Overcoming Linguistic Limitations

Overcoming Language Limitations

My husband’s strategy for communicating in a place where he doesn’t speak the local language is to use similar words from a language he does know delivered with a local accent. The craziest part of this approach is that, in Venice, where we are now, while not efficient, it’s proving effective.

If you don’t like hanging out with tourists, avoid Venice in July. Lief and I don’t enjoy life among the hordes, but here we are amidst them. Our travel schedules are dictated, more than anything else, by our son’s school calendar. Jack’s school year ended June 28; we departed Panama 10 days later.

Thus we find ourselves on Europe’s Mediterranean coast mid-peak season. The sun is strong, and midday temperatures are high. Prices are high, too, this time of year in this coastal region. But we’re not letting the heat or the inflated cost of everything bother us. Instead, we’re trying hard to make our own way, separate from the boat loads of other summer travelers we’re encountering everywhere.

Lief didn’t have time to visit the barber before leaving Panama City, so, our first day in Venice, he decided he’d like to have his hair cut.

The proprietress of the shop where I stopped to buy a pair of hand-stamped sconce shades (to use in the house we’re building at Los Islotes) apologized again and again, in Italian, for speaking no English. No, it’s we who should apologize, we responded, for speaking no Italian. She smiled then, as she showed us how she stamped each design on to each shade, section by section. The shades I chose share a pattern from a room in Venice’s Doge’s Palace. The lady showed me photos of the original design in a book from her shelf, then covered my shades in tissue paper for me.

Encouraged by the lady’s helpful manner, Lief decided to inquire about his haircut. As the lady wrapped my purchase, Lief spoke up in Spanish, “Donde puedo cortar?“…delivered with his best Italian accent and a motion in the direction of the top of his head.

“Ah!” she replied enthusiastically. “SiSi!” She knew a place where Lief could go to be coiffed.

The lady grabbed Lief by the shoulder and spun him around to face the stone wall of her small shop. On the flat stone, she drew, with her forefinger, the route from her shop to the barber, a few blocks away. When she’d finished outlining the route, she cried out, “Ya!” and smacked the stone hard with her open palm, as if to say, “There you have it…piece of cake!”

Then she escorted us to the door and pointed us in the direction we should head. We found the barber with no problem, and Lief got the most expensive haircut of his life.

The friendly shopkeeper spoke only Italian. Elsewhere this trip, though, we have been humbled, as we always are traveling in this part of the world, by folks we’ve met, from wait staff to fellow restaurant diners, who switch effortlessly among three or four or more languages.

Lief and I both have spent the better parts of our lives in places where the locals don’t speak English. We should be more linguistically competent than we are. Lief speaks Spanish well enough, and I can get by in French, but that’s the extent of our language CVs. This month, starting here in Italy, we’re going to be reminded every day just how limited are our communication skills.

Thus Lief’s strategy. Here in Venice his Spanish takes on an Italian flair. The result has me giggling, but it’s getting us through the day (and Lief a new hairdo).

Kathleen Peddicord

P.S. When we were in Venice last, two summers ago with the kids, the outside of the Basilica di San Marco was covered with scaffolding. Now the work is mostly complete, and the frescos that adorn the facade of this city’s most famous church are again brightly, brilliantly, boldly restored and colorfully alive. The stone, too, of the church’s outside walls, and of each of its columns, glints fresh in the summertime sun.

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