I grew up in a family for whom "travel" was done only in cars and trucks — a weekend to see one of my brothers, a week with Aunt Martha and Uncle Willard in Berea, the camper loaded onto the back of one or another pickup and driven up to Silver Lake State Park.
Over the course of my life, I've spent some meaningful amount of time in 42 states, missing only Hawaii, South Dakota, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Kentucky, West Virginia, and Iowa (I've driven through all of those except Hawaii, too, but didn't much get out of the car except for gas). But my "travel abroad" has been limited to a four-day train trip from Vancouver to Toronto, and about six hours in Tijuana while on a conference trip to San Diego.
I've seen a pair of ferrets washed on a Christmas afternoon in a drinking fountain in Thunder Bay, Ontario, but I've never seen the Louvre. You tell ME which is the more meaningful cultural experience.
That is about to change. Nora and I have been invited by friends to spend New Years with them and travel to Venice. They've been there many times, almost a second spiritual home, and they're looking forward to sharing their city with us. And I'm looking forward to being there, being with them and with Nora, and experiencing ten days in a carless, walking city.
Nora bought a set of Pimsleur Basic Italian CDs, and she and I spent some of the past few days driving around and repeating conversations. Pimsleur has an interesting way of dealing with pronunciation: they speak a word at normal pace, and then start with the last syllable and have you repeat that, then the last two, then the last three, until you have the whole word.
vuh Dare chee.
Ree vuh Dare chee.
uh Ree vuh Dare chee.
Plays havoc with your spelling, I know that.
Anyway, in Lesson One, they've got us telling lies as soon as we're under way. Io capisco l'Italiano, for instance. Well, I've just finished lesson four, and trust me, io non capisco l'Italiano. They try to beg their way out of it by then helping you say that you understand a little Italian, but that's like me saying that I understand a little subatomic physics.
I think that no matter what anybody says to me in Venice, I'll reply "Io non capisco." Menus, street signs, rude gestures, the taxi bill; I'll just shrug apologetically and say Io non capisco.
Also, the people on the lessons speak like diplomats: relatively slowly, perfectly enunicated. Imagine our mirror images, the Italian turisti who study the Pimsleur Basic English and then get off the plane at Logan. They may have mastered "What do you want?", but they're gonna hear "Whadda yuwan?" And they also won't know that if it's pronounced "Whadda YUwan?", it's a threat rather than a request to name your choice of services.
I do like Pimsleur's insistence on full sentences, though. Most language lessons start with nothing but nouns. Cat. Dog. Street. School. Pencil. After six months, you're not prepared to do much more than point at something and say its name, like Dustin Hoffman sitting on a park bench. Although, as a vegetarian, it's important to be able to look at a menu and know
the difference between prosecco (yummy) and prosciutto (raw ham), that
my panini shouldn't have pancetta, that you eat orzo and drink ouzo, and that I like arrosto di cavolfiore and Nora prefers cavoletti di Bruxelles.
Mama mia. Troppo. Io non capisco.