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How do Italians say 'humble'?

June 27, 2004|Lisa Rosen | Special to The Times

In preparing for a trip to Tuscany last summer, I became an audio-language-lesson expert.

The first set of Italian CDs was too easy. An entire hour was spent on the exchange: "Hello. How are you? I am fine, thanks, and you? Fine."

The next set was too hard. One hello and they were off, leaving me many syllables behind.

The third was relatively easy to follow but wasted time on sentences I had no business learning. A long argument between a brother and a sister about borrowing money? How to send a registered letter?

A few lessons were so culturally incorrect as to be laughable: "I have to get to the restaurant at precisely 2 o'clock" and "The train has arrived early." What fresh Italy was this?

None of the tapes had bothered with "Where is the bathroom?" and that crucial follow-up: "I have no idea what you said. Could you just point?" Or the sentence several women had told me I must learn: "Please take your hand off my bottom."

But I kept slogging through the lessons, eventually consuming five sets accumulated from friends, stores and libraries.

I had learned what a handicap my lack of language skills was on a trip to China with my father in 1980. It was a time before many American tourists visited, and we stood out.

But once my father started speaking fluent Cantonese, we were surrounded. He had been a Foreign Service officer, stationed in Shanghai in the 1940s, and has an amazing facility with languages. But I do not.

One day as we searched for his old apartment, he asked directions from a person on the street. Within seconds, we were in the middle of a crowd of 50 or more, all of them leading us to our location.

It's the height of American arrogance to assume that everyone speaks English. Hardly any foreigner visiting our country would try the reverse. Generally speaking, if a foreigner here tries speaking English, poorly or with a strong accent, he or she will probably be dismissed as stupid -- and spoken to VERY LOUDLY. But if Americans try to speak the language of the country they are visiting, they will usually be praised effusively.

Polite phrases

Since that China trip, in an effort to not be such an Ugly American, I try to learn at least basic polite exchanges. It's led to some of my favorite travel memories, sometimes even before the trip begins.

Before traveling to Indonesia several years ago, I took a friend's suggestion and wrote in Indonesian the words for everyday phrases and objects on index cards, putting them all over my apartment: "Let's go for a walk" by the front door. "Vegetables" in the fridge.

By the time I left, I had 100 words under my belt, and using them conjured up images of my fridge, kitchen table or phone.

I learned enough Arabic before a bike trip in Morocco to try the art of bargaining in the open markets -- and to get ripped off a couple of times. I prayed aloud for help while biking up a huge hill and made it to the top without stopping. I'm convinced the prayers helped. I knew enough to understand when a friend was being offered livestock for her hand in marriage and to graciously refuse on her behalf.

A visit to Spain with two friends gave me a chance to dust off my high school Spanish. So what if I ordered cheese sandwiches every day for lunch, making chopping motions to signify that I wanted sliced tomato on top; at least I did it en espanol.

But at night, sitting in a plaza in Madrid, surrounded by thousands talking the night away, I ached to know more. Simply being Not Ugly is not enough: I want to be the Charming American who can communicate completely. But my puny knowledge stops me short.

I have to accept that in 10 days I am not going to become fluent or anything close to it, that my feeble attempts at conversation are going to be heartily laughed at in Tuscany.

But I'll keep trying anyway, because, after all, laughter is a kind of diplomacy too. I'll have nothing to lose but my ego. Which leaves me with one more lesson -- in humility.

And hey, who doesn't love a Humble American?

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