Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Una Memoria Confusa

As a Christmas present to each other, Erin and I took a small vacation to Lake Como for a few days last week. As usual she has comprehensively blogged about the whole trip, and I am writing just to reflect on the experience of meeting Caterina Greppi. Quickly summarizing, Caterina was born in Varenna and spent her entire life there. At one point in her younger years she worked in the nearby town of Lecco, and has visited a few places in Italy. However she has never been outside of the country and speaks nothing but Italian. We spent an amazing evening with her; speaking only Italian of course as there was no other way to communicate. There were a few things here and there that I didn't fully understand, but such things were few and far between. As impatient as I am, it was encouraging to have had such a trial-by-fire encounter and fare so well, after only 3 months of school.

Caterina is a warm lady who almost immediately feels like family. However what I wanted to quickly share is how odd the memories have of her are. It's not that anything particularly strange happened apart from the happenstance encounter, but how it's filed away in my mind. This will be difficult to explain to monoglots, as well as polyglots who were raised speaking more than one language or otherwise learned one early in their youth.

I am a native English speaker, and apart from having lightly studied a couple of dead languages, I have not been able to communicate in anything other than English until very recently (and still not very well). I think in English. I dream in English. I ponder, calculate, fantasize, and speculate in English, all within the autonomous and subconscious lines of my brain. Now that I am studying Italian and slowly gaining experiences and learning concepts that only exist in it and not English, the lines in my brain are gradually becoming more and more blurred.

Caterina is so far the biggest example of such blurring; let me try to explain. When you spent time with your friend or a family member a week or so ago, and you think back to the conversation you had, you automatically recall things that were said. "Tiffany had a birthday." "Dad came home early and mom grandma made tea." "Sono nata settanta cinque anni fa a Varenna." Did you catch that?

People speaking only one language never encounter this because they don't realize the work their brain does, especially with things like memories. It's done automatically because it has been trained for years to do so. One doesn't think her or she thinks in English because he or she just thinks... or so he or she thinks.

When I think back to the time we spent with Caterina I get a bit confused. If I think about experiences she shared, my brain feels quasi-normal. When I think about what she actually said, that's when things get rather weird. I know she was born seventy-five years ago in Varenna, but she never said those words!

I know there are others out there that have experienced this. If reading this has struck a chord, please share. <nerdiness> To me it's a rather interesting phenomenon. </nerdiness>

Monday, December 24, 2007

And the 24hr Loop Begins!

Aside from family, Christmas movies are one of my favorite things around the holiday. Erin and I always watch several Christmas movies over and over during this time of year, but there is one that tends to get more airtime than the rest: A Christmas Story. For as long as I can remember, the TBS station in the US has looped this movie for 24 hours every Christmas Eve!

It's just about 11:00am here in Florence, and Erin and I have started the loop (we ♥ technology)! Of course we'll probably mix it up a bit with the Home Alones (only 1 and 2 of course) and a few others, but A Christmas Story will be on the most.

I leave you all with this brilliant reenactment of a classic scene from the movie. Merry Christmas!

Sunday, December 23, 2007

What Would Jesus Buy

For those of you not familiar with the Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping, be warned - he may have a chemical imbalance. He also may seem cynical and overly sarcastic, but he carries a message near to my heart: American (over) consumption is destructive to Americans, the environment, and countries foreign to our own (particularly those blatantly exploited by corporations like Wal-Mart).

I just heard of this crazy through the Sojourners blog. After reading and following a few links, I discovered that he teamed up with Morgan Spurlock to create the film titled What Would Jesus Buy. I can't speak at length on its content as I haven't seen it, but I imagine it would be one worth watching. I am a fan of Spurlock since Super Size Me, as well as an anti over consumerist, so being that Christmas is only a couple of days away I present to you the trailer for What Would Jesus Buy:

On a closing note I'd like to link to these reminders of how we as Americans have allowed such behavior to stain our culture. The sad part is that many people find footage such as in the linked videos to be humorous, as if it were just a comical blip on our cultural radar.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Confusion, Crisis, and Disillusionment: A Preface, Part 3 (the Conclusion)

Picking up where I left off, Erin and I finally left the states for Italy. The first 2 weeks were vacation, and it was amazing. Erin wrote about this time on her blog, so if you're interested peruse her August and September archives. After this relaxing period we finally settled into our apartment in Florence. Of course this turned out to be a considerably more difficult process than we had anticipated, and again Erin documented it quite well.

So life began carrying on almost how we had planned. Our Italian classes started at 9am and ended at 1pm, and from 2pm to 8pm I worked from home for the company at which I had started as a contractor. On the Italian side, life was good. We made friends quickly through school and some outside. Our school itself was (and still is) excellent. The teachers are very qualified and passionate both about the language and teaching it. On the US side, well, things were turning for worse. Due to the abysmal conditions of the real estate market (and the US economy in general), as well as "other internal issues", the company began making cutbacks. At first it was the developer hired to work alongside me - his time was reduced from almost part-time to considerably less-than, to no time. Some other parts of the team also parted as time went on, and the general direction of the project now seemed quite lost to me. As of this writing, the conditions of the project are the same.

At this point, assuming you were able to digest my last posts, you can probably imagine where my head is regarding my professional path thus far. Let me summarize: I'm burned out, tired, confused, unmotivated, unsatisfied, and uncertain. How does one cope? I'm good at what I do and I enjoy it, but after these experiences I'm left wanting.

Amidst this spinning of my head, we moved to a foreign country with the decisive goal of learning a foreign language: Italy. Why Italian? That is an excellent question, an answer for which I hope to clarify in my own mind through these writings. As far as I know, I don't have the slightest trace of Latin blood in my history. I've been led to believe that I'm a fairly classic mix of Scottish and Irish, a bit of English, and a dash of native North American. My wife is probably of similar descent, consisting of Irish and English heritage.

So why Italian then? Boh. I do actually enjoy the mathematics behind language, and I find the evolution, dispersal, amalgamation and cultural assimilation of them very interesting. I studied a bit of Latin and ancient Greek in high school and college, and for whatever reason found them both fascinating. So I do possess a general nerdy attraction to language, but why study Italian above all others? I think it's part chance and part choice. Chance because I wanted simply to experience the shock of a new culture. I wanted to assimilate; I wanted to learn how others live first hand. What better way to do that than diving in? The specific choice of Italy has to have something to do with the rich cultural history and the juxtaposition of that with modern Italian life. I find it beautifully contradictory; something like oil and water and at the same time like melody and harmony. If you take a walk in the part of Rome that leads up to the colosseum, where you emerge from modern urban buildings into its ancient and seemingly monolithic presence, you will know what I mean.

I think that's all for my "preface." If you managed to read it all, thanks. I'll continue with posts in this category in the present, as I experience things that lead me one way or the other, bringing with them clarity or otherwise taking it away.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Back to Normal...

It looks like the strike has come to an end.

Viva la repubblica!

Terza Giorno Dello Sciopero

Produce section at the COOP where we shop.
Today is Wednesday, the third day of the national strike of the autotrasportatori (truck drivers). This means that no products whose delivery depends on the truckers, including produce, dairy, meat, and gas, are being delivered anywhere in the country. The grocery store shelves are starting to thin out and the streets are gradually becoming more and more tranquil.

Running out of cheese!
What is the strike about? Money of course. The truckers are claiming that they need more money to combat the rising costs of diesel. Great. Newsflash - Italy is expensive and many workers in many job sectors are in desperate need of higher pay. Is the answer to effectively hold a key piece of national infrastructure hostage and drag the economy to a grinding halt? Now let me clearly state that I believe strongly in workers rights and protection, but to me this is borderline terrorism and should not be tolerated.

Here is an article (in English) about the happenings. Viva Italia!

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Backwards Verbs

Anyone who as traveled in Italy and/or possesses an elementary grasp of the language at a conversational level has surely run across the word piacere. If you've paid attention to how it's used, you've probably noticed that it's a bit of an odd word. As a noun it means "pleasure" or "favor", and as a verb means something like "like." An example usage as a verb:

Mi piace quella ragazza!

Which means "I like that girl." Sounds simple enough, until you understand the structure and realize what the subject of the sentence is. In English the subject is "I" - "I" does the action and the girl is the object. And in Italian, it's completely backwards! "Ragazza" (the girl) is the subject and "I" is the object. A more structurally similar translation in English could therefore be "That girl is pleasing to me." While this is grammatically correct, no one speaks like this in everyday conversation, at least not in the United States. Nevertheless it was useful (at first) for me to think like this, until I learned that piacere belongs to an entire family of verbs that function like this!

Now consider the verb mancare, which means "miss" respectively. Now peek at its usage:

Penso che ti manchi quella ragazza!
I think you miss that girl!

As far as I know there isn't way to translate the structure of this sentence in English, even awkwardly, as there is with piacere. Once you get the hang of how this group of verbs work, it's not so difficult. However it takes time for one's mind to subconsciously file them away and autonomously cope with how they work.

Out of curiosity, does anyone out there know of a way to (structurally) translate this use of mancare? Also if you care to share some other verbs in this "backwards" family, please do so!

Wednesday, December 5, 2007


I wanted to share a song by Regina Spektor. It's not a new one, but new to me. In my opinion she is underrated, perhaps because she doesn't quite fit into a well-navigated area of music, or maybe instead she is in fact lame and I'm simply delusional. Whatever the case, I find her original, lively, daring, creative, stunning, and altogether refreshing.

Confusion, Crisis, and Disillusionment: A Preface, Part 2

I didn't expect a preface to be worthy of more than one post, but I've realized that quite a lot happened before we left our mother country for Italy. I also seemed to have passively ignored the effects they had (and continue have) on me, and have realized that writing about them has proven to be a therapeutic exercise. Therefore if you haven't read part one you'll probably find the start of this one a bit choppy. On with it!

To further complicate my already my disheveled state of mind, my wife and I had finally decided on moving to Italy to study the Italian language after a year or so of wanting, scheming, and searching. We had nailed down an almost exact date at which we would leave the country, which left us with about 9 more months in the states. While our departure wasn't an absolute certainty, I had a hard time considering full time positions knowing that in 9 months I may very well be leaving. On the other hand, my bringing in money wasn't an option, so it was only on survival instincts that I searched high and low for work.

My first find was at a crappy real estate magazine that would require me to drive an hour and 15 minutes to work everyday in Daytona, which is one of my least favorite places in Florida. Now it's known by people in my profession that the pay scale in north Florida for our work is embarrassingly low, so when I tell you that this company offered me a laughably low amount, you better believe it was laughably low. After a half hour (or more) of talking, explaining, negotiating, and several calls home to verify some numbers, I accepted and agreed to start in 2 weeks. Why? Because I told them I was likely moving to Italy and that wasn't a deal breaker... and because I had been desperately (and unsuccessfully) searching for a steady job for several weeks.

Fast-forward 1 week. As I was driving to a nearby city to finalize a contracted project I had finished, I received a phone call from another company for a full-time position as a lead developer. The work was more interesting, the pay was much better, and the location more accessible, so that evening I accepted and broke off the deal with the other company. I don't normally operate in such a dog-eat-dog fashion, but desperation and emotions got the best of me. All of this time I was relentlessly stressed about the instability of my life, and almost exclusively by the fact that we would most likely be leaving the country in 9 months. I knew that it was highly unlikely for my new position (a typical corporate office one) to keep me on staff while I was overseas as that just wasn't the aura of the company. As such I fostered a contracting position on the side, one that would likely be able to come with me to Italy.

This is when things started to become fairly crushing. To keep it short, I worked in the evenings on the contract. Each day its needs became greater and greater, and slowly I began seeing my friends less, getting out of the house less, eating less, sleeping less, wanting to live less, etc. I had become a workaholic. I allowed this to happen not because I wanted to be, but because I felt I had to find some way of bringing in income while in Italy. Eventually the contract became a full-time position, and after 6 or so months at a corporate job, I left to work for the other company from home.

My health improved rapidly as I was eating and sleeping normally, surfing with a good friend on a regular basis, and enjoying life again as I had been accustomed to. Sadly this lasted for maybe a month, and my new full-time position became all-consuming once again. Why? Because the project was underestimated, poorly thought out, and generally misunderstood by its creators. I realize these are strong words and I don't bash, but there is simply no other way to describe the situation. It had become a living nightmare and I loathed it. Of course I allowed this to happen (again) because of the prospect of having income while in Italy. For a few months I sucked it up, all the while questioning how I had reached this point, was it worth it, did I remember who I was, had I chosen the wrong path of work ... the list goes on.

Finally the day came when we left for Italy. To quickly summarize: I trained someone to keep things afloat for the 2 weeks in which we (my wife, in-laws, and I) would be unavailable. We'd be traveling through Germany, Switzerland, and Italy, before settling in Florence where we would begin our study of Italian. I had been telling the company owners from very early on that what they wanted was not attainable for what they had prepared for, and finally they listened ... or so it seemed.

I'll end here, and I think one more post should do for the preface ;-).

Saturday, December 1, 2007

La Mia Altra Insegnante: Dylan Dog

Last night as Erin and I were returning from our evening passeggiata, we passed a libreria that sold old/used books. I had seen this shop many times and had been meaning to stop by and have a look around. As we were passing I noticed a box just outside the door full of comics, and most of them were Dylan Dog originals from the mid 90s.

We had just come from what could be compared to a thrift store in the states, at which we had bought a couple of books at a reading level of 10 years or younger. For some time now we've been wanting some reading material that we could actually digest, and were happy to find a couple of children's books at a cheap price. However when we saw a box full of Italian fumetti outside such a quaint store, we had to stop. After looking through a handful of Dylan Dog editions (each costing € 1), I decided on issue 99, "SINFONIA MORTALE":

This is an original print from 1994 and I was excited to have bought it. I didn't know much at all about the series, but looking through the covers I realized that Dylan Dog was of genres near my heart: sci-fi, cult, and horror! After buying it I did some research and found that, much to my surprise, it was born in Italy! I find it odd that a comic with such a name would have been of Italian origin, but indeed it is.

The series has an international presence as well (in the states under Dark Horse), so perhaps some of you are already aware of it. I remember one of my teachers mentioning the series two months or so ago, but at the time I had no idea what it was. A different teacher also suggested that students invest in fumetti as learning materials, because they are cohesive stories with graphical contexts. I thought this was a good idea but had yet taken any action.

So now I am a happy reader of Dylan Dog, and I can't think of a better combination for my learning than a sci-fi/horror comic in Italian :-).