Lost in Translation
My life here is made up of extremes. If I step back to examine my time in Italy as a series of moments and experiences, they often don't make sense. Sunday was a great example of this.
Starting the day off with a trip to McDonald's automatically puts you in an American mood. Although in the 'states I can't stand the place, I've grown to really appreciate living across the street from the golden arches in a foreign county. Plus, when you eat pasta and pizza about 15 to 20 times a week, it's nice to break the monotony with a Chicken Premiere (sounds lame, but it rocks the shit out of a Big Mac), Maxi Fries, and a Fanta Orange soda. So far Sunday was great. No work, American fast food, and an evening full of NCAA Tournament basketball. Forget Rome, I took the night off from Italy and lived like a yank. At least that's how the day started.
After a late lunch it was off to the Abbey for UConn. Vs. George Mason. The Abbey is the bar I work at. It's technically an Irish pub but it's run by Italians, and frequented by American college students. It's also one of the few pubs here that shows every major American sports match and has legitimate American cheeseburgers.
The game was great. Probably the best college hoops game I've ever seen. I felt like I was in Boston again. Cold pints of beer, the smell of french fries in the air, yelling at the big-screen TV after every missed shot. At the final buzzer it was upset city. The little school from Virginia, George Mason, took down the mighty UConn. The Abbey erupted with a collective scream. High fives circled the bar as wolf-like yells were projected in every direction. Seconds later my American night was over. My night as a yank, cancelled, and I was on a theoretical express flight back to Rome.
"Andy!!!...", said Chilleste, the owner of the bar, "...Please tell American students that if they yell crazy for the games, we turn them off!". As the token American employee present-albeit my night off-I accepted this responsibility. It's been my job since the Super Bowl. Minimum collateral damage is how I look at my role as my boss' American bar ambassador. You see backpackers, cultural exchanges, body language, regional idiosyncrasies, and vocal intonation cannot be easily translated.
People feel more comfortable with their own cultural familiarities. A small fat man named Alberto serves you fettucine and overpriced Sicilian wine at an Osteria (small Italian eateries, like the one in "Lady and the Tramp"), I tell you to get lost after college basketball. It just works better that way for some people. Be honest, you wouldn't exactly feel comfortable with a Chinese-run taco stand. You don't want a Brit to give you dental advice. And you'd probably stay away from a flight school called "Air Allah".
In Rome, like in most big cosmopolitan cities-see New York, London, LA-these lines of distinction are becoming increasingly blurred. In fact, after the Abbey, I spent the rest of the night hopping between four languages and just as many continents. There were the girls from Bavaria who laughed at my jokes (English) until I called them allied spies. I had a discussion on fashion and soccer with an Italian. I said hello to a couple I knew from Barcelona. Ran into a little Bangladeshi rose vendor who I used to kick out of the bar when I was a bouncer. And finally to cap the night off, I ran into Joao (Brazilian) and some friends at the all-night coffee bar and had an hour-long conversation about, you guessed it, languages.
Joao was with a beautiful blonde American girl, her friend from Pennsylvania, and a young looking Italian. With a big Brazilian smile, I was greeted with Portuguese, my adopted third language. Joao knows this, and always talks to me in Portuguese, no matter how bad I tell him I speak it. Then without a pause, he's facing the blonde, all English. Back to me, Portuguese, and then Italian. I join in the melee of languages as best I can, we've got a rhythm going. There is actually a coherent multi-language conversation going on. Everyone's cool but the guy from Pennsylvania. What preceded really put my night into perspective.
"ENGLISH!!!" he yelled drunkenly, "Can't we all just speak English for the love of God. Ever since I've been in this fucking country it's nothing but blah blah blah in other languages. I know you all know English, so why are you trying to be a pain and not speak it?". Joao's smile faded fast. I could tell he was controlling his anger. He wanted to score with the blonde. He's lucky she was there, Joao would have plastered him all over the Piazza. Instead, he took the high road. "When I speak to you, I speak English" he said to the kid, "He (pointing to me) make a little easier with me to speak Portuguese. I make easier for him (pointing to the Italian) to speak Italian". Here we go, the cultural gloves are off.
The guy from Pennsylvania shrunk back in his seat a bit. He then turned from critical to admirational. "I can't believe you guys are actually having this conversation right now" he said, "I really wish I could just understand everything. I feel stupid that I never had to learn how to communicate in anything other than English". He was right, he never did, and neither did many Romans, Parisians, New Yorkers, or Londoners. In many circumstances you don't have to learn speak anything outside of your native tongue. In other circumstances it's a necessity.
We weren't speaking like this because it was a necessity. It just made things run smoother. It made Joao feel comfortable to hear his native tongue, and gave me some much needed practice with it. When he went into the small details of his stories, he spoke with me in English. We both spoke Italian with the Italian guy. Being multi-linguists broadened the level of the topics of conversation. We could use our own idioms, our own body language, our own accents.
Cultural rules were being stripped away by a lively chat, 22oz. Peronis, a bag of chips, and a hot blonde. Nothing was being lost in translation, and we still got to be ourselves. I was the same guy who started my evening with a Value Meal and NCAA basketball. Joao was still going to get laid in whatever language he felt like. We parted ways after some pizza and I walked home. Time to close up my culture passport and call it a night. I felt like there was a lesson to be learned from all this. Cultural judgments will fade when we communicate better with each other. I really believe that.
Maybe next time I see a Chinese taco stand, I'll grab a bite to eat. Lesson or not, however, I'll still never fly "Air Allah".