Today was an absolutely gorgeous day in Naples, the cultural capital of southern Italy, where I’ve been living and studying Italian for the last few weeks. In a large departure from my midwestern American upbringing, I almost never look at the weather forecast here. What’s the point when every single day in the early summer is hot and sunny? But the last few days have been plagued by an almost complete lack of wind, causing the hot water of the Mediterranean Sea to just hang in the air, a sticky humidity that’s been torturing the populace, who still need to go about life trekking up and down the city’s many steep hills and streets. But last night, a breeze finally kicked up, and I felt that I could actually hear a collective sigh of relief echoing throughout the town. The southerly wind feels like a gift from the sea, and today the smog and heat have been blown away in order to reveal crisp blue skies, white fluffy clouds, and great views of Vesuvius, the friendly neighborhood volcano.
Before I sketch out a little picture of what my life here has looked like recently, let me get one thing off of my chest. I have felt a certain nagging guilt at my delinquency in updating this blog for the past few weeks. The intended purpose of this (semi-sometimes-almost-)weekly missive was to force myself into an occasional moment of semi-public self-reflection, to prove that I can retain some semblance of written literacy in a world that feels increasingly hostile to such, and to let my mom and grandmother know that I am still alive each week. While I still feel like each of these aims is important, the truth is that the way I’ve been living the last few weeks has not been conducive to either self-reflection or written literacy, both of which require quiet moments of focus, which have been rare here. (I also don’t have a real internet connection in my rented apartment, so that’s a factor as well.)
Whenever I am living in a new place and learning a new language, my tendency is to fill almost 100% of my time with people, activity, and exploration. It’s a bit of a pathological, self-eroding behavior that finds its root in the simple logic of scarcity: I’m only in this city for one month, and I’m only going to be in Italy for two. Why would I “waste” even a single moment? There are words to learn, people to meet, adventures to be had. At a certain point, however, the returns diminish, and I end up just exhausting myself and feeling bad about my inability to fulfill my own extremely unrealistic expectations. I’ve been here for two weeks already and I am still unable to read any Italo Calvino in the original language, still don’t have a steady Italian girlfriend, and haven’t been asked to introduce the guests of honor at any high-profile gallery openings. But I was able to order pasta at a street vendor today without the cashier responding to my broken Italian in English, so that’s a win.
A few months ago, my friend and former roommate Eero asked me if I would like to spend the summer learning Italian in Italy with him. Aside from inconveniently sharing a name with a popular consumer networking device, Eero is also a Ph.D. student in political philosophy at Berkeley with a particular interest in Machiavelli. He’s been learning Latin for coursework and thought it would be a good idea to have a basic ability to read in Italian as well, that way when he publishes his first book he can write “unless otherwise noted, all translations are my own” at the end of the introduction.
After some debate, we settled on a plan to spend one month in Naples (my choice, I’m a big fan of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels) and then one month in Bologna (Eero’s choice, he’s a huge nerd and wants to be in a “college town”).
We are enrolled in an intensive Italian course that meets for four hours every day, 9am until 1pm. I’ve been in a lot of different language courses and schools over the years, and this one is interesting for how small it is. Eero and I are in a class together with only one other student, a French-speaking Swiss woman who works for the national train service in Switzerland and needs to learn Italian because it is one of the country’s official languages. While the small class size means that we get more individualized attention from the instructors, it also means that we have fewer people to actually speak the language with outside of class time. I also have some pedagogical-theoretical differences with the head instructor of the school, who is almost unwilling to “formally” teach us grammar concepts, saying that they are “too confusing” for most students.
But there are a few other students at the school, and after navigating a few awkward days of purposefully “accidentally” running into them outside of the bathroom and stammering something about it “maybe” being a “good idea” to “possibly exchange WhatsApp numbers” so that we could “potentially hangout sometime???”, I’ve finally built a small social circle of foreigners who are also learning Italian. I’ll note without further comment that for some reason, everyone I know here either speaks Italian, German, or Japanese—you can puzzle that one out yourself.
Eero and I are both complete beginners in Italian, and most of our foreign friends are only a few weeks ahead of us, so when we go out into the city together—to a restaurant, bar, or beach—I imagine that the Neapolitans see us as some large walking babies, furrowing our brows in focused determination as we try to express even the most basic thoughts to one another. I can only imagine what it must be like to be seated at a restaurant table next to ours and to eavesdrop on this beautiful dialogue.
ASAHI: I like soccer. It is my favorite sport. What about you all, do you like soccer as well?
ALESSIO: Yes, I like it too. I like to play it. And I like to watch it.
JACKSON: I like to play soccer. But I do not like to… 4 second pause for remembering verb conjugation watch it.
EERO: Yes, soccer is not famous in the United States.
ALESSIO: Oh, I heard this said before. It is interesting, what you said.
JACKSON: Yes, I agree. It is interesting. Soccer is not famous in the United States. Basketball is more famous.
ASAHI: I do not like basketball as much as I like soccer.
ALESSIO: Yes, I agree. I also like soccer more than I like basketball.
EERO: I do not like basketball or soccer.
ASAHI: Ah, it is interesting, what you said.
Everyone drinks their beer for 10 seconds
ALESSIO: This beer is good. I like this beer. What about you all, do you like this beer?
Imagine the poor waiters who wait on us. The best part about having several young Japanese members in our social circle is that when the waiters want to switch to English to speed things up, we get to tell them that our Japanese friends don’t know any English, and that we actually need to stick to Italian. Don’t worry though, American tipping culture is so embedded in my character that I always find a way thank them for dealing with the big dumb foreign babies.
Aside from the language school, its social circle, and all of the attendant language-learning adventures, my second biggest project in Naples thus far has been the continuation of my motorcycle education. In comparison to the places that I’ve lived and spent time in Central Europe, Naples is much more similar in its road-and-transportation culture to Medellín, Colombia than to Mannheim, Germany. The roads are absolutely filled with scooters and motorcycles here, there are more two wheeled vehicles than four, and the rules governing them are… shall we say, lax. Red lights are mere suggestions, if you need a short break from all the traffic weaving and pedestrian dodging you’ve been doing. In other words: it’s exciting.
The apartment that Eero and I are renting is halfway up the mountain that the city is nestled against, and after the first three days of sweating up and down its steep steps and watching all of the cool two-wheeled vehicles blasting up and down the narrow, laundry-lined cobblestone streets, I decided that I needed to rent a scooter as well. Unfortunately, many tourists seem to have the same idea here, and the prices for an entire month’s rental were quite high. After weighing my options and talking to Chris, my motorcycle-guru, I decided that it was worth the cost, and opted to rent a cheap, low-powered scooter. For those who aren’t familiar with the arcane taxonomy of motor vehicles, when I say “scooter,” I’m not talking about the stand-up “kick scooters” that have been littering American city streets for the last decade. Scooters here are automatic transmission motorcycles, great for quickly getting around the city, and some of them are powerful enough to drive at highway speeds.
When I arrived at the rental facility and presented my rental documentation, I was informed that the scooter I had reserved was unfortunately not available any longer, but that I would be able to pick out anything in the same power window (125cc) that they had on their showroom floor. I looked around for a minute and pretended to be inspecting the different scooters. The truth was that I didn’t know the first thing about scooters and was only confident in my initial choice because I had Chris’s blessing. My eye lingered on a brand new, bright yellow motorcycle that they had just removed from the plastic wrapping, and I had wished that I could afford to rent one of those for the month. The salesman, probably sensing my total inability to make this decision, asked me if I liked the motorcycle. I wanted to tell him that I did, and that I wish I could rent one like it because I had actually just learned to ride a motorcycle and wished to continue practicing using a manual transmission vehicle in an environment with so many rich and exciting elevation changes and varied road conditions, but I had only been learning Italian for a few days at this point, so I just settled with the tried-and-true universal standard and gave him a thumbs up.
He motioned for me to wait for a moment and then went to the back room to discuss something with someone else in the office. When he emerged, he smiled and told me that the motorcycle was also 125cc and that I could rent that for the month as well, at no additional charge. Grinning from ear to ear and at a loss for words in any language, I made my satisfaction clear by settling on another widely-recognized response: “wow!”
Since then, the motorcycle and I have been inseparable. I hardly go anywhere without my helmet in hand. It’s been a real challenge to ride in such an intense environment, but I’ve also learned a lot and had a ton of fun. And people (well, mostly men, if I’m being honest) really like my bike. It’s been a great conversation starter, and I frequently get thumbs-ups and stern nods of approval whenever I’m waiting at a traffic light. (Don’t worry grandma, even if the others don’t, I almost always follow the traffic rules!)
As I’m wrapping up this blog post, I’m sitting outside of a café in the neighborhood at the top of mountain. It’s almost midnight and the streets are still full of people of all ages (including young children, which would be very strange to see in the U.S.). Once I finish this last sentence, I’m going to close my computer, settle my bill, mount up, and zoom down the curved cobblestone mountain streets, overlooking the soft warm lights of the millions of people living in this city and searching for the blinking red and green navigation lights of ships departing the port for the Mediterranean Sea. In my head, I’ll be practicing my Italian vocabulary, desperate as I am to leave behind the embarrassing beginner stage as soon as possible. The most recent lesson I’m trying to commit to memory? Parts of the body. “Heads, shoulders, knees and toes, knees and toes.”