An Italian class had a big surprise in store
30 October 2020
Being a freelancer also means being free to schedule my time. No longer must I squeeze in dentist appointments around meetings, whooshing swiftly past the boss’s office hoping he won’t see me. Now I get to take time off not just for tooth maintenance, but to do frivolous things – like take an Italian class.
This is easy to do in Germany, the land of organizational prowess. They have something here with the unpronounceable name of Volkshochschule, which despite
sounding like a kind of uptight marching band, is in fact a well-oiled adult education machine. Italian is just one of thousands of courses on offer – and a pretty ordinary one. You can also take African dance, Dancing with your Wheelchair, Gypsy Dances from Russia, Hula Dancing or the Lindy Hop. And these are just the dances! Don’t get me started on the languages (OK, just a few: Learn Ancient Greek with Homer, Chinese for Teenagers, Latin for Senior Citizens and several levels of Swahili. These are all bona fide courses.)
Since my class is on Monday at nine in the morning, I know there will likely be a lot of retired people. Who else would have time so early in the day? There might be some freelancers like me as well, taking advantage of the early-morning hour.
“This class is going to be a breeze,” I think to myself. After all, I speak fluent Spanish and even lived in Spain for a year. My French is pretty good, reconfirmed by coaching two daughters through their secondary school exams. But the real clincher is that I have a good eight to ten Italian classes under my belt, culminating in a two-week class in Florence.
The class I took in Italy may have been twenty years ago, but I recall very clearly exchanging several coherent sentences with waiters in the evenings after having a few glasses of Cynar, an Italian aperitif that only a true insider would know. Admittedly, my stellar linguistic performance was dented somewhat by thinking a salesman in a boutique was calling me a bella donna (“a beautiful woman.” Gosh, those romantic Italianos!) when in fact he was trying to get me to buy the beautiful gonna – skirt – that I was trying on.
I quickly made amends in the next shop by flawlessly communicating my proper shoe size, trentanove. The salesman understood me immediately.
Let’s be honest here. If I’m not qualified to take a course in advanced Italian conversation, then who is?
The first day of class, I enter the room. One glance at the participants confirms my suspicion: Not one person in the room is under 60. There’s a lot of gray hair and glasses seated around the table.
The instructor is also a petite bespectacled grandmother named Maria. I learn that this group has been meeting for over 10 years.
“Benvenuta!” says Wilhelmine, a long-time course participant, recognizing a new face and smiling at me. I am particularly welcome because if I hadn’t joined the class, the minimum number of participants wouldn’t have been reached and it would have been canceled. A tall elderly gentleman named Hans smiles amicably at me from across the table. Somebody’s grandpa, I figure. Probably picked up a few words on vacation to Lake Garda over the years. Espresso, tiramisu, arriverderci. And vino rosso, spaghetti carbonara and mille grazie on his way out the door.
I ease into my seat in anticipation of a breezy 90 minutes. I’ll certainly have no problem keeping up with these doddering pensioners.
Except I have temporarily forgotten what country I’m in. These are not your run-of-the mill retirees. My mind has become temporarily clouded with images of pot-bellied octogenarians in rocking chairs waving canes at the young’uns, saying “Back in my day, we worked hard!” and “Mind your mama! The kids these days!”
I quickly come to my senses. These are scenes from The Waltons, not images of older Germans.
Grey hair or not, this is no rest home. This is Germany, where retirement is a long-anticipated opportunity to finally expand hobbies from just Saturday and Sunday to fill the entire week. Pensioners fill the trains on their way to the mountains to hike or cross-country ski, to take historic walking tours of the city or – to go to Italian class.
Maria, the teacher, shows me the novel they’ve been reading.
“E un libro per stranieri?” I ask tentatively. Hopefully. I anticipate a watered-down version of a book for foreigners whose Italian is not quite up to the level of Dante, Machiavelli or even Umberto Eco.
For people like me.
Maria looks at me, aghast.
“No! E un giallo originale!” comes the incensed retort. It’s an original crime novel!
I’m getting a little bit nervosa. I’m supposed to read a genuine Italian book?
I regret not rememorizing the 50-page booklet of vocabulary words that I have carefully compiled throughout the years. Not to mention the myriad of verb tenses with names like passato prossimo. And what was that strange verb tense they only use in literature – passato remoto?
It’s all feeling very remoto to me right now.
Within the first 10 minutes I ascertain that not only do Hans and Wilhelmine speak fluently, they have also read all kinds of other Italian novels – in the original.
“A si, we read that last time!” proclaims Wilhelmine when the teacher mentions another famous (to the others, that is) Italian novel. “Fantastico!”
We take turns reading around the room in a circle, and finally it’s my turn. I am at least able to draw on my grasp of the pronunciation to bluff my way through a paragraph. I even manage to linger on the double consonants like real Italians do:
“Peccato” (bummer) does not rhyme with “Mikado”. It’s PECCCC-ato.
Anno is ANNN-o meaning “year.” It is particularly important to pronounce this one correctly, because if you say ano with one “n” it means anus. This I know. You won’t catch me telling you I was in Rome last anus.
I feel like I should be drinking espresso and gesticulating vigorously while I read out loud. Maybe that will make up for the fact that despite my excellent pronunciation, I have no idea what I’m reading.
I make it through to the end of the class in one piece. Nobody has discovered that I have forgotten most of my past participles and irregular verbs. The subjunctive is a distant memory. I remember it’s kind of like Spanish – but then again – not. It’s just similar enough for me to understand, yet different enough to get me into trouble when I actually try to say something. This could basically be a description of the entire Italian language, so I’m kind of stuck.
I nimbly navigate through the 90 minutes without blowing my cover as a wannabe Italian-speaker flailing amongst fluent septuagenarians. Wilhelmine and Hans wave a friendly arriverderci to me as the class draws to a close. I gather my books and hurry to the door. Heading home, I am determined to relearn all my forgotten vocabulary by next week. Not to mention the subjunctive, past participles and irregular verbs.
The teacher asks me if I am going to buy the book. At least I think that’s what she said. Si, si, grazie! I reply with a nonchalant smile.
Whew. I made it through day one. No problemo.