Adjusting to life in a foreign country can be difficult on many levels from bureaucracy to figuring out where to do all of your daily shopping–bread at the panetteria (bakery), pork chops at the macelleria (butcher shop), perfume at the profumeria (perfume shop), Blistex at the farmacia (pharmacy), shampoo at the tabaccheria (tobacco shop)–of course!
But nothing can compare to the entirely unexpected feeling that I had lost a big part of my
sparkling wit personality somewhere over the Atlantic, a phenomenon I’ve also mentioned here and here.
Now please don’t think I’m saying that you should never move to a foreign country without knowing the language. I did it, and obviously I’ve survived. Of course it’s more of a challenge, and I can only talk of my own experience, but not speaking Italian fluently at first isn’t too much of a problem because you can still get along fine in most instances. And keep in mind that I’m in the south where there are very few English speakers.
That said, I did feel a negative effect in social and personal situations–I found myself concentrating so hard on the basics of what was being said that I never got the joke; let’s not debate the Italian sense of humor right now, but I’ll note that our differences there were/are also a factor.
What I’m talking about are the nuances of a language. For my entire life on the other side of the pond, I took for granted that I could effortlessly make others smile or laugh with a few well-crafted, well-timed words. That I always had a response. That I was never left tongue-tied and wondering what would’ve been a good comeback.
Yes, I’ve had moments of “what I wish I had said” like everyone does, but here, they became the norm; when it takes hours to fully comprehend the two most important lines of a conversation, a witty retort on the spot isn’t very likely.
And so for a long time, I felt like I was wearing a mask–and worst of all, it was one that I didn’t choose for myself. People saw me as shy, quiet, perhaps uncomfortable in social situations, and to an extent, I can certainly be all of those things, but not to the degree that they would have thought.
I was just trying so hard to follow the action that my real personality was below layers and layers of verb conjugations, idioms, and obscure (to me) cultural references.
Did I hide behind the straniera mask sometimes too? Absolutely. I’ll admit that many times it was just easier to say “non capisco” (I don’t understand) than really participate. I’m human, and I get tired of paying attention.
To. Every. Single. Word. For. Hours. On. End.
And when social situations become work, well, not surprisingly, they just aren’t fun anymore. So occasionally I put up my mask, and we inevitably ended the evening with a pity party, just the two of us. But for me, this was an essential part of my growth process here, as I needed to hit rock bottom, so to speak, in order to throw off the mask.
Getting a better grasp of Italian has definitely helped me feel more like myself again, but confidence and courage have played even bigger roles. After many frustrating evenings out with Italians, I reached back to when I began college, when I started out fresh, knowing no one, and when it seemed like some of my peers were speaking a different language (turned out they were, and it was something along the lines of Spoiledbratese).
At some point, I realized that I was going to have to do here what I did there; I was going to have to be a Nike commercial, and just do it.
And to paraphrase Robert Frost: I have, and that has made all the difference.
No matter where you are, you have to be willing to get out there, make mistakes (and learn from them), be yourself, and not care if you don’t fit with preconceived notions of whatever it is “they” think you should be. And most of all, you have to be willing to rip off that mask (whether you put it there or not) because it’s hiding the real, wonderful you that the world deserves to know.
Besides, being hidden gets kind of boring.
And boy do I love when I make P laugh.
[tags]sunday scribblings, masks, culture shock, learning a language[/tags]