Thursday, October 29, 2009

Everybody Parliamo !

Today was a beautiful autumn day here in Bologna and so, a perfect day for a public debate in Piazza Maggiore. At about 2:00 I passed by a small cluster of perhaps ten people. One of them, the one speaking, was standing on a little plastic footstool. I didn’t stick around but went on a walk into a part of town I had neglected until now. When I circled back to Piazza Maggiore about an hour-and-a-half later, the crowd had grown to about a hundred. They had formed an ellipse in front of the Neptune fountain. This time I stuck around to get the gist of the argument. It had to do with whether Silvio Berlusconi should stay or go as Prime Minister in light of the corruption charges against him as well as accusations of sex with a minor. He has been quoted as saying, “I’m not a saint.” No kidding.

Anyway, the debate at the fountain concerned these issues. What was interesting to me was the way that whoever had the floor was custodian of the footstool. Whoever wished to hold forth would stand on it. Although only a foot off the ground, it was enough to give the speaker sufficient authority to say his or her piece. Two men who were among the crowd had some energetic exchanges but it never got personal . They were on either side of the space where the group had formed. When one was done making his point he would disembark from the stool, walk about fifteen feet across the space and hand it to the man whose views he had just been criticizing. Then the other fellow would mount the stool, talk about how totally wrong-headed the first guy was, get off the stool and walk back across the no-man’s –land to hand the stool back. This went on for quite some time. Their exchanges were very civil. I was fascinated by the ritualistic aspect of it--it was very Lord of the Flies (with a stool instead of a conch shell). I wondered if it would occur to either of them that it would be more efficient for them to stand side-by-side and just shorten the distance between them by about a million percent, but apprently it didn't. Anyway, the space between them and the ensuing Walk With Stool resulted in a dramatic pause between the airings of their two opposing views. Efficiency clearly isn’t everything.

My own efforts at communication in Italian class are starting to yield results but it has not been easy. As I mentioned in a previous post, the rooms are like echo chambers so I really have to work to hear what everyone is saying. The other day in class we saw a riveting video about three people waiting for a train. I won’t go into detail, but in about three minutes we learn things about the characters that are not apparent at first glance. The problem was I couldn’t understand anything anyone was saying. When I asked my teacher whether the old man in the film (avuncular and yet a pick-pocket) was speaking in a dialect she said, “No. He’s just not opening his mouth.” So, we have this film made specifically for foreigners learning Italian and they choose actors who don’t open their mouths. Very frustrating. Perhaps our next film will feature speakers without tongues. After our first viewing we watched it again with Italian subtitles. Maybe this would be helpful, I thought. Not exactly. Because the actors were speaking so fast the subtitles flashed on the screen so quickly I could barely read five words before one subtitle vanished and the next appeared. They functioned not so much as subtitles but more like a memory test in which cards with various unrelated words are placed in front of you for a milisecond as you try to remember as many as you can. That was really a low point I can tell you.

Happily I’m starting to hear the language better. I know this because I am getting more out of eavesdropping on the bus than I used to. Although I haven’t heard anything exciting it’s nice to know that all over the world people are looking for better apartments or agonizing over the perfect gift for their sisters-in-law.


Bella Stander said...

"Beautiful fall day in Bologna..." I'm sighing with envy. We had 20 inches of snow in Denver on Oct 28 & 29. My dream of a White Halloween has come true.

Scout Newspaper Staff said...

I wish I had known about the stool concept when I was a child and my extended Italian/American family gathered for holiday dinners. The rule of etiquette then was anyone sitting in a chair was allowed to talk no matter how many others sitting in chairs were also talking at the same time.

Stefania Impasta said...

The weather here is fairly changeable, but not to the extent of Denver. It rains but then clears. I have to say we have gotten a chance to test Bologna's porticoes this month and they work quite well. Once you get into the city proper you rarely need an umbrella.

Stefania Impasta said...

Also interesting about the assembled crowd was how quiet and attentive everyone was. Apparently the stool works on total strangers.