Four Days in San Francisco: An Immersion Course in Italian

Published Date Author: , June 23rd, 2010

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Marco and Fabry in San Francisco

Marco and Fabry in San Francisco

Anyone who knows us well knows that Mark and I have been studying Italian for a couple years now. It started out as a practical matter – we were planning a trip in Italia in 2006, and we wanted to be able to ask for a table at a restaurant, ask where the bathroom was, and all the other little joys that make any vacation comfortable.

So we signed up for a travelers course at the local Centro di Italiano (Italian Center) in Sacramento. It went really well, and after this five week course, we found ourselves able to carry on basic conversations in Italian during our three week trip.

Now I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to learn a foreign language after high school. I took Latin during my high school years, and really enjoyed it, but learning a new language as a (lets just say older) person is much more challenging. They say, though, that active learning like this, especially learning a new language, is really good for keeping your brain in good shape.

So as we planned our next Italian adventure in 2008, we decided to go whole-hog and take the full-strength language courses at The Center. The Italian Center uses a textbook called Prego, which covers all the basic grammar, and is used in many colleges as a First Year textbook for Italian students. Each 9 week course covers two of the eighteen chapters, and there are three semesters a year.

We came to our Uno class, sat down, and looked around. There were many older/retired people and couples – not surprising for a Tuesday at 10 AM class, and a few younger faces. Little did we know at the time that many of these folks would become close friends as we navigated this strange lingua (language) together.

Flash forward to now – we finished the Sette (seven) class in the spring, and we meet as a group every Tuesday to study, regardless of whether the official classes are in session. While I wouldn’t say we’re anywhere near fluent, we can speak the basics decently, and if you talk really slowly to us, we might understand most of what you’re saying.

In January, in my capacity as Gay Marriage Watch blogger, I came across the story of a gay couple in Italy who was staging a hunger strike for gay marriage, and I posted a note on their Facebook page, hoping to hear from them.

Two of their friends, Marco and Fabry, wrote to us instead, and we struck up an email friendship.

Forlì - Picture Courtesy of Wikipedia

Forlì - Picture Courtesy of Wikipedia

For months, we emailed back and forth, and then we started to skype for an hour la domenica (every Sunday). We learned that Marco and Fabry live in the city of Forlì, a town in Emilia Romagna, about an hour east of Florence. We learned that they both work for the city, and that Fabry’s mother has a fantastic garden. And we learned that they were coming to the US in May.

So we arranged to be their personal tour guides for their four days in San Francisco.

And so began the immersion course in Italian – four solid days speaking practically nothing else besides la bella lingua (the beautiful language).

The boys arrived through SFO, and were detained by Customs for an hour – did you know our Customs departments don’t offer bilingual employees to help visitors through the system?

We got them checked into their hotel, and then took them to the Church of Abercrombie and Fitch. Seriously. What the Catholic Church is to your average Italian, Hollister, Abercrombie, and other American clothing stores are to gay Italians.

Over the next four days, we discovered how many things are the same for Americans and Italians, and how many things are different.

Marco & Fabry

Marco & Fabry

For instance, Italians non piace ghiaccio (don’t like ice) – at least, not unless it’s really really hot. And it’s really hard to get a drink without ice here in the US – even when you ask, they forget half the time.

And similarly, they can’t understand why we are so addicted to air conditioning – for them, going from hot to cold to hot to cold every time you enter or exit a store is really annoying.

They also had no idea what a pretzel was.

Like us, they think their government is often corrupt, and that religion tramples over everything else. They are frustrated at the lack of progress on gay rights.

In the same way we’d love to move to Italy because it’s such a beautiful country, they’d love to move here – we see all the good in each other’s home countries, but not the problems.

We learned that gay men are called simply gay or finochio in Italian, or the more negative frocio – think fag in English.

And we learned that in any good relationship, both partners need to learn to piegare (bend) for each other – and yes, that is both figurative and literal.

San Francisco is truly a walking city, like Rome or Florence, and we made the most of it, caminare a piedi (walking on foot) through parts of North Beach, Union Square, the Castro, and the Waterfront. Of course, they wanted to see all the touristy things – Lombard Street, Fisherman’s Wharf, Pier 39, the Golden Gate Bridge – but we also took them to some of our favorites – the Filbert Steps, shopping on Union Street, and the bar at the top of the Marriott Marquis.

What did we learn from our Italian friends?

Parla, parla, parla! (Speak, speak, speak!) It was a little scary at first, but after a few hours, it became easier, and although we made many mistakes, they actually understood what we had to say.

And there were momentary flashes here and there – little strings of words or phrases – where I actually spoke or listened purely in Italian. Marco or Fabry would speak, and it would take me a minute to realize it was in Italian, because I understood the meaning without having to actually translate the words. It was a magical feeling, one I hope comes more and more often as our relationship con Italiano grows.

Marco and Fabry are gone now, off on their whirlwind bus tour of the western United States. But we hear from them daily via text message or email.

And maybe, next year, we’ll get to be the travelers and they can be the guides as we take part two of our Italian Immersion Course – this time in the beautiful city of Forlì!

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