The Language of Failure

Whenever I step outside the apartment doors, I ask myself, “What are the words I will use to greet an Italian?” I go through words and sounds in my head, typically starting with Spanish. Buenos dias. No. Bueno. No. Buona sera. Nope, it’s morning. Buon; bon-something. Ah, Buongiorno! That’s the word! As I walk to class, I repeat over and over in my head, “buongiorno. Buongiorno,” yet when I see a local, I simply nod.

Has it really come to this? Even my coffee is called

Has it really come to this? Even my coffee is called “Americano.”

I find myself going through that thought process every time anyone speaks to me, or I am planning to speak to someone. I am so uncomfortable with my Italian that Spanish words come out of my mouth. A year ago, I was in Cali, Colombia, with Gonzaga’s ORGL program, and couldn’t come up with any Spanish other than hola, gracias, and some menu items. I have no idea where these Spanish words are coming from – as far as I know, they don’t exist in my head (at least not when I need them!).


To say I am uncomfortable with languages would be an understatement. I knew, going in, that I would be expected to speak to the locals in their native tongue, and I studied before I arrived, but all my studying has left my head. It’s probably somewhere on Turkish Air Flight 7299.


I know that before I leave here, I’ll have at least some competence with a few words and phrases, and my classmates speaking words and short phrases helps me. I hope I don’t become that classmate who the others baby along, speaking for me whenever I encounter a local. I want to be able to carry on a rudimentary conversation, and find my way around a train station when I return to Milan. I know it will come, but it’s slow, and my brain is resisting.



Cognitive Dissonance

Anyone who has traveled internationally knows that the farther you get away from  the tourist areas of town, the fewer signs are translated into different languages. If you don’t speak the language well, it becomes difficult to navigate, and can increase stress. If you decide to take local transportation, it can be even more stressful. In a metropolitan city like Milan, most of the people speak at least passable English, if not better than passable, but once you get into a subway station, one needs to have a fairly clear understanding of which station is their final destination. Train stations are similar, but the traveler must figure out which track his or her specific train is on, which is nearly impossible on a day when the communication system is down, and the displays, which generally let travelers know which trains are on which (of 12-15) tracks, and what time they will arrive, aren’t functioning. This is what occurred as I attempted to depart Milan for Florence early Monday morning. I left my apartment and walked to the nearby subway station, bought a ticket and found the right track without incident. When I arrived at my destination, I lugged two suitcases and a very heavy camera bag into the train station, then up and down four or five sets of stairs until I got to a ticket sales kiosk. The kiosks had English translations, so I was able to purchase a ticket, leaving in half an hour, for Milan. More suitcase dragging. I looked at the ticket (no English here), and tried to determine at which track my train would arrive. The information wasn’t listed. Video screens were blank. A man in a business suit and tie asked if I needed help with my bags, and by this time in the journey, I was happy to give up the heavy one. He asked which track, and I said I didn’t know. He got out his smart phone, checked his app, and took me to Track 3 (after I’d lugged the luggage up and down unnecessary stairs to Track 6). Once there, I verified with a female passenger that this was, in fact, the correct track, and she took pity on me and escorted me onto the train (I allowed her to help with the lighter bag). We were getting off at the same stop (still in Milan), so she helped me off the train and to another track. She was interested in hearing about my master’s program, and why American students of communication would come to Italy to study. Once on the new track, she departed, and to verify I was in the right place, I asked a young man whether this was the train to Firenze. He assured me it was, then hustled away, as if to avoid further conversation with the crazy Americano. My train arrived. A bright red, fast-moving machine. I got on, and noticed my assigned seat was occupied. I moved farther into the car, and took another seat. After getting settled, I looked at the train’s electronic board, and noticed it was a non-stop train to Rome. I was on the wrong train! I grabbed my belongings and started toward the door, when a woman carrying a child got on the train and walked down the aisle toward me, blocking my escape. I moved back to my seat to let her pass, then started for the door once again. I made it two steps before the train began to move. I guess I was going to Rome! When the man came by to check tickets, all he said to me was “Grazie.” I wondered why he hadn’t at least mentioned I was on the wrong train, but thought perhaps he hadn’t wanted to embarrass me, since I’d surely figure it out at some point. About halfway through our three-hour trip, a young woman stopped to tell me I was on the wrong train, and she helped me purchase a ticket from Rome to Florence. She didn’t charge me for the extra distance I would be riding with them, above and beyond what I’d paid for, which was both kind, and good customer service. Eventually, we arrived in Rome, and I wandered around the train station (no extraneous stairs, escalators to and from the tracks) a bit, checking the (working) video boards to find my track. I wandered down to Track 12 and waited half an hour for a train. It was, in fact, my train, as I was able to verify on the (working) video board above the track. An hour later, I was in Florence, and 15 minutes after that had met my roommate and classmate for the next two weeks. Plus, I now have a good story, and I can say I’ve been to Rome!


Weekly Photo Challenge: On the Way

The challenge this week is to show photos you’ve made while on your way to another place. I have a long plane ride tonight, but in the meantime (since I’m already late on this, last week’s challenge), here are some photos from a train trip a couple years ago from a train station in New Haven, Connecticut, to Grand Central Station, New York.




I loved the train seats – such a retro feel!

If you want to play along, here are the rules. Then post a link to your blog here, so we can all enjoy. As always, click any picture to see it full-screen.

Ten New Words a Day

The woman who appears to run the place where we’re staying sat down with us at dinner tonight and informed us that we needed to learn 10 new Spanish words every day. She quizzed us on the 10 words we learned today, and we cheated a little; giving her words we knew already, or words we had learned this week (I would have had a great opportunity to learn the Spanish word for epilepsy today, but Translator Fail! – sorry, Henry, I’m just playing!). I did not have to resort to counting to 10 for her, so you should all be as proud of me as I am!

We’ve been a lot of places and seen a lot of things, but I think the theme today will be vices.


Marijuana, growing in a greenhouse on a finca (farm. Word 1). The family extracts the oils and makes different healing balms from them. I can attest that one of those balms works quite well on sore muscles.


Vino (Wine. Word 2). Non-alcoholic, made from oranges, supposedly packs a punch. In fact, it tastes awful (as does the vino made from sugar cane).


Cafe organico (organic coffee, Words 3 and 4). Muy delicioso (I’ll call those bonus words. I don’t need them).


Pare (stop. Word 5). ST-OPtional. OK, this one broke from the theme, but come on!


Coffee beans (though something tells me these beans are not frijoles. Aaanndd 6).


Cafe fruitas growing on el arbol (fruits, tree: 7 and 8).


Self-explanatory, no? Many things can be made from the coca leaf, including tea, which is said to have many health-giving properties. In the past, tribal elders chewed three coca leaves before meeting, believing the coca gave them wisdom. Then there’s the droga (drug – 9) made from the plant.


Cacao fruitas (cocoa fruits – 10 – I win!). These are where your chocolate comes from. It’s a long, drawn-out process, and the people who do it don’t get paid enough (nor do the people who grow and harvest your morning coffee).

Keep your eyes tuned to this station for much more. Lots of things to do, see and photograph in these parts.

Travel Theme: Roads

This week, Ailsa’s Travel Theme, over at her blog, Where’s My Backpack, invites us to share photographs of roads. Once again, I’ll stick with the literal, for the most part.

First, a picture of my husband, his camera and tripod, on a walking path (not a road, per se), deeper into the bright leaves of an upstate New York autumn.


The next photo is of a road less-traveled, the Historic Columbia River Highway, which is parallel to Interstate 84 in Oregon, and passes right by Multnomah Falls. My daughter and I spent a week traveling around Western Oregon in the spring of 2010; though we’d been to the Falls many times, we had never driven the historic road. This is just one stop along the way.