “Trecentomila lire?” “Ma é di Armani!” The instructor was a small, dark-haired, wide-mouthed, rather fragile-looking young woman whose habit of veering between hometown Minnesota girl and Adriatic hipster fascinated me. She also oscillated in class between references to her ragazzo and her ex-ragazzo, who we understood to be the same guy in alternating phases. This left me in some doubt.
After our final exam, I asked Ms. R out for coffee, which I considered a triumph of will. We had a long chat, and I was intrigued by the hints of flakiness in her accounts of adventures such as hitch-hiking alone around the south of Italy. Of course, her fringiness likely meant that I, a software engineer dressed in Eddie Bauer, struck her as too tame to be exciting. In any case, the next thing I heard, she had unexpectedly become pregnant, and the ex-ragazzo had switched back to ragazzo on a quasi-permanent basis. Exit Ms. R.
In the second quarter, I sat with a knot of the better students. As is usual in a language class, these were mostly women. I incline against biological explanation; it seems more plausible that girls are, on the whole, socialized to be more flexible; to think that their way of doing something may need to be modified in order to accommodate other people or just the universe. Many boys are permitted to develop the illusion that their habits and preferences are immutable law.
I have known language students who never fully grasped the fact that, to speak a foreign language well, you have to talk funny. Others may have grasped this but felt that the ego sacrifice was too great for the notional benefit of learning a language one will probably never use. I recall a German teacher who, faced with a student’s refusal to accept that a construction didn’t work in German the way it does in English, finally lost patience and said, “That’s the way the goddamn Germans say it!”
But I digress. One night, a woman in our little pod of A students proposed an after-class outing for drinks. This would have been quite promising, except that (a) I didn’t know if I was necessarily among the invited; and (b) the destination was the Loring — a joint, according to our local alternative weekly, full of “arty ballerina vampire girls, simmering bespectacled muscle boys … and the people with jobs who want to fuck them.” Somehow I suspected that even showing them my pay stubs wouldn’t get me far with that crowd.
My teachers after Ms. R were not potential girlfriends (they were married, for one thing), but they were actual Italians who could entertain you just by being their trippy selves. At a coffeehouse chat group, one of them asked me to use my Internet skills to help her research a quack cure for cellulite. “Sono proprio disperata!” (“I’m really desperate!”) she said. A great virtue of foreign language is that it can make an amusing interaction out of what would otherwise be utterly lame.
Another of my teachers was a tiny Calabrian who exemplified the opposite of bonding through language. She had lived in North America for almost 20 years, but her English was still so basic that she had trouble ordering a decaf intelligibly at Starbucks, and someone had to interpret for her. Her husband, whose name she pronounced Mike-a, just like a comic stage Italian, had done his part by not learning Italian, and the two of them seemed quite happy not to share a common language.
I finally struck gold in a class called Conversation and Composition. The students ranged from a precocious high schooler (when we were shown a movie with the obligatory scenes of sex with barnyard animals, the teacher ran over to cover her eyes) to an elderly film impresario who appeared to think he was in a French class. In between there were three women who were clearly old friends, and one of them, Shelley — a slender, wide-mouthed, large-eyed person with a barely-contained big dark ponytail — caught my eye. She also had a quiet, gentle manner, which meant that it was a while before I learned much more about her.
We read a short story for this class about a woman who married unhappily and, in much later years, became fiercely nostalgic and tediously loquacious about her salad days, when suitors competed for her attentions. I was supposed to give a presentation on the story, and I decided to critique the suitors using the precepts of an old Italian self-help book I owned. It was called “Come Conquistare le Donne,” or “How to Conquer Women,” and the cover showed a signorina from circa 1960 whose breasts seemed about to win their battle with her sweater. Among its many gems was its advice on the eternal issue of North and South, one that preoccupies Italians even more than it does Americans. “How to Conquer” counseled the Northern boy that he must be careful in approaching Southern girls so as not to end up getting his ass kicked by their male relations. Conversely, the Southerner is warned not to be confused by the open manners of Northern women: The fact that she is independent and liberated does not necessarily mean that she is itching to pull you into the next convenient alley for a hookup.
I later learned that it was my deadpan presentation, done in a mock-serious academic mode, that first caught Shelley’s eye.
After class ended, we would still sometimes get together for dinner at someone’s house. On these occasions I would bum a ride from Shelley (one of the rare instances in which having bad eyesight can be an asset), and she would pick me up in her aging little Ford, which I could always hear coming because it sounded just like a Cessna cruising in for a landing on my street. Sometimes we would also pick up a classmate, a doctor who seemed very chummy with Shelley. Were her gestures — the big smile, the hand on his arm in conversation — tokens of special regard or reflections of her warm and affectionate nature?
I screwed my courage to the sticking-place and gave her a call. I was rewarded with the welcome news that she and the doc were not an item and that yes, she would meet me for coffee, but when I pressed my luck and proposed a movie, she said no. As I had not exceeded my quota of charming and beautiful friends, I was happy to hang out with her on that basis … and hope for future modifications.
One night we went out for burgers after one of our Italian chats, where the elderly owner of a B&B in Umbria had enlightened us with her opinions of various nationalities. (The Swiss are the worst, they are picky like the Germans but then they try to leave without paying, while the Russians are molto umani: very human.) Now Shelley was telling me that her work at a small film company was coming to a gradual end. (Small as in, they had made one movie.) She was going to find a new job, but it would have to wait, because she and her sisters were going to Costa Rica to visit a nephew who was doing research in the cloud forest. And then there was a family trip to Hawaii, another place she had never been. After that she could start job-hunting.
That’s when I knew that Shelley was the woman for me. She wouldn’t dream of passing up opportunities that might not come again; her spontaneity was like the grownup, responsible version of Ms. R’s.
When it was my turn to have the Italian group over, Shelley and her best friend stayed behind and helped me wash the dishes, which was very cozy, and then at parting she gave me a kiss on the cheek. More friendly affection, as with the doctor, or a sign of a new turn?
Inquiring minds wanted to know.
Finding out took a few more outings and an encouraging e-mail from Shelley. (I know, you’re thinking I’m the world’s biggest loser, but I stand by my results.) We finally went on a proper date (Russian food, chamber orchestra) and afterward I lured her into my apartment by offering to play my LP of “Kiss Me, Kate!”
We got engaged in Rome. It was Christmas, people were in a good mood except for their terror at the impending transition to the euro, and we blended in well enough that two different Italians asked us for directions. I was about to propose in a church, one of the Santa Marias, but I somehow couldn’t make it happen. A couple of days later, we had dinner in a favorite restaurant called Orso (i.e., Bear) 80, on via dell’Orso, the street of the bear. With the help of that totem animal, I managed to ask Shelley to marry me, and she said yes. We walked home to our apartment across the Ponte Sant’Angelo, taking selfies with the marble Bernini angels on the bridge. The pictures came out all blurry and squeehaw — I guess we were a little giddy. In the years since, we have never been apart for more than a couple of days.
Did anyone ever find love in one of Father T’s Spanish classes at the seminary? Perhaps a few of them did, and decided to punt the priesthood gig. I like to think that somewhere there is a picture of two other faces, beaming but slightly blurry, with a background of pale marble wings and velvet Roman sky.
Roy White studied several languages, dead and otherwise, at the University of Minnesota. He lives in Saint Paul with his lovely wife and handsome dog, and his work has appeared recently in Leveler Poetry Journal and Wordgathering.