September 21, 2023 | Rome, Italy

The thrill is gone

By |2018-03-21T19:06:08+01:00May 31st, 2015|First Person|
Claudia Cardinale: Italian personified.

talian is widely regarded as a beautiful language, if not the most beautiful language. It may not be commonly spoken, or useful, or even taught in schools, but it’s hands down romantic. Yes, Italian is the reigning queen, if not the king, of romance languages. If Italian were personified, I imagine it as a curvy, lush Claudia Cardinale-esque stunner with a tiara.

Conversations with people from all over the globe suggest universal agreement on a few basic language facts:

Chinese will get you a job.

French is a bit snobby.

German is harsh and guttural.

Italian is a sheer delight to the ears.

But here’s the sad thing: I no longer see, or perhaps more appropriately, hear, Italian’s mysterious allure. Despite what tourists and visitors constantly tell me — “You’re so lucky you speak Italian! What a glorious language!”; “It’s so melodious, like music!”; and, most recently, from an older Dutch tourist, “What a lovely tongue!” — Italian has lost its luster.

I suppose it has to do with how long I’ve studied the language and lived in Italy. In the same way my up-close view of the Coliseum is (embarrassingly) the norm, so is Italian. The thrill is gone. Ultimately, fluently understanding of a language means hearing everything, the pleasant, the humdrum, and the gross. On the metro, I commonly overhear conversations about food. Italians love to talk about what they ate last night, what they just ate, and what they will eat later, often in sumptuous detail. “I had the most gorgeous pesce last night at a restaurant near Ostia, sea bass baked in a scalloped potato crust with thyme,” or, “Cinzia made a roasted rack of lamb and fettuccine with shaved truffles for Easter — divine!” Automatically decoding Italian also leads to delightfully memorable exchanges. “This is my mom!” a toddler announced proudly to me on the no. 23 bus. “Once I was in the tummy of my mom, this mom! My brother Manuele too! Tutti quanti!” I hear the banal (“Please remember to pick up the dry cleaning,” “Let’s meet for coffee at four o’clock, “Ikea is having a sale on sheets and glassware…”) and everything in between. Italian is no longer a separate and exotic entity out of “La Dolce Vita.” At the grocery store or at the next table I now absorb conversations about break-ups, slipped discs, and bathroom habits. I pick up on insults, vulgarities, teenage boys’ snarky opinions on their female classmates, gossip (“you didn’t hear this from me, but…”), and so on, often slung in romanaccio, or Roman slang, Italian’s punk little brother.

I’m also sad to report that my perception of Italian as a “sexy” language has also dissolved. Gone are the days when a man with an Italian accent made my heart flutter. Now all it does is conjure up memories of my English teaching days, when I routinely taught conversation to Roman students while being pitifully underpaid. Give me a Spaniard any day.

Sometimes I’m nostalgic for my tourist years, when I was a naïve 14-year-old in braces who found Italian exciting, thrilling, and frustrating, the language rising and weaving up above me, far-off and elusive.

That summer at the beach, I tried eavesdropping on the middle-aged Italians stretched out nearby on lounge chairs, desperate to grasp what was I was sure must be profound talk about life, love, or philosophy, romantic things meant to be spoken about in a romantic language. Now, I admit, it more likely it was a conversation about hernias.

At times I find myself slightly jealous of those who hear Italian with fresh ears, who perceive the enigmatic thrill of a foreign language as I did once. But I suppose Italian’s transition from mysterious to mundane is a positive sign. I’ll never hear Italian as a native does — yet the normalization process does mean that I’ve fully adapted, that I’m in some way a part of this culture that I scribbled about in my journal as a high school student, and daydreamed about living in during geometry class. And wasn’t that the goal all along?

About the Author:

Alexandra's "Second Generation" column ran from 20012 through early 2017.