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When In Rome….

September 25, 2015

When the phone rang at 4:30 in the morning, I knew instantly who would be on the other end. “Pronto,” I ventured. “Sprechen Sie Deutsch oder Italianisch?” was the response on the other end. I assured the caller that either language would do and so we proceeded in Italian. The problem was it seemed that our taxi driver did not really know exactly how to find us in order to deliver us to the waiting Pullman bus some 45 kilometers distant to our home. Living in the mountains in Italy’s Alps can have its problems.

After repeating the directions to our home several times, the driver assured me that he could find the house in the dark. I thanked him and decided to intercept him at the parking lot of our nearby hotel… just in case! When I arrived with luggage in hand and out of breath, our driver was already waiting and off we headed for Bolzano. “Prendiamo il passo Mendola oppure l’Palade?” I queried, mainly to let him know that I did indeed know the difference between the two mountain passes that lead to Bolzano. The man indicated either would be fine and so with a nod from me we descended the Mendola road with its 15 hairpin turns and 1,000 foot drop-offs. Yes, once again we were on the road, this time for Rome.

I’ve have always felt the need to fill empty air space with conversation. So, during our 45 minute descent to Bolzano, I tried to carry a conversation, first in German and then in Italian and finally in both. Language here is a curious item and often we mix the two in the faint hope of understanding. The kilometers wore on and finally, when my linguistic talents had been fully tested, we arrived in Bolzano to transfer to our awaiting bus.

As our fellow traveling companions started to arrive, I noticed that most were speaking German, or were they? The bits of language that filtered through the early morning air seemed, well, not quite German. Ah yes, I remembered. They are the many dialects of the German language that are spoken along the Adige valley floor.  I summoned up a bit of what I had remembered from previous outings and made the usual polite introductions.  Most of the other guests on this outing seemed curious as to who we were but they refrained from direct questions. We all got onto the bus and proceeded to Rome, some nine hours to the south.

The bus ride to Rome was the usual affair. We traveled fast, stopping only for the obligatory coffee and smoking break along the Autostrada. These places are known locally as Autogrills and they resemble the concessions at Dodger Stadium in California, except of course there is a total lack of courtesy. I had long ago learned to avoid these “brioche pits,” preferring to stay on the bus or perhaps venture inside only for the humbling experience of pay toilets. After two of these stops, we arrived in Orvietto, a small village that boasts one of the most beautiful churches in the world.

As we were all mingling about in awe of the mosaics that glistened in the failing sun, one of our traveling companions finally ventured a conversation with me.  As this was our first true discourse with our fellow travelers, I was eager to speak. He had heard us speaking on the bus in our native American English and so logically he asked if I was French. “Francese? I exhorted, barely capable of containing by hurt feelings. “Ma no, siamo Americani!” And so the conversation lurched forward for awhile, half in German, half in Italian, but always with the distinct absence of English. The fact that I sounded French to this man bothered me for quite awhile, but I shrugged it off over a glass of wine.

We all boarded the bus again and we were off to Rome, arriving in the early evening as promised. After securing our luggage in our room, we were promptly off to dinner. It was at this point that several others of our traveling companions spoke to us. I felt compelled to pick one language and so I chose Italian. This proved later to be a small mistake. Again, I was asked by these curious residents of the South Tirol if I was French. I tried to explain that we were Americans but the questions persisted. “Ma, come mai abitate a Tret?” I explained that my father was born at Tret in 1913 and that we had moved there from Oregon in the United States three years earlier. Each fragile explanation brought more questions and so our first evening wore on as I attempted to explain our relocation from America to an eager crowd. At the end of dinner, I was indeed thankful that a wine glass is never empty in Rome.

The next day, we got up early to participate in an all-day guided tour of Rome by foot. We were back on the bus and we picked-up a local guide, a native Roman in his early eighties. He was bilingual and spoke the entire time in High German (Hoch Deutsch). This delighted me personally, for I could comprehend his every word. However, the scene at the old Roman Forum seemed a little odd. Here we were visiting Caesar’s grave in a place born of the Latin language. Yet, we were for the most part all babbling German. The chorus rose to such a Teutonic pitch that, for a moment, I thought I actually heard Caesar rolling in his grave.  The day moved on with “Sehen Sie this and sehen Sie that,” until at last we returned to our Italian hotel in Rome. Fortunately (or perhaps not), the local Roman populace rather refuses to speak anything but their own dialect of Italian. The soft Cs aside, I was at home linguistically. However, it was obvious that our other guests from the South Tirol were somewhat tried by the Italian language experience. It is true that they speak both German and Italian in the South Tirol, but German has and always will be the preferred idiom. Then it happened! Because I was speaking predominately Italian with both our hosts and guest alike, I became branded as the Italian guy in our group. All at once things changed and everyone addressed me in Italian. Our tour guide made special efforts to translate everything out of German and back into Italian for me and my wife. Although I protested with “Kein problem” and “Ya, ya, alles verstimpt” the instructions and conversations were to all arrive to me in Italian for the duration of our trip.

The Italian guy felt a little put out as he had first learned German many years ago in college. I have always felt that German was my stronger language, but oh well. The tour and the other experiences were all conducted in the German dialect of the Tirol. In fact, all conversation was in this tongue with the notable exception of conversation directed to me. Language is after all only a means to communicate with each other and in the end we all did fine. But when you’re in Rome, the most Italian of all Italian cities and every word you hear around you is in German, it does begin to sound a bit like the Twiglight Zone. I continued to struggle a bit, speaking a mixed language, until the end of our visit. It was only on the road back to Northern Italy that I finally understood. Listening to the endless patter of German dialect between our fellow travelers, I was reminded that I was in a minority. In the end, I learned something completely new in my life in Italy. When in Rome, do as the Germans.

Read author Allen E. Rizzi’s latest books available at Amazon.com

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