Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Confusion, Crisis, and Disillusionment: A Preface, Part 1

This is the first post of what will be many on my current personal state of being and thinking. For the past several years now I have been experiencing a myriad of different things which have greatly affected me. From my core beliefs to the way I view other people and myself, to my general perspective of life and my ability to reason, I have been and continue to be changed. It's worth noting that some of what I'm experiencing are probably the effects of a quarter life crisis, which I accept. I'll hastily point out that while I am clearly experiencing some symptoms, there are some that I am unquestionably devoid of. These include boredom with social interactions and a desire to have children, with which anyone who knows me would quickly agree.

On a final preceding note I'll say that posts such as these may prove to be boring to most people. However I believe that there will be a handful that find it interesting, either because they are conducting sociological research on my age group or because the find they can relate. At any rate, here we go!

While I'd say I have been experiencing this seemingly endless metamorphic state for much longer, I'll start my ramblings with November 2005. At that time I had been working for a small software company in St. Augustine, FL for about 5 years. I started working there when I was 19 and worked on through my time at university, at which I was studying computer science. I enjoyed it at first as I was new to the industry and had many opportunities to learn many different things, including how (small) business functions, conducting marketing research, and many things related to technology. Most of what I learned had to do with software development, as that was the focus of my studies and my position in the company. However after 3 or so years, I began to stagnate. I attribute this to the stagnation of the company, which made several efforts to grow, and while successful on some very small levels, failed to ever really ascend to the next level. Aside from the fact that this indicated a clear (and comparatively low) ceiling on what I could achieve financially, it also clarified the immediate lack of intellectual opportunity. It's not that there were never tasks of moderate difficulty, there were, but there was nothing that would challenge me to a point at which I would evolve to a higher level of intellect. To me this was not acceptable, and the search for new work proceeded.

In November 2005 I was offered an exciting position at a start up which formed to provide a new breed of technological solutions to the voting world, in both the United States and the United Kingdom. Even though the company was a start up (which mean less pay), I was absolutely ecstatic to take it because of the industry, challenges, and locations it offered. The company was an American child company of a parent based in England, and some of the development team was defecting. My first task was to go to England for a 2-week training session with the developers, and it was absolutely amazing. The work was enjoyable, my colleagues were both intelligent and progressive in their fields, and the challenges were altogether scintillating - I couldn't have been more excited.

Fast forward to April 2006. While I was very please with my new job, there was one insurmountable problem: the company was afloat by capital invested solely from the parent company, and the parent company was tanking. Yeah. When things turn for the worse, what must one do to survive? Whatever one must do, and in the case of the parent company that meant abandoning the child. So in April 2006 I found myself officially unemployed by downsizing.

Fortunately I had just started doing some contract work with a good friend, so it wasn't the absolute end of the world. In fact at first I wasn't really fazed at all. Having been led to believe the company would bounce back in a month or so, I rather liked the idea of a little down time and some freelance. As it happened, the down time became true unemployment, and the freelance wasn't as plentiful as needed. Things began seeming more clouded for me. I was disappointed and frustrated at having lost a position that I had found so exciting, and while freelancing provided some income, it didn't satiate my need for intellectual growth. However it was during this notably awkward time in my life that my friend and I incubated and brought into fruition another project. This was truly fulfilling, even if on different levels. However by design it wouldn't pay the bills, and so shortly after the launch I once again began my search in the "real world" for a "real job."

I'll end this post here as it's becoming almost indigestible :-).

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Listening, Learning

I have found that listening to my Italian friends speak English has helped me understand some things about Italian which seem quite strange to an English speaker. Let me first say that the single most difficult hurdle for me (and probably for most monolinguists) has been accepting the fact that not all things translate, no matter how illogical that may seem. However if you can just absorb the meaning, the wording begins to seem less alien. One of my teachers worded this phenomenon quite well; she said that you must first capisci il significato (understand the meaning), and then worry about the structure.

For example, in Italian you almost always have to use a definite article (like "the" in English) before a noun. There are exceptions of course, but this is the normal structure. For example:

Il mio gatto e` troppo grasso!

This means "my cat is too fat." The Italian word "il" is a definite article and translates to the English word "the". Leaving off the "il" would be grammatically incorrect and would sound strange when speaking with an Italian. However in sentences like this it doesn't make sense to translate "il" as "the", or anything else for that matter! My first reaction to this (after my initial "what the") was to simply ignore it. This allowed me to understand the meaning and still translate the sentence directly into English - and therein lies the problem. It is not possible to truly learn a language without thinking in that language, and translation makes such thought impossible.

This is where my English-speaking Italian friends come in. Let me first say that most of them speak English better than I do Italian, even though that is changing. While they speak it well enough to hold conversations it's obvious that English is not their first language. There are certain patterns to the way Italians speak English, and you're probably familiar with some of them as they have become popular stereotypes. One such stereotype is the exaggerative inflection on certain parts of words, while another is the seemingly automatic suffixation of a vowel to the end of every word. Think of how this might sound if spoken as written:

I wOUld-a lIke-a pIzza wEEth-a meatbAlls-a!

I often heard stupid things like this from my friends in the U.S. whenever I talked about moving to Italy. This is a stereotype because it is indeed true in many cases (this isn't as much a consequence of Italian as it is Latin), and it sounds goofy to native English speakers. Of course when English speakers speak Italian without inflecting properly, and certainly without rolling the Rs properly, it sounds equivalently goofy to Italians.

The pattern that has helped me truly understand and accept the definite article problem (without translating to English in my head), is how they forget to use certain pronouns (generally "it"). For example, when I am talking with one of my Italian friends in English, or watching a movie, there will sometimes be something that he doesn't understand (like a word or concept). He'll ask me to repeat the word, and then if it's new to him he will ask me:

What is?

Or if we are talking about a person that he doesn't know:

Who is?

If you were in such a conversation you would immediately know that English is not his first language. In English you have to identify who or what you are asking about either by using its name or by substitution with the pronoun "it." In Italian, you do not. Thus those phrases would be:



Chi e`?

respectively. There are no pronouns in these questions because you don't need them in Italian, so when an Italian asks those questions in English, they simply ask how they would have in Italian. This mismatch of grammatical rules is comparable to the mismatch of when definite articles are used in Italian versus when they are used in English. Such mismatches highlight the illogical nature of language, and that is a fact that is better learned and accepted early on. Indeed the grammar of a language is often mathematical, but every language is riddled with exceptions to the point where one can't realistically say it's logical.

Hearing my friends make these mistakes underscores a simple truth: that language is often illogical and understandable not only by adherence to its grammar, but also by shared cultural and social understandings.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Fare la Spesa a Firenze

I've never lived in a city the size of Florence before. It's not that large, but more so than any place I've lived. Tourism here is pretty much a phenomenon of epic proportions, and without a doubt the crux of the regional economy. With that in mind, consider that we live about 100-200 meters from the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore. Yeah, it's a bit crowded.

Because we live right in the center, we get the brunt of the crowding as well as the ridiculous prices at grocery stores. To circumvent this we take l'autobus (pronounce bus like boos) to a store further from our apartment, where the prices are much saner. The buses here are crazy by default. Not by design, but by consequence of Florentine traffic and the multitude of tourists. Stack that on a trip with 4 heavy bags of groceries stuffed between Italian leather boots, bus seats, mumbling immigrants and stranieri (like me), and you find yourself in a veritable inferno. Dante would have written another chapter.

Fortunately this particular trip is being offset by the stunning Tuscan sunset I'm watching right now :-).

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

I Just Work Here

It's amusing to me that in studying Italian I am subconsciously becoming more and more aware of how little I know about the grammatical structure of my native tounge. I frequent the bar across the street from our apartment to take a break from work and have an espresso. Over the last month or so I have become friends with the barista Miguel. When we first met we spoke mostly in English, for the sake of my understanding. While his English is probably still better than my Italian, we now speak mostly in Italian. The nice thing is that while he wants to learn to speak English better, he doesn't insist and enjoys speaking Italian with me. This evening however, we got into a discussion about grammar and comparing tenses in Italian and English. In my nerdiness I found it quite interesting, and even more so when I couldn't answer a couple of simple questions!

Miguel: Does "Ho vissuto" mean "I lived" or "I had lived" in English?
Me: "I lived."

Miguel thought it was "I had lived", and when I told him that wasn't exactly right...

Miguel: Why? What is the difference?
Me: ...crickets...

After a few seconds of silence...

Me: La differenza fra 'I lived' e 'I had lived' e` quasi uguale come la differenza fra il uso di il passato prossimo e l'imperfetto.
Miguel: Ho capito!

This he understood. I explained that the difference between the two is similar to the difference between the Italian tenses of passato prossimo (recent past) and imperfetto (imperfect). If any English and Italian buffs out there know this to be incorrect, please correct me. I apologized to Miguel for my uncertainty and told him I would find out. Another question followed:

Miguel: How do you pronounce "ch" in English?
Me: Like "ce" in Italian. Except sometimes when we pronounce it like "ch" in Italian...

Miguel: Quale parole (Which words)?
Me: ...crickets...

In Italian ch is pronounced like ck in English. I again apologized and assured him I'd come up with an example or two (and I have: architect and chorous). These questions and my troubles answering them really underscore the fact that as a native English speaker, I don't really know the language, I just speak it.

It's things like this that I really love about living here. I am really glad to have started finding friends, for lots of reasons. I learn much from them - about Italian, English (go figure), culture - but more importantly, friends are just good to have. They help dull the edge of being a foreigner, and help this place feel more like home.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

A favorite Italian word: "dimmi"

As a native English speaker, I find Italian to be a very playful language. It seems that every couple of weeks I have a new favorite word. Currently, my favorite word is "dimmi." You pronounce this word like you would say the name "Jimmy," but the first "i" is long. It might look like "dee-mee", except that the accent is only on the first "i". Perhaps it might look more like "DEE-mee."

This word is actually two words: the verb dire and the pronoun mi. The literal translation is something like "tell me" or "say to me", but as with most literal translations, this fails to capture the meaning.

I'm still absorbing the meaning, but it tends to be used in informal and semi-formal situations. For example, in class I (often) say to the teacher "ho una domanda" ("I have a question"), to which she responds "dimmi." Another example is bars. Bars are in Italy are not what they are in the states. They are more like what we call coffee shops or cafes, but they do serve alcohol. Italians use the English word "pub" to refer to what we call bars. Anyway, bars are known foremost for coffee - an absolute staple in the Italian diet (as well as my own). When you get the attention of the barista, you will often be greeted with "dimmi."

These are the most common situations in which I hear this word. If you're as overly analytical as I am, you'll get hung up on the use of the same word in the different contexts. If a bar tender were to say "tell me" to you upon entering a bar in the states, you'd probably think he was being rude. However I've experienced this enough now to have realized that it's not rude here. Of course if the context or tone were different, it could be. However it is used here as a terse way to say something like "Hello, may I have your order?" in English.

Why is this at all fun or interesting? I don't know :-)