On Saturday I returned to Paris after my week in Sicily.
I thought I would avoid the frustration of waiting up to 25 minutes for an airport bus by walking to Catania airport, which should be not much more than an hour from the city on foot. However Google Maps failed me and I found myself outside a remote and sleepy corner of the airport far from Departures, even though I had selected the ‘Departures’ option it had given me.
Luckily there was some passing traffic and I was able to attract the attention of a kind local, who drove me to Departures in good time for the boarding call.
During that moment of panic, I found myself speaking what seemed fluent Italian, to explain my situation to my new best friend and express my gratitude to him for saving me from missing my flight.
He appeared to understand exactly what I was saying, as did others I’d had dealings with in Italian during my time in Sicily. When I arrived at the airport at the beginning of the week, the bus ticket vendor I approached for my ticket to Ragusa pointed to another booth that was not attended.
Non c’e nessuno! was my spontaneous reaction to him (there’s nobody there).
I was proud of the language skill I did not realise I had. Like most Australians with a tenuous grip on a foreign language, I usually construct my thoughts in English before translating them into the other language.
It reminded me of my long history with the Italian language. In Year 9 at school, Father Ferruccio Romanin offered lunchtime Italian classes. I think he was the one who planted non c’e nessuno in my unconscious, where it has remained for more than 40 years.
He gave me a good grasp of the basics, which I was able to build on later when I did a year’s Italian language at university and then a crash course much later when I went to work for the Jesuit Refugee Service in Rome at the beginning of 1997.
However despite all the effort, I never grasped the language in any serious sense. My Italian was regarded - affectionately - as a joke among my work colleagues and my fellow volunteers at the refugee hospitality centre. My tendency to translate Australian and other English idioms literally would both baffle and amuse them.
Now, in Paris, I find myself having to suppress the tendency for Italian words and phrases to come up like weeds and strangle my attempts to respond to people in French.
Almost daily, the receptionist at the gym will greet me with ‘Ça va?’ (How’s it going?) I will either utter the Italian response ‘Bene grazie’, or spend all my mental energy trying to suppress it and not be able to find the words to respond in French.
Recently I have started to comfort myself with the existentialist thought that my grasp of language, and limited ability to acquire new language skills at my age, is what it is. In other words, it’s part of my character and personality as an Australian with good English skills venturing outside my linguistic comfort zone to explore life in foreign cultures.