I have been told at least three times in the past four days that my wife is better than I am. A waiter, the Pharmacist, and a friend come to mind immediately. There may be more, but you’d have to ask her. Sometimes the statement was couched as a declaration, and sometimes as a question, as in “why is your wife better than you?” (which assumes that it’s true and that I know it, in contrast to the statement, which means “you may not know it, but . . .”)
My answer is usually something like, “that’s what everyone says,” or “that’s because she’s smarter.” (me being funny). The statement that she is better than I is made in the specific context that she speaks Italian better than I do, not that she is better in general. For that reason, what they say is true.
We have been here for four years, and struggle still with Italian. I bought medicine for the dog today, which is done at a regular pharmacy. I asked for it in Italian. The head pharmacist corrected my pronunciation of the name of the medicine (although I could discern no material difference between what she said and what I had said). The assistant pharmacist told me the price in Italian, which I fully understood. The head pharmacist repeated the price in English. I told her (in English) that I knew the numbers in Italian. She said “yes, but you prefer to speak English.” Yes, I told her, because then I know what I’m saying. This is when she enlightened me as to my wife’s superiority in speaking Italian. She’s much more fluent, she said.
There is a profound but very simple reason she is better than I am at speaking Italian: she works at it. She studies books, conjugates verbs, writes stuff in a notebook, watches Italian TV. I don’t do any of that. When I see a newspaper headline, I think to myself “I wonder what that says.” I can pick out some of the words, but not the words that give material meaning to the headline. I might take a picture with my iPhone and try to translate it, but that is only if I’m feeling extraordinarily ambitious.
Another problem is, as the episode with the pharmacist illustrates, even if I speak to them in Italian, they answer me in English. I have more than once found myself in the absurd situation of being the only one speaking Italian. So, I don’t need it day-to-day. And to the extent that I do need it, I know it. For example, I can order a meal, red wine, white wine, sparkling wine, regular beer and dark beer. I can say “this,” “that,” “those,” and “these,” and I know the numbers and most of the weights. I know the names of many vegetables and some meat. I can tell someone to keep going straight, turn right or left, and stuff like that. What else is there?
Yes, as you say, I might want to carry on a nuanced philosophical discussion but, for the most part, I haven’t found anyone to do it with. (and those with whom I might like to carry on such a conversation would, necessarily, need to be highly educated and, therefore, more fluent in English than I’ll ever be in Italian). I can’t stand TV, even in the US, and I don’t read the papers, though I should, I suppose.
The other day the doorbell rang. I went down to see who it was, and there was a man with a clipboard who started to talk real fast in Italian. I don’t like guys with clipboards. They are always trying to get something, usually money, or they are some government weenie coming to bust my chops about something. As he jabbered, I thought I understood what he was saying, but I couldn’t believe it. I thought he said there was a new restaurant in town, and they are giving out free bottles of prosecco (white sparkling wine), would I like one? He stopped talking and looked at me expectantly. I thought he was taking orders on his little clipboard. Or maybe he really asked me how many TVs were in the house (they tax those things, believe it or not). I didn’t know what to do. Is it possible he wants to give me a free bottle of wine? Nah. I looked out the door behind the man, and there was a lad pushing a big cart stacked with cases of prosecco. The man held out a bottle for me to take. By God! I understood him at native speed! Of course, I took the wine in disbelief, thanked him, and went upstairs.
So, I am not as bad as everyone says. But for now, I am willing to admit that my wife is better than I am. Anyone who has talked to the two of us together knows that. When that changes, I’ll write the blog in Italian. Ciao.