Love for Language
Guest Post by Cocoa Laney
Firstly, an introduction: my name is Cocoa and I’m an Alabama-born twentysomething who has been living in Italy and the UK since 2016. After completing my masters earlier this year, I came back to the US for what I believed would be a short visit while working a seasonal job at a photography workshop and applying for an Irish working holiday visa. However, as we all know, March of 2020 took a turn for the weird so I am now quarantined in Alabama with no clear return date to the UK insight. To say this is a shock to the system would be a slight understatement. However, living with my parents for the first time since adolescence has sparked a lot of reflection, specifically at the beginning of my time living outside of the United States.
Prior to moving to Italy, I made a living as a freelance portrait photographer while completing my undergraduate degree. The original plan was to continue to work commercially and photograph kids and families for the rest of eternity, but during my senior year, I realized that a lifetime of taking Christmas card photos was perhaps not as appealing as I previously believed it to be. Naturally, I panicked and made an extremely logical decision to move to Italy and continue my studies. It sounded like a good idea at the time (and it was — just maybe not in the way that I anticipated). As the news of my departure began to spread, I tended to receive one of two comments in addition to the standard “how exciting!”. The first one is as follows: “Don’t worry about the language, you’ll pick it up in no time!” The second: “You’ll meet a nice Italian man and never come back!” With nearly four years of distance, I can safely say that both of these statements could not have been farther from the truth. In terms of the language, I stumbled through my first few months of school in Florence with barely a handful of functional phrases in my vocabulary (two of them having to do with coffee and wine, naturally). Thanks to months of falling asleep to learn-Italian-in-your-car CDs, I was able to speak clearly enough that Italians outside of Florence assumed I knew more than I did, although they realized their error upon seeing the look of sheer panic on my face as they responded to me. The Florentines, however, saw through my ruse in no time and always replied to my questions in crystal clear English. This made it even more difficult for me to learn, but in defense of the Florentines, it also made or ordering lunch a lot easier for both of us. As for the meeting that nice Italian man, I had a feeling that this prophecy would not come to fruition. Rather than the overconfident Latin lover, my taste in men has always skewed more towards the sensitive bespectacled type who your friends still suspect to be gay. I’m not into charm or suaveness, I’m not into grand gestures, I don’t like being pursued, and I am sure as hell not going to mother the person I’m sleeping with. This, as you can imagine, meant my interactions with most Italian males did not go smoothly. Admittedly, my ideas about Italian men initially came more from stereotypes than experience. Allie’s husband Elia does not fit this stereotype, nor do many other of the Italian friends I made over the course of my two years there. Still, I also racked up enough negative experiences with Italian men to enforce my own biases. Four months into life in Florence, when it became clear that I would not, in fact, learn Italian through osmosis, I went to a professor at my school (fondly known as my Italian fairy godmother) to ask for help. During the same appointment, she picked up the phone and called an ex-student of hers to see if he’d be able to tutor me at a reduced rate. Surprisingly, this mystery student agreed, and I found myself with a coffee-and-Italian arrangement every weekday at 8 AM.
For the sake of Italian-ness, we’ll call this ex-student Andrea. Tall and clearly bookish, there was a professorial air to him despite him being just a year older than me. He had a penchant for button-ups, knew where to get the best coffee and gelato in town, and rolled his Rs in a way that felt sounded impossibly fancy. It wasn’t surprising that he had a full scholarship for his doctorate in Italian literature at a prestigious American university and was set to begin the following July. It was surprising, however, that Andrea was also American. We hit it off immediately. Between worksheets and homework and general conversation, I found that I was not only becoming less shy about speaking Italian, but I was also increasingly able to express my thoughts beyond “vorrei un cappuccino, grazie”. Until this point, I had never attempted to hold a conversation with anyone other than the grocer at Conad and my favorite barista, and I found that Andrea was especially easy to talk to. Because he was American and had once been in my place, I didn’t feel the sense of shame that so often arose when I found myself butchering a sentence with an actual born-and-bred Italian. He also was living proof that, if I wanted to learn a second language as an adult, it was absolutely possible. He had done the same. In small but noticeable steps, I found myself able to participate in daily Italian life in a way that had previously felt inaccessible. I still hold tight to my theory that, especially in the early stages of learning a foreign language, you are a different person when speaking it. In a sense, you are distilled to your essence because, with fewer words in your arsenal, you are forced to carve your personality using a very limited vocabulary. At the same time, observing my progress in Italian felt like discovering a previously hidden side of myself. Words that don’t translate, gestures, idioms… I eventually stopped mentally translating from English to Italian and slipped into a different rhythm of speaking that felt distinctly new. Instead of focusing on the many things I didn’t know how to say, I was able to stay motivated out of curiosity towards this novel and strange person I became in conversations with Andrea.
Nearly a year passed before Andrea had to return to the US to prepare for his doctorate. During that time, he assigned me to read my first two novels in Italian (La Ragazza di Bube by Cassola and Le Cosmicomche by Calvino). Beyond this, at the age of 22, I found myself genuinely connecting with another person using a foreign language. Outside of our student/teacher relationship, Andrea and I got along well as people, and I genuinely enjoyed learning about his life and travels and dreams. We shared a good deal in common, and although his Italian made me sound like an inebriated kindergartener in comparison, it was months before I we heard each other speak English for the first time. This was the only person in the entire world that truly knew this new Italian version of me. This was the only one who truly understood the person I became in Italian, my determination to learn the language, my passion for it. It felt very exciting and, oddly, very intimate. Thus, as Andrea’s departure date approached, I found myself increasingly confused about my emotions towards him. Absence does have a way of making people evaluate their feelings towards others, or it least it has that effect on me. Shockingly, I came to the realization that my feelings towards Andrea were not just platonic. Now, I’m sure you’re beginning to guess where all of this is going, so this is the point where I must disappoint you. No, Andrea and I did not fall madly in love. We did not complete our masters to become nerdy expatriate academics together. We said goodbye that July and have only seen each other in person once since then. Why is this? Why didn’t I confess my undying love to him or serenade him in a piazza like any good Italian-set rom-com would have me believe is a good idea? The answer was simple: during the entirety of our friendship, he had a serious girlfriend back in the USA. It was something I tried to always stay aware of so as not to overstep boundaries, and he was never anything but perfectly appropriate in his interactions with me. I’ve since realized that my silent crush on Andrea was a way to feel all of that old fashioned Italian emotion without actually setting myself up to be vulnerable. That’s not to say it didn’t hurt — trust me, it did— but at least if my emotions were destined to stay bottled up inside me, there was no chance of me getting hurt as well. For this reason, Andrea was the first in a cycle of crushes on taken men that repeated itself several times over the course of my life in Florence. After Andrea left, I found a new Italian teacher named Valentina. Yes, that is her real name and I am more than happy to recommend her as an excellent teacher to any foreigners living in Florence. I didn’t expect to connect with her on the level that I did with Andrea, but as our meetings became a crucial part of my daily routine, we struck up a friendship that has endured despite me not being her student for nearly two years now. Several months in, there was even a lesson that devolved into me explaining the entirety of the Andrea story (as she stopped me to correct my congiuntivo or vocabulary, naturally). She was the second but certainly not the last person to come to know me solely in Italian, and she proved to me that I could build on what I felt with Andrea in other friendships and relationships, even platonic ones.
Sometimes I wonder if I confused my love for Andrea with a love for language; after all, my daily coffee with him came to represent the things I loved most about speaking Italian. I’ve long since moved on from that crush, but my enthusiasm towards the language still endures years after having said goodbye to Florence. Yes, I’m far rustier than I was when I lived there. This is only natural. However, I’ve maintained most of what I learned through books, Netflix, video calls, and a slightly worrying obsession with the music of Carmen Consoli (whose concert is the only thing I’d ever hitchhike for — but that’s another story for another time). I’m not sure if I’ll ever live in Italy again, so the Italian language isn’t exactly a useful passion. Still, I learned a lot through trial and error and hours upon hours of lessons. I certainly didn’t find a husband, but through the process of learning Italian, I did find a way to connect with others in a new and challenging way (as well as gaining access to a whole new realm of literature and, well, memes). My progress in Italian one of my most proud accomplishments, even though I still sound like an inebriated kindergartener in comparison to Andrea.