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>


Aunt Jo Ann said...

I can identify with your speculations even through I haven't had the experience myself (green envy). I've read and heard it from others. I just hope that nice Italians will have pity on English speaking American tourist when the 3 of us are there!
Love, Aunt Jo Ann

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