I want to cross a small lake. It really is small, and yet the other shore seems too far away, beyond my abilities. I’m aware that the lake is very deep in the middle, and even though I know how to swim I’m afraid of being alone in the water, without any support.
The lake I’m talking about is in a secluded, isolated place. To get there you have to walk a short distance, through a silent wood. On the other side you can see a cottage, the only house on the shore. The lake was formed just after the last ice age, millennia ago. The water is clear but dark, heavier than salt water, with no current. Once you’re in, a few yards from the shore, you can no longer see the bottom.
In the morning I observe people coming to the lake, as I do. I watch them cross it in a confident, relaxed manner, stop for some minutes in front of the cottage, then return. I count their arm strokes. I envy them.
For a month I swim around the lake, never going too far out. This is a more significant distance—the circumference compared to the diameter. It takes me more than half an hour to make this circle. Yet I’m always close to the shore. I can stop, I can stand up if I’m tired. It’s good exercise, but not very exciting.
Then one morning, near the end of the summer, I meet two friends at the lake. I’ve decided to make the crossing with them, to finally get to the cottage on the other side. I’m tired of just going along the edge.
I count the strokes. I know that my companions are in the water with me, but I know that each of us is alone. After about a hundred and fifty strokes I’m in the middle, the deepest part. I keep going. After a hundred more I see the bottom again.
I arrive on the other side: I’ve made it with no trouble. I see the cottage, until now distant, just steps from me. I see the small, faraway silhouettes of my husband, my children. They seem unreachable, but I know they’re not. After a crossing, the known shore becomes the opposite side: here becomes there. Charged with energy, I cross the lake again. I’m elated.
For twenty years I studied Italian as if I were swimming along the edge of that lake. Always next to my dominant language, English. Always hugging that shore. It was good exercise. Beneficial for the muscles, for the brain, but not very exciting. If you study a foreign language that way, you won’t drown. The other language is always there to support you, to save you. But you can’t float without the possibility of drowning, of sinking. To know a new language, to immerse yourself, you have to leave the shore. Without a life vest. Without depending on solid ground.
A few weeks after crossing the small hidden lake, I make a second crossing, much longer but not at all difficult. It will be the first true departure of my life. On a ship this time, I cross the Atlantic Ocean, to live in Italy.
The first Italian book I buy is a pocket dictionary, with the definitions in English. It’s 1994, and I’m about to go to Florence for the first time, with my sister. I go to a bookshop in Boston with an Italian name: Rizzoli. A stylish, refined bookshop, which is no longer there.
I don’t buy a guidebook, even though it’s my first trip to Italy, even though I know nothing about Florence. Thanks to a friend of mine, I already have the address of a hotel. I’m a student, I don’t have much money. I think a dictionary is more important.
The one I choose has a green plastic cover, indestructible, impermeable. It’s light, smaller than my hand. It has more or less the dimensions of a bar of soap. The back cover says that it contains around forty thousand Italian words.
As we’re wandering through the Uffizi, amid galleries that are almost deserted, my sister realizes that she’s lost her hat. I open the dictionary. I go to the English-Italian part, to find out how to say “hat” in Italian. In some way, certainly incorrect, I tell a guard that we’ve lost a hat. Miraculously, he understands what I’m saying, and in a short time the hat is recovered.
Every time I’ve been to Italy in the many years since, I’ve brought this dictionary with me. I always put it in my purse. I look up words when I’m in the street, when I return to the hotel after an outing, when I try to read an article in the newspaper. It guides me, protects me, explains everything.
It becomes both a map and a compass, and without it I know I’d be lost. It becomes a kind of authoritative parent, without whom I can’t go out. I consider it a sacred text, full of secrets, of revelations.
On the first page, at a certain point, I write: “provare a = cercare di” (try to = seek to).
That random fragment, that lexical equation, might be a metaphor for the love I feel for Italian. Something that, in the end, is really a stubborn attempt, a continuous trial.
Nearly twenty years after buying my first dictionary, I decide to move to Rome for an extended stay. Before leaving, I ask a friend of mine, who lived in Rome for many years, if an electronic Italian dictionary, like a cell phone app, would be useful, for looking up a word at any moment.
He laughs. He says, “Soon you’ll be living inside an Italian dictionary.”
He’s right. Slowly, after a couple of months in Rome, I realize that I don’t check the dictionary so often. When I go out, it tends to stay in my purse, closed. As a result I start leaving it at home. I’m aware of a turning point. A sense of freedom and, at the same time, of loss. Of having grown up, at least a little.
Today I have many other larger, more substantial dictionaries on my desk. Two of them are monolingual, without a word of English. The cover of the small one seems a little faded by now, a little dirty. The pages are yellowed. Some are coming loose from the binding.
It usually sits on the night table, so that I can easily look up an unknown word while I’m reading. This book allows me to read other books, to open the door of a new language. It accompanies me, even now, when I go on vacation, on trips. It has become a necessity. If, when I leave, I forget to take it with me, I feel slightly uneasy, as if I’d forgotten my toothbrush or a change of socks.
By now this small dictionary seems more like a brother than like a parent. And yet it’s still useful to me, it still guides me. It remains full of secrets. This little book will always be bigger than I am.
LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT
In 1994, my sister and I decide to give ourselves a trip to Italy as a present, and we choose Florence. I’m in Boston, studying Renaissance architecture: Brunelleschi’s Pazzi Chapel, the Laurentian Library of Michelangelo. We arrive in Florence at dusk, a few days before Christmas. My first walk is in the dark. I’m in an intimate, sober, joyful place. Shops decorated for the season. Narrow, crowded streets, some more like corridors than like streets. There are tourists like my sister and me, but not many. I see the people who have lived here forever. They walk quickly, indifferent to the buildings. They cross the squares without stopping.
I’ve come for a week, to see the buildings, to admire the squares, the churches. But from the start my relationship with Italy is as auditory as it is visual. Although there aren’t many cars, the city is humming. I’m aware of a sound that I like, of conversations, phrases, words that I hear wherever I go. As if the whole city were a theater in which a slightly restless audience is chatting before the show begins.
I hear the excitement of children wishing each other buon Natale—merry Christmas—on the street. I hear the tenderness with which, one morning at the hotel, the woman who cleans the room asks me: Avete dormito bene? Did you sleep well? When a man behind me on the sidewalk wants to pass, I hear the slight impatience with which he asks: Permesso? May I?
I can’t answer. I’m not able to have a dialogue. I listen. What I hear, in the shops, in the restaurants, arouses an instantaneous, intense, paradoxical reaction. It’s as if Italian were already inside me and, at the same time, completely external. It doesn’t seem like a foreign language, although I know it is. It seems strangely familiar. I recognize something, in spite of the fact that I understand almost nothing.
What do I recognize? It’s beautiful, certainly, but beauty doesn’t enter into it. It seems like a language with which I have to have a relationship. It’s like a person met one day by chance, with whom I immediately feel a connection, of whom I feel fond. As if I had known it for years, even though there is still everything to discover. I would be unsatisfied, incomplete, if I didn’t learn it. I realize that there is a space inside me to welcome it.
I feel a connection and at the same time a detachment. A closeness and at the same time a distance. What I feel is something physical, inexplicable. It stirs an indiscreet, absurd longing. An exquisite tension. Love at first sight.
I spend the week in Florence very near Dante’s house. One day, I visit the small church of Santa Margherita dei Cerchi, where Beatrice’s tomb is. The beloved, the poet’s inspiration, forever unattainable. An unfulfilled love marked by distance, by silence.
I don’t have a real need to know this language. I don’t live in Italy, I don’t have Italian friends. I have only the desire. Yet ultimately a desire is nothing but a crazy need. As in many passionate relationships, my infatuation will become a devotion, an obsession. There will always be something unbalanced, unrequited. I’m in love, but what I love remains indifferent. The language will never need me.
At the end of the week, having seen many palazzi, many frescoes, I return to America. I bring with me postcards, little gifts, souvenirs of the trip. And yet the clearest, most vivid memory is something immaterial. When I think of Italy, I hear certain words again, certain phrases. I miss them. And missing them pushes me, slowly, to learn the language. I am impelled by desire and, at the same time, hesitant, timid. I ask of Italian, with a slight impatience: Permesso? May I?
My relationship with Italian takes place in exile, in a state of separation.
Every language belongs to a specific place. It can migrate, it can spread. But usually it’s tied to a geographical territory, a country. Italian belongs mainly to Italy, and I live on another continent, where one does not readily encounter it.
I think of Dante, who waited nine years before speaking to Beatrice. I think of Ovid, exiled from Rome to a remote place. To a linguistic outpost, surrounded by alien sounds.
I think of my mother, who writes poems in Bengali, in America. Almost fifty years after moving there, she can’t find a book written in her language.
In a sense I’m used to a kind of linguistic exile. My mother tongue, Bengali, is foreign in America. When you live in a country where your own language is considered foreign, you can feel a continuous sense of estrangement. You speak a secret, unknown language, lacking any correspondence to the environment. An absence that creates a distance within you.
In my case there is another distance, another schism. I don’t know Bengali perfectly. I don’t know how to read it, or even write it. I have an accent, I speak without authority, and so I’ve always perceived a disjunction between it and me. As a result I consider my mother tongue, paradoxically, a foreign language, too.
As for Italian, the exile has a different aspect. Almost as soon as we met, Italian and I were separated. My yearning seems foolish. And yet I feel it.
How is it possible to feel exiled from a language that isn’t mine? That I don’t know? Maybe because I’m a writer who doesn’t belong
How is it possible to feel exiled from a language that isn’t mine? That I don’t know? Maybe because I’m a writer who doesn’t belong completely to any language.
I buy a book. It’s called Teach Yourself Italian. An exhortatory title, full of hope and possibility. As if it were possible to learn on your own.
Having studied Latin for many years, I find the first chapters of this textbook fairly easy. I manage to memorize some conjugations, do some exercises. But I don’t like the silence, the isolation of the self-teaching process. It seems detached, wrong. As if I were studying a musical instrument without ever playing it.
At the university, I decide to write my doctoral thesis on how Italian architecture influenced English playwrights of the seventeenth century. I wonder why certain playwrights decided to set their tragedies, written in English, in Italian palaces. The thesis will discuss another schism between language and environment. The subject gives me a second reason to study Italian.
I attend elementary courses. My first teacher is a Milanese woman who lives in Boston. I do the homework, I pass the tests. But when, after two years of studying, I try to read Alberto Moravia’s novel La ciociara (Two Women), I barely understand it. I underline almost every word on every page. I am constantly looking in the dictionary.
In the spring of 2000, six years after my trip to Florence, I go to Venice. In addition to the dictionary, I take a notebook, and on the last page I write down phrases that might be useful: Saprebbe dirmi? Dove si trova? Come si fa per andare? Could you tell me? Where is? How does one get to? I recall the difference between buono and bello. I feel prepared. In reality, in Venice I’m barely able to ask for directions on the street, a wake-up call at the hotel. I manage to order in a restaurant and exchange a few words with a saleswoman. Nothing else. Even though I’ve returned to Italy, I still feel exiled from the language.