Thursday, September 10, 2009

Language for Real Life

Have you ever taken one of those “get your feet wet” foreign language courses? I’m not talking about the ones with the rather off-putting designations, French 101, Spanish 202. No, the courses I’m thinking of have welcoming titles like “Parliamo l’Italiano !” (exclamation point obligatory) and “ Toujours France!” After one session you come away with the basics for rudimentary conversation: “How are you ?”, “I’ve been better” and “The pen of my Aunt is on the table.” Armed with these sentences, you feel that fluency is within your grasp. Now I have serious issues with this approach. It lulls one into a false sense of competence. Only heartbreak can ensue once you travel abroad and encounter complex life situations. Just like home, people will answer you according to their whim, not according to your script.

To correct this shortcoming, I bring you the This Ain’t No Marshmallow Italian Language School. The school motto will be: “Life is tough and so is the subjunctive tense” which I’m hoping to incorporate into a school song. How will the classes be taught ? Well, there will be a series of practical exams based on real-life situations. No sense living in the clouds watching one’s Aunt’s pen floating by while you blithely discuss the weather. This is Real Life. Naturally these exams will be derived from our own experiences here in Bologna:

1. Purchase a cell phone and calling plan. This was a tricky one. I don’t understand the basics of phone plans in any language so even if my salesman had spoken to me in English it wouldn’t have helped much. We went into the Vodaphone Store on Ugo Basso near Piazza Maggiore, after a meal at McDonald’s (yielding to pressure from Boris). I explained that we needed the phone for three months and wanted the cheapest one I could get. Resigned to the fact that he would not be able to sell me a Blackberry, the salesman sold me the bottom-of-the-line. So far so good. Then I had to buy what is called a “SIM card,” a tiny metal card that goes into the phone. I think I bought 20 Euros of minutes but the price of those minutes would seem to range between 20 cents and 2 dollars depending on where you are calling. Wouldn’t it have been great if we’d been given a price list of countries and charges per minute ? Well, that didn’t happen. Still, if I’m not mistaken, we can make unlimited calls to Croatia.

2. Answer an ad for a used child’s bike for sale. Tell the seller that you don’t actually want to buy the bike but would like to rent it for three months for half the selling price. You agree to return the bike to the seller at the end of that period. Explain to the seller that this is a really great deal for him because he can sell the bike and also pocket a rental payment. OK—I had a little help with this because Giuseppe, our landlord’s son, sent me a link to an online ad. When I called, the seller was actually amenable to this arrangement. The hard part was getting there and figuring out how to transport the bike. He told me that he was located on Via Bentivoglio. We took a bus to il centro and a taxi from there. Once we got there, we could not find the right apartment building. Good thing I’d completed exam question #1 and had my telefonino with me. When I called the seller I found out that we’d made the ridiculous mistake of confusing Via Bentivoglio with Via Bentivogli ! I'll bet this mixup never happens ! Oh, and it was Giuseppe Bentivogli—not the other Bentivogli. By this time our taxi had left but I phoned for another using the business card our driver had given to us. And here’s an amazing thing—the SAME taxi driver came back for us ! In all my 51 years on earth I have never once had a Taxi Driver Repeat, and Bologna is quite large (population 400,000), so I really do think that this was an amazing coincidence. So, there we were, driving through beautiful arcaded streets toward our quarry. When we finally reached the correct address, Alessandro, the seller, was waiting for us. The bike was perfetto. We called yet another taxi, this time requesting one large enough to transport the bike back to our apartment. Right now Boris and Bill are at the park putting the bike (la bici) through its paces while I enjoy some peace and quiet. We spent $30 on the bike and $45 on cabs. But the story ? Priceless.


beverly- said...

Oh this is so wonderful to read and I am even picking up a little Italian doing so! It all sounds just glorious, even the funky phone and $45 cab fare! A very buon giorno from your very frustrated to be Stateside friend.

Bella Stander said...

I hate the subjunctive, but I've gotten good at wiggling out of it--in French, anyway. I only learned present & future in Italian, so everything I say sounds up-to-date & forward-looking.

You'd better learn the first name of the namesake of Via Bentivoglio, to avoid further (expensive) mix-ups. I hope Boris is enjoying his bici.

Stefania Impasta said...

Well, I think a street mixup like that is something you do once and then become so careful it's beyond reason. I guess if I ever get to Paris I'll be asking "Which Champs Elysee ?"

Vritchie said...

Glad you are happily ensconced in Bologna and ... finding your way around?? Here's how you find out how much your calls are costing: go to; click on "piani e promozioni"; click on "Vodafone basic"; click on "tariffe internazionali". I love reading your posts - Grazie Mille!

Stefania Impasta said...

Although the phone we got was cheaper than anything I saw on line, if I had it to do over I'd probably use telocity because the phone plans are so clearly described.

Stefania Impasta said...

Thanks Bev. Seems like one day we were sitting on your deck discussing this trip and then all of a sudden we're here !