The first thing I learned today: I can hold a 30-minute conversation with the Italian tow truck driver in whose cab I was sitting after he picked up me and our Hertz rental car to return it to the agency office in Orvieto.
The second thing I learned today: I could not keep up with the heated discussion in Italian that my wife had with the Hertz office agent about who would have to pay for the tow.
Now, I had been working doggedly at improving my Italian language skills in preparation for our three-month stay in the country. But that preparation had largely been frustrated by, first, a foot injury (un tallone infiammato) that in late May kept me a virtual prisoner of our Rome apartment (the apartment did have a magnificent view from its terrace of the dome of St. Peter’s) and, subsequent to that physical setback, the fact that my wife is completely fluent in Italian. The predictable result was that she had taken the lead in virtually every exchange with Italians. To that, add in the otherwise lovely visit of two of our English speaking friends from Germany. The result was that I could literally feel my verbal language skills deteriorating while I was actually in the country. The only Italian I seemed able to converse with was from newspapers, which became my friends in my lonely refuge, boosting my reading skills but still leaving me largely tongue-tied.
So, it was somewhat of a mixed blessing when one of our rental car’s tires flattened after we had moved on to Orvieto. The tow truck driver, a Roman who had moved to this tranquil Umbrian hill town with this family of four children for work, was eager to talk, and I was eager to talk back. We covered a lot of ground in the half-hour waiting for the rental office to open. It wasn’t alway perfect, but the words and topics flowed: my career as a journalist, his business and young family, the pros and cons of living in Italy versus living in New York, the cons of Donald Trump. My good fortune was that he spoke no English. I was forced to think and listen in Italian, to remember the right tenses in the conversation, to translate my ideas on the spot.
It had me thinking again of the American writer Jhumpa Lahiri, who has written poetically of her 20-odd-year struggle to achieve Italian language fluency in the book “In Altre Parole” (In Other Words). As an adult, you can study all you want, but the foreign language seems to break down pretty quickly in the heat of actual free-flowing conversation. It took Lahiri the better part of three years of living in Italy, with constant language study included, and her dogged avoidance of all things English language, to become relatively fluent in that beautiful tongue.
But for me, today, the awe inspiring language skills of my wife, which are not limited to Italian, took center stage. And it left me thankful that she had taken the lead. The sordid details of the local Hertz agency’s lack of proper response to the problem–which we had brought to their attention the day after we picked up the car–are better left for the eventual exchange we will have with the corporation. But the rapid fire, heated exchange between the Hertz agent and my wife over responsibility for the towing charge left me realizing exactly how far I would need to go to get my message across in Italian. There were moments when both women were talking, fortissimo, at the same time and, I guess, understanding what the other was saying. Impressive!
We eventually left the Hertz office with the towing charge issue unresolved, but with a new car, which was cleaned after we returned the dirty car I had been given as the initial replacement earlier in the morning. In departing, I did manage to thank the guy who had cleaned the new car and given me some pointers on its particulars. Then, as we drove toward the Tuscan coastline for our planned day at the beach, I was left to hear from my wife, in English and in detail, just what that argument in the office had been all about.