Catching the Gist

Travel Stories: How to communicate when you don't speak the language? In Italy, Jessica Colley fumbled toward an answer.

08.07.12 | 1:09 AM ET

Campania, Italy (Photo by Jessica Colley)

Angelina winked as she placed a heavy, warm blanket in my arms. It was a particularly cold evening in March and this little Italian mountain village was bracing for a storm.

Her visit, blanket in hand, was the first knock on the door of my temporary home in coastal Campania, from my closest neighbor, a housedress-wearing woman in her 80s with orthopedic shoes and an endearing smile. On my first Sunday in the village I once again heard a faint knock, right as the air began to fill with the scent of simmering garlic. In her hands, Angelina held a jug of olive oil. “Va bene?

There was only one problem with these acts of generosity: Angelina didn’t speak a lick of English and my Italian was very limited.

My comfort level in the village grew over a month as I wormed my way into the local routine. After befriending the bartender—the one person in the village who spoke English—I learned when the vegetable truck came, where to get fresh bread, the irregular hours of the butcher. Knocks on my door signified it was time for the evening stroll, time to attend church on Sunday, time to ogle a new village baby. Over the days I learned to shorten the evening greeting, “Buona sera” to the way locals said it, simply, “sera,” as they passed one another on the cobbled streets for the nightly la passeggiata.

One morning with a bag of vegetables in hand, I passed the door to Angelina’s home. She swung the heavy wood door open into the laneway, called out, motioned to invite me in. She made believe she was holding a teacup, sipping a hot drink. “Espresso?”

My first up-close introduction to her hearty smile—the way she throws her head back when she laughs, bringing out crow’s feet that took decades of laughter to burrow in her skin—was when she realized that the word espresso was one I too could understand.

In the kitchen her husband, in brown wool pants held up by brown suspenders, was expertly preparing the espresso. He took a tiny silver spoon and mixed in a precise amount of sugar to counteract the bitterness of the thick, fragrant liquid. To this day, it is the best espresso to ever have passed my lips. With each piping hot, sweet sip, I marveled at the ability of Italians to steal a moment of simple pleasure. This tiny cup held their philosophy on life in microcosm.

Early each morning in this village in the hills, I would take a seat in a white plastic chair on a terracotta balcony and work on my Italian. I had flashcards full of scrawled hints to jog my memory and downloaded conversations in snail-pace Italian on everyday topics. I listened to voices beneath me on the street, greeting each other, commenting on the weather, the family. I mimicked their accents from above, dissected their sentences.

These long hours of studying yielded less than 60 seconds of results in Angelina’s living room. In broken sentences we covered the weather, how I liked the village. I had a nifty little electronic translator in my pocket, and when I needed a word, I could consult the machine for an answer. At one point I was searching for a word, thought I was butchering its pronunciation. I got up from my seat on Angelina’s couch, crossed the room, and showed her the machine.

“This word here, questo, this is what I’m trying to say.”

As she looked down at the machine without recognition bolting to her face, I realized she couldn’t read.

We moved on to family photographs. She showed me photos of her husband in the navy. Of her children riding bicycles in the laneway outside her front door. She spoke too rapidly for me to follow, all I could understand were words of affection peppered throughout her melodic speech describing her family: “bellissima,” “eccezionale”, and “principessa.” Her walls were covered in these framed photographs, her numerous grandchildren riding the same rickety bicycles in the same cobbled laneway. I jumped right in with my own limited list of adjectives, buono, bello, and she beamed with pride, revealing a gap in her teeth that only became visible with a smile.

Although Angelina and I had no common language, we found ways to communicate. One afternoon when she saw me hanging laundry she shook her finger at me, pointed at the sun, and brought the heel of her hand to her forehead. I was confused until the hour when the sun went down and I lugged damp clothes back into the house. The next week we were both hanging laundry at 9 a.m. as the sun peeked over the mountain. Once again a smile engulfed her entire face—I had learned a lesson. One finger shake and I was never again faced with damp laundry at the end of the day.

On the morning the vegetable truck would rumble into the town square I studied my produce flashcards and headed out to see what was fresh. The man who drove the truck would make customers wait as he perfected my pronunciation of mushroom, fungo, or tomato, pomodoro. Angelina sat back on a bench during these interactions with her signature smile.

Looking back now, I wish Angelina had taught me her tricks for choosing the best produce. I wish I had spent an afternoon watching her cook in the galley kitchen, learning from watching her weathered hands, no recipe in sight - but I never learned how to ask. That single espresso was the only time I entered her home, although we spent plenty of time gesturing back and forth from one balcony to the next.

When it was time to leave the village, I woke early for a bus back to the closest main town, Agropoli, where I would catch a train. The village was silent. I thought everyone was still sleeping as I quietly pulled the door closed behind me for the final time. But Angelina broke the silence, calling out from her flower-covered balcony. I couldn’t understand every word, but I got the gist: Italiano, Italiano!

When I next returned, she expected me to have improved my Italian. I didn’t yet have the words to fumble a reply, so when she blew me a kiss, I blew two back.

Jessica Colley is a freelance travel and food writer based in New York City. Her writing has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, New York magazine and the Toronto Star. She is the co-founder of a travel and food book group for freelance writers called "Chewing the Fat." Read more travel tales on her blog, Travel Bites Deep, or follow her on Twitter @jessicacolley.

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9 Comments for Catching the Gist

Sarah 08.07.12 | 10:43 AM ET

I love how this story perfectly captures the mix of awkwardness, wistfulness and regret that comes with knowing you’ve only scratched the surface of a person you’ve met abroad. Beautiful writing.

DEK 08.08.12 | 2:59 PM ET

Richard Francis Burton, the disorderly Victorian explorer, was said to speak twenty-nine languages (thirty, he said, when you count pornography) and he has left us with a description of how he said he could learn a language in two months:

  “I got a simple grammar and vocabulary, marked out the forms and words which I knew were absolutely necessary, and learnt them by heart by carrying them in my pocket and looking over them at spare moments during the day.  I never worked for more than a quarter of an hour at a time, for after that the brain lost its freshness.  After learning some three hundred words, easily done in a week, I stumbled through some easy bookwork and underlined every word that I wished to recollect . . . I then carefully worked up the grammar minutiae, and I then chose some other book whose subject most interested me.  The neck of the language was now broken, and progress was rapid.”

The conversational core of most languages is very small — a few hundred words.  Think how much communication you can do as a traveler with just “I want” and “It is” and “Where is” and “How much is”.  You can fill in words you don’t know by pointing or pantomiming.  Use a note pad for numbers, handing it to the other person when he is trying to tell you something.  Many words that you might not recognize when you hear pronounced may suddenly make sense when you see them written.

And just try to speak the language.  I think most people will try to help you and will enjoy the opportunity to play the teacher.

Elle of Solo Female Nomad 08.16.12 | 2:57 PM ET

Beautifully captured. Certainly, there are so many ways to communicate other than with the language.

eJean1981 08.19.12 | 4:22 PM ET

Common language or not, it sounds as if you had a wonderful experience getting to know Angelina and her husband.

Thomas Bruhl 09.04.12 | 6:53 AM ET

You know what, the ability to communicate without knowing the language is something that starts happen to me more and more. And, it’s not only when I am visiting non-english speaking countries. The ease of travel brought in many wonderful people together, who as it seems often can’t communicate in any other way but by trying. I love it. It really brings back slow pace and patience into our relations.

Nick Morales 09.04.12 | 7:25 PM ET

Wow! Sounds like quite the adventure. I’d love to spend some time in a little Italian village like this. Looks beautiful! It’s amazing how two people can sometimes understand each other when they speak different languages, right? I had the same type of experience in Brazil.

Gulliver 09.14.12 | 9:31 AM ET

“Buona sera” :)

You should always learn at least 10 basic phrases when you’re leaving for a foreign country.

Daniel McBane @ Travel Humor 09.25.12 | 11:20 AM ET

Sorry for my last comment. That was the annoying—and clearly non-functioning, judging by many of the above comments—spam-blocking Capthca code that I somehow managed to transfer to the text box, thus deleting my skillfully written comment. I’ll try to recreate it below, but I can’t really hope to capture the pure genius of the original.

It’s actually pretty amazing how much we are able to communicate without using words, when we have no choice. Of course my gesturing does not always lead to the desired outcome, but I suppose that’s half the fun.

Pamela Walker 09.28.12 | 8:46 AM ET

Difference of language, usually create problems to explain your thoughts to others. But still you have spent better time with Angelina.

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