Wednesday, April 15
tmam: parte tre
My apologies for leaving you hanging in suspense the last few days. It's just been so busy around here lately I haven't had time to think about writing more down. But, since you're being so patient, I'll try.
Let's see where were we... oh, right, Orvieto (the first time around).
When I think about trying to describe Orvieto to you, so many things run through my mind that I hardly know where to start. Coming upon it from the road below, it seems like a town rose right out of the tufa rock, high above everything else, sitting contentedly on a tall plateau. The town below it is quite modernized, but as you wind your way up to the top, things begin to take on a distinctly older hue. Roads are paved with cobblestone and sand and weave about in no particular order. Houses are tucked into nooks and crannies, with clothes lines hanging from balconies. The tiny cars zip around corners and make seemingly impossible turns on roads built long before macchine (cars). The church bells toll on random hours and from nearly all directions, as there is a church in almost every piazza.
The convent I lived in was built in the 1400s and had not only a courtyard, a terrace, a marble staircase, but also caves. Yes, caves that formed part of the basement, where our kiln for firing our ceramice (ceramics) sat in an abandoned corner. There were times when it felt like living in a maze of sorts. Stairs leading one way, hallways leading another, doors opening to rooms I didn't know existed. It made for an adventure each time I left my room.
The impact of not knowing the language was bigger than I could have anticipated. Because Orvieto is relatively small and doesn't get many touristi, very few people spoke english, in any amount. This meant every interaction I wanted to have outside of the convent (who's nuns didn't speak english either) it required speaking Italiano on my part. It became obvious early on that picking up a language was not one of my strong suits. I struggled to hear where the breaks were for each word, I confused my pronunciations, I labored over what article went in front of which gendered word (and what gender was it??). It was painful and time consuming and most of all humbling. I watched other students learn it with much more ease and for the first time I felt like the kid who sits in the back of the class, not at all confident in their ability to learn something new.
I can now look back and realize that my main difficulty was my unwillingness to make a mistake. If I was going to speak, I was going to speak correctly; grammar, pronunciation, all of it would be spot on. And so, because I set the bar so high for myself, I rarely spoke. Never in my life have I said so little for four months (or so it felt that way). I would study and study and figure out how to say something, only to break under pressure and forget it all. I distinctly remember being on a train, sitting with some of my friends and a few Italian women who had engaged my friends in conversation. It was soon apparent that I was saying not a word and so they tried to "help" me out by coaxing me into speaking. This was mortifying. Any vocabulary I might want to use was flying out of my head, scared off by the pressure. And so, as I had become accustomed to doing, I just smiled and shook my head. But they persisted and kept repeating words in an effort to get me to repeat them back to them. I remember thinking, "Is this what it was like for kids in school? For those who just didn't get it as quickly as others? Did we pressure them into feeling even more inadequate by putting them on the spot and forcing them to learn before they were ready?" If anything it gave me a great appreciation for students who struggle and overcome those struggles to learn. Because my natural instinct was to hide in the corner and be a mute. Luckily, the second time around was not so traumatic. In fact, it was quite full of great interactions, but only because I decided to allow myself to make mistakes, lots of them. And wouldn't you know? It worked.
More later, but for now I must get to work...
PS: I did make it to the library on Monday and I came home with Julie Andrews memoirs of her early years (brought on by a recent watching of Sound of Music on tv).
PPS: The picture was taken from inside San Lodovico, looking out to the stairs that lead up to the terraza that overlooked the valley below.