Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Il Marito della Tessera

Yesterday Erin and I got memberships at the Biblioteca delle Oblate, one of the public libraries here in Florence. I think I remember reading a year or so ago that Italian libraries are generally quite prestigious, and that the job of a librarian has a much higher status that it would in say the United States. Considering the massive amount of history the country has, it's easy to understand why. Until two days ago neither Erin nor I had been to a library here, and after a friend from school told us you can borrow DVDs (for free) from l'Oblate, we figured it was time we signed up. Aside from enjoying movies we've learned from school that watching Italian movies with Italian subtitles is a fantastic learning tool. In fact just today we watched La Tigre e la Neve in school, and we couldn't believe how well we were able to understand in comparison to the first time we watched one there. Of course we also want to read Italian and I've resolved to read George Orwell's 1984, as I know the story well in English and believe this will also be a useful learning method.

The library is absolutely gorgeous. The building is large and old, filled with sculptures and rooms forbidden to the common public, which most likely contain delicate pieces of original historical literature. Within the main rooms of the library are shelves of books, elegant lighting fixtures, comfortable and inviting furniture, all marvelously juxtaposed with a few shelves of DVDs, modern computer labs, and people with laptops taking advantage of the library's free WIFI access. All of this nestled intelligently within the walls made of pure stone and marble.

We sat down at the help desk and were greeted by two giggling workers with a warm "ditemi". This is a form of the word dire, another form of which I blogged about here. Grammatically it's the present imperative 2nd person plural form, literally meaning "tell me" and directed at 2 or more people. However in this context it's probably best translated as "how may I help you". Here the "you" indicates at least 2 people, which English lacks a single word for. In the southern United States you could translate this as "ya'll", and in the New England part (at least in New Jersey), "yous".

The dialog began with:

Me: Vorrei prendere un tessero socio.

Both clerks: (Light giggle and chatter)
Signora: Una tessera?

Me: Si, una tessera! Cosa ho detto?
Yes, a membership card! What did I say?

Signora (now in English): "Tessero". The word is "tessera", a feminine word. So when you said "tessero" he (the other clerk) said to me, "Deve essere il marito della tessera" ("It must be the husband of the 'tessera'").

I laughed and thanked her for the correction, and we started filling out the forms for our memberships. The man worked with Erin, and the lady with me. She started off in English, but after a minute or so reverted to Italian. She spoke English quite well, but I persistently responded in Italian.

It's common for an Italian to speak English to you when you speak to one in Italian and they hear an accent, an error, or detect a lack of comfort or confidence. As I've become more and more confident in speaking Italian, so have I also become more insistent. In the times that an Italian speaks English to me, I simply ignore it and continue in Italian. Sometimes they will carry on in English, but usually revert to Italian if they are convinced that I am understanding them (I've found that the those who continue in English tend to be of youth, and are most likely wanting to use their English).

So now we have library cards and look forward to making much use of them!

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

In the Shadow of Zion

I meant to post this weeks ago, but the holidays kept me from it. It's an article by a Jewish Rabbi about the wall "protecting" Israel from the occupied territories - certainly worth a read.

In the Shadow of Zion.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Buon Anno

I wanted to share something that I found inspirational yesterday morning, especially as it's relevant to a new year, new goals, etc. As you may or may not know, I'm a software developer and am active in a few open source communities. As such, I participate in/communicate via various channels including mailing lists, and yesterday morning a mail came into my inbox that struck me. For the sake of anonymity I will not mention any names, and I will paraphrase the email as saying:

"Merry Christmas,

Let's all pray for peace and a better world in the New Year.

Best wishes to all my friends on the XXX list for the New Year,

"Big deal" you say.
"Every one prays for world peace" you say.

Indeed, and I consider myself cynical and groan at such tired clich├ęs when I hear them. However the context of this message changed all that for me. The author's name is clearly of middle-eastern origin. I don't know what country and for all I know he could be a Catholic from a country governed by a liberal democracy. However from his writing it's clear that English is a second language and his time zone also indicates middle-eastern origin.

I'm going to be so bold as to draw some conclusions here. I assume he is Muslim and living in the Middle East, and so it's not difficult to understand if he feels some degree of tension regarding the western position there. At this point you may think me prejudicial, and to that I can only say that I am not... at least not consciously. I remember an experience I had 3 or so years ago; I was boarding a plane when I noticed someone who appeared middle-eastern. I remember feeling fear, wondering if by some small chance I was on the next plane marked as a target, and at the same time feeling deeply ashamed for being gripped by such fear. My fear was a reflex; an autonomous reaction triggered by some combination of variables in my brain. On the other hand, my shame was self-inflicted. I knew this kind of superficial categorization was wrong and there is no debating that. I don't believe we can control, at least not directly, reactions such as the one I experienced, but I know we can control how we respond to them.

Having explained and disclaimed myself, I wanted to say that reading these words from someone like this was moving. I mean this was (probably) a middle easterner wishing a mailing full of westerners a Merry Christmas, and encouraging us all to pray for a peaceful 2008!

I agree with him, and I want to extend his invitation to you. However I want to take it a step further: I encourage you to commit to knowing people with differing perspectives, no matter how grave. Certainly there are people in the world that simply wish to do harm, but I have never encountered such a person in my life. I strongly believe that people who commit to knowing and learning about other cultures are much more likely to agree that there can be peace, even in the face of such sharp differences. I met a British guy last night at a new year's party and we talked about this very subject. He said to me that well-traveled people, regardless of origin, tend to be much less likely to hold nationalistic prejudices or to fit into negative stereotypes placed on their cultures, simply because they have experienced others and so understand their value. I couldn't agree more.

In this New Year I challenge you to purposely know others.