The woman who pulled up aside me on the rural road in central Italy had me pegged as crazy, retarded, or both. She was screaming at me, but I understood nothing, so she resorted to bad English. "Money. For eating," she said, putting a cupped hand to her mouth. Driving around wasting gasoline seemed like a counter–intuitive way to beg for money. So much so I could only stare back at her, saying nothing like some kind of useless imp. She drove away in frustration, but only got about 500 feet before I saw her turn around. As she got closer, she swung her car over to me again. "You crazy walking this hour," she said, lowering her window. And then she tried handing me a 10 euro bill.
I suppose that walking on a three–mile stretch of barren road between two isolated villages during 100–degree heat while wearing blue jeans probably did make look like a crazy person in need of money. But it was a small price to pay for a can opener, which I'd gone looking for in a neighboring village so I could open up a can of my favorite soup––chickpea. But because I couldn't understand the directions to the can opener store, I was walking back to Calcata empty handed (and hungry). Maybe I should have taken that 10 euros after all.
I've tried learning a handful of languages in my lifetime and, at least at the beginning, I always have the same problem: I can speak adequately well, posing questions like an intermediate speaker, but I can't comprehend anything after that. Which means I can ask a lot of nice sounding questions, and then it's like I'm deaf.
I'd just moved to Calcata, a bewitching medieval hill town about 30 miles north of Rome, which boasts an absurd amount of art galleries and restaurants, but lacks shops that sell household appliances (or anything else, really). I'd come here to write a book about the disappearance of the town relic, the Holy Foreskin (yes, that would be Jesus' foreskin), which vanished under mysterious circumstances about 20 years earlier. And after the woman sped away for the second time, I verbally beat myself up the rest of the way to Calcata: how was I going to find a missing Holy Foreskin if I couldn't even understand directions to a store that sells can openers?
There were several other things I still needed: a lamp to illuminate the loft at night so my soon–to–arrive wife, Jessie, could read in bed, a tea kettle, and a rug for our dog, Abraham Lincoln (besides baths and going to the vet, he hates nothing more than bare floors). Given that there were so few shops around, I wasn't sure where or how I'd get them. More importantly, I wasn't sure how to say that I wanted them.
I had to learn how to speak Italian. Or rather, how to understand Italian. Desperately.
I have a long not–so–storied history of this type of learning (or, more appropriately, not learning). One day in the fourth grade I was yanked out of my class and given a series of tests. I was told I'd have to come to a "special" class for three hours everyday. I had, the teacher of this "special" class explained very slowly to me and my parents, a learning disability. Phrases like "slow learner" and "bad comprehension" were mentioned. My parents then relayed the information to my siblings, saying that from now on they'd have to talk to me slowly and give me just … one … command … at … a … time.
When my brother would see me traipsing up to the front door after baseball practice, he'd tell me to go inside and get him a garbage bag. When I'd come out and extend the bag in his direction, he'd point to various piles of leaves he'd just raked, and say "Now. Put. Leaves. In. Bag." I had suddenly become the village idiot in my house.
I went every day to the "retarded people's class," as everyone in the "normal" class called it, until the day I graduated high school. The teachers in the special education class didn't really teach as much as feed us the information we needed. In junior high, for example, I had the benefit of being able to take all my tests in the special education class. So, when there was a big exam in my history class, my teacher would hand me the test, and I'd leave for the special ed class. Once there, the teacher would hand me the "teacher's edition" of the history book, which had all the answers in the back of the book, wish me "good luck," and walk away. I'd copy down the answers, sometimes verbatim, and head back to my class. A week later, I'd get the test back with an excellent grade, the teachers in my history and science and health–ed classes never questioning how I'd written the exact same answer that was in the teacher's edition of their books. What was the point of studying, I thought, if I was being spoon–fed the answers to the quizzes?
It didn't take a "special person" to figure out that the teachers and school administrators didn't really care if I or my "special" peers overcame whatever learning disabilities we supposedly had; they wanted to get us through the system, so we could go out in the world and become productive underachievers. Even my best friend in high school told his girlfriend (who then told her best friend who happened to be my girlfriend, who then told me) that I'd "never amount to anything in life." If my best friend didn't even believe in me, then why should I?
But somehow, after graduating from high school, I mustered up enough ambition to give college a try. I enrolled the local community college, which admits everyone. And somehow, I actually excelled, earning great grades and graduating with honors. Then, after two years, I transferred to the University of California, Santa Cruz, a four–year university with a fairly good reputation. Two years later, I graduated with honors again. Eventually, I went on to earn a master's degree in history. And I took the tests without looking at the teacher's edition of the book. Really. I promise.
It gave me a confidence in my intellectual abilities I thought I never had. People could tell me two or more commands at the same time and I'd actually understand. But then here I was in Calcata, trying to learn Italian and still, just like being back in the fourth grade, not comprehending a thing. This time there was no Classe dei Retardati in which to flee. There's not even a school in Calcata, of course.
Then, one day, a pile of celebrity weeklies appeared on my doorstep. An American guy named Scot who'd lived in Calcata for the last two years, brought them over, thinking it would be a good way for me to learn. And he was right. It took me about two full days to get through the first issue of Diva e Donna (Diva & Woman)––which I found amusing that Scot reads so loyally. By the next issue, however, I could see progress: I had to look up fewer and fewer words. I wasn't sure how many times I'd actually say or hear the words and phrases "red carpet," "seduction," "scandal" and "love affair," but at least I was understanding something. And the articles I read about the Pope's cats were actually entertaining.
I tried talking to people again. And I set a goal that I'd have to have at least one conversation a day. So when I was walking to one of the surrounding villages to find a reading lamp, another car slowed down beside me. It was Costantino Morosin, a long–time resident of Calcata and one of the most famous artists living there today. From what I understood, he was asking me if I wanted to accompany him to nearby Lake Bracciano. I jumped in. Costantino speaks no English whatsoever, which made having to spend an entire evening with him a challenge.
I watched, as we sat on the shores of the massive lake that was formed by a volcanic crater as he screamed at a Romanian mason who was doing some reconstruction work on his house. I jotted down words I hadn't heard before and looked them up or asked someone to define them later.
Fare cagare (literally "to make one poop"), meaning something is very bad.
Non fare un cazzo (literally "to not do a penis"): a slang term which could be translated as "to do absolutely fucking nothing."
Finisci il lavoro domani: finish the job tomorrow.
I think I had a pretty good idea what the disaccordo (disagreement) was about. Later Costantino and I had dinner at a nearby restaurant in the town of Trevignano. We snacked on seafood and talked about…well, I'm not sure what we talked about. He showed me photos of his art work on his Palm Pilot, which were computer–generated images of maps that, if you looked close enough, were stick figures that seemed to be in a constant state of motion. The only work I'd previously seen of his were the bulbous stone Etruscan thrones that grace one of the squares of Calcata. I'd always admired them, but people here say the thrones are not even close to his best work.
But, as usual, when it came to talking about his art (or, really, anything), I understood little. I'd ask him questions and he'd give me long–winded answers. He'd occasionally ask if I understood and, occasionally, I'd admit that I didn't. He'd stop and, in Italian, try to explain to me what individual words meant. Costantino didn't seem to mind listening to himself talk, even when the person he was talking to couldn't understand a word, but I appreciated that he was giving me the chance. It takes a lot of energy to spend an entire evening with someone who can't understand anything you're saying.
The next day, while sitting on the stoop at the top of the steps that lead up to my apartment, I saw Gemma, the Belgian woman who runs the tea house. She was standing around looking somewhat bored.
"Non fai un cazzo?" I asked. I thought I'd try out my new phrase, the one I heard Costantino use with the Romanian mason.
"What?" she answered back in Italian. Gemma speaks English well and, naturally, that's usually the language we speak in. "Do you mean, 'Am I doing nothing?'"
"Si," I answered, somewhat cheerily because I understood what she had said in Italian.
She walked away. No, scratch that. She stormed away. Maybe, I thought, she heard her phone ringing and had to go answer it. But I saw her a few more times that afternoon around the village and she ignored me.
Oh, no, I thought. What did I say? Well, I knew exactly what I'd said. I just wasn't expecting her to react the way she did––which was as if I'd said something like, "Yo, wassup bitch?"
At the bar in the neighboring village where a group of old men regulars had sort of taken me in, I mentioned the phrase I'd said to Gemma.
"Should I say this to a woman?" I asked.
The seven or eight men, who were sitting in a circle, wagged their fingers at me and erupted into a chorus of "no, no, no, no!"
"Never say this to a woman," one of the men said. Or at least I think he said. "This is talk for the bar––not for ladies."
The next afternoon I went to the tea room to see Gemma.
"I'd like to apologize for what I said to you yesterday," I said, this time in English.
"For me," she said, "this phrase is worse than cursing."
I explained to her that in trying to learn this language, I was still getting a feel for what is okay to say and what's not okay to say.
"I understand," she said. "It's just that this is not a phrase an educated person would say. It's for stupid and retarded people."
Retarded people. After that, I swore to myself I'd never use the word "cazzo" again. Not even at the bar. Instead, I'd rely on my celebrity gossip to make conversation. And I'd limit my penis–talk to a safer topic: Jesus Christ's penis––or at least the tip of it. The Holy Foreskin.
This essay is an excerpt from David Farley's forthcoming book about his bizarre quest to find the Holy Foreskin. Farley is co-editor of Travelers' Tales Prague and the Czech Republic and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Conde Nast Traveler, New York, Playboy, and Slate.com. He teaches writing at New York University. His last story for Perceptive Travel was "The Coast of Bohemia" in March 2006.
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