Ali Menite Sprechen Inglese, من فضلك? A Note On The Language Barrier

Right now the only sounds swaying through my ears are those of the wind whistling through the leaves and the voice of Davendra Banhart coming from my speakers. It might not sound like it, but this is monumental. 

I am perched on the sofa-bed on the back terrace overlooking the impressive surrounding mountains, haven given up my chance to accompany the 12 italian children alongside my colleagues to the nearby springs in favor of some desperate catch-up on my summer courses. 

They have departed, and so I am here. The coursework can wait. 

Mind palace. 

It’s funny: I forget how badly I need moments of quiet and isolation in order to think, and then situations like 12 children screaming italian and hitting each other with couch cushions come along and remind me. When peace is allotted to me–by the grace of my beautiful colleagues–I realize how entirely grateful I am for the chance to be in control of the sound which is going into my mind. 

I’ve had a year to practice, but I still let language barriers get to me. 

What I really want is to communicate to precious Theodora as she uses my body for her personal climbing tree that her and I can still be best friends even though I have no possible comprehension of the spew of words coming from her mouth. 

What I really want is for sweet Martina to know that even though I don’t understand why she is crying, comfort can come from hugs and the nonverbal. 

What I really want is for Marco to please stop hitting the piano keys with his shoes because it’s making the most god-awful noises. 

More times than I can count, I have been exposed this year to the idea that a person’s worth, value, intelligence–you name it–can come from other faucets than language. I like big fancy words, but whether or not the person with whom I am speaking uses them in a language I understand makes their worth no less. 

The non-verbal can be as informative as the verbal.

That energy which comes out of me and mingles with the energy of similar souls comes from somewhere deeper than words. This is shown to me right now by how connected I feel to some of these Italian kids. 

I know that they are frustrated I don’t speak Italian, as much as I am frustrated that I can draw pictures, do charades, stand on my head and yet they still will have no clue what I mean when I say what is your favorite thing we did yesterday? 

Jodie bear-hugs my waist and whispers: c’e –io abbiamo –o something cosa and looks up at me with her gigantic blue eyes. I shake my head, saying that I have no idea what she is saying to me. Of course, she doesn’t understand, and replies accordingly in Italian, which then I don’t understand. 

But she just keeps on hugging. Because sometimes hugging is more important than talking. 

It took Katie and I 72 hours to get back to Austria from Morocco. On the last morning of our journey we were waiting to board the train back to Graz in Maribor, Slovenia, and we stopped in the little cafe for some breakfast. 

It was quite early and Katie and I were the only customers. We dropped our packs off at a corner table, and sauntered over to the linoleum counter to order. We were in quite high spirits, as getting home was now finally in the cards (for more information, please reference my previous blog post: A 62 Journey Home). 

A Slovenian woman came out from the corridor behind the counter, swinging her hips between fry pans and ketchup dispensers in this quasi-diner cafe. She heaved her elbows to rest on top of the counter, head supported in palms. 

Kaj dobite za vas?*

  • *I google-translated that puppy so as to not just type phonetic nonsense like I did with the Italian. Sometimes I do try to be respectful. Sometimes. 

Katie and I exchanged glances and some telepathic communication–per custom–and smiled.

“Do you have a breakfast menu?” I asked. 

The woman rocked back on her heels, taking her head out from her palms. Her eyes went wide, her gaze suddenly fixated at the top left ceiling corner. 

“Breakfast?” I tried again. 

Her mouth went slack.

“Menu?” Katie offered. 

The woman looked down. 

Caffee?”

Katie and I looked at each other’s baggy eyes and shook our heads with more enthusiasm than is appropriate. The woman exploded in laughter and Katie and I immediately joined her. We spent the next full minute slapping the counter and howling like the animals we were at that point after so much traveling. 

The beautiful Slovenian turned around. 

“Wait, food?” Katie and I asked in unison. 

With her back still to us, she grabbed a spatula and waved it in our direction, laughing out more Slovenian and motioning us to sit down at the table. 

A few minutes later, she swings out from behind the counter, her arms supporting a tray full of coffee, french fries, tomatoes, grilled cheese, beans, and apples. She laughs again, shaking her head, as she sets the tray on our table. We look up at her with big adorning eyes, and thank her with our smiles. 

At that moment, I wanted to shimmy out of my chair and wrap myself in her arms, begging her to be my best friend. There were so many factors connecting us in that moment and none of them had to do with language.

Today I had a little breakdown. 

On the first night we made cardboard-covered “diaries” with the kiddos and each night after have been helping them to write a few sentences about the day in English. We exchanged diary-time for a massive epic feast last night, and consequently forced them to write in their diaries this morning. 

I was seated between Andre and Jodie, with Theo and Jacobo looking onwards. Each one of them, pencil clutched behind tiny tan fingers, were just staring at blank paper until I would tell them a sentence to write. 

And then they would keep staring at the blank paper until I would write it for them. 

I turned to Jodie:

“Could you draw? Draw pictures? Pictures of yesterday?” I drew some sample pictures. Her gigantic eyes registered none of it. 

I pointed at her pencil. 

“Draw. Draw pictures. Pictures!” 

I checked her eyes again: nada. 

“Pictures! Paintings! Art!”

Zilch. 

I took a breath, and left her to the blank paper, turning towards Andre. 

“Andre, what did you do yesterday? Yesterday? Today–oggi, tomorrow–domani, yesterday…” I didn’t know what “yesterday” was in Italian.

He stared at me. Blank as his page. 

“You did theater, yes?” Nothing. No registration. “Yes. Yes, you did theater. T-h-e-a-t-e-r.” He perks up: we had a bite on the line! Yes, finally! He scribbles something furiously on his paper. Proud, he pushes it towards me. 

I were theuter.

Lord, help us all. So this was what the Austrians thought when they tried to teach me German.  

I give him some affirmation, commending him on a try well tried indeed. 

Meanwhile, Jacobo tugs on my sleeve and unleashes a spew of Italian. 

“Jacobo,” I say slowly, “I don’t speak Italiano”. 

It doesn’t help: the stream of Italian doesn’t cease. 

Inglese, per favore.”

His face falls. Visibly falls. He smacks his forehead with his palm. 

Suddenly everyone is talking to me in Italian and asking me things in Italian, and I am being immersed in an Italian river of Italian words and chaos and I realize the extent of my un-usefulness at this moment in this capacity. 
My patience and calmness is usually higher, but as a result of bad sleep and exhaustion from the week, neither meters were filled. I found myself making panicked eye contact with one of my colleagues, and then taking off. Almost literally running away from the dining room and the kids. 

I think I might have tripped on a rug going out the door, but there was no way in hell that I was going back in there. 

I clumsily run into the garden, passing Irztke who is reading on the porch swing. She is Davide’s friend, a beautiful Italian teacher from Perugia who doesn’t speak any English and is here to observe teaching patterns and to help where she can. 

There’s this alcove tucked into the bottom of the garden, hidden from the view of the house but fully exposed to the panorama of the mountains. I hugged my knees and sat down, bawling, tears flowing down my face, my chin wrinkled. 

It was not attractive, ladies and gents. Not attractive. 

I’m not even sure why I was crying: a mixture of things. Being tired, overwhelmed, frustrated…a bit homesick myself. 

After a few minutes, Irztke, beautiful Irztke comes over to me and whispers some Italian words, kissing my hair and wrapping my head in a beautiful embrace. She rubs my back and holds me for a bit, letting me sob onto her shirt. We don’t speak: we can’t speak.

But sometimes hugs are better than words. 

Peace and Blessings, 

Josie 

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