by Aimee Elber
Franco Donati seems welcoming and approachable. With a wide grin and a mischievous face, he looks like the kind of jovial man who would chat about everything and anything. This is why I sat down beside him in the piazza my second night in Cagli and, using Google translate on my mobile phone, timidly asked if he would teach me a few words and phrases.
Of course, Franco obliged, and with a deep belly laugh, started teaching me words. Much to my chagrin, however, he chose words that had little meaning in the grander scheme of my learning here in Italy. Franco started pointing at various parts of his body and yelling the corresponding words in Italian. “Testa!”, he said, pointing at his head. “Bocca!” he shouted, slowly and deliberately when I parroted back the incorrect pronunciation “Buca” while mirroring his actions and pointing at my mouth. Grabbing our ears, we exclaimed, “Orecchio!” and laughed together.
By the time I left the piazza, I had memorized the song “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” in Italian. As I walked back to my apartment, though, I felt frustrated, disappointed, and sad. These words wouldn’t help me navigate my experience in Cagli. I wanted to learn phrases such as, “How are you?”, “I am an American student”, and “I know very little Italian”.
Prior to my departure to Italy, I had started learning Italian through an app called Duolingo. I made it through about 6 or 7 lessons, and could say “apple”, “strawberry”, “boy”, “girl”, and “the cook cooks a snake” (which, admittedly, was cause for concern and not at all what I envisioned Italian cuisine to entail.) I had hoped for a total immersion experience, and expected to at least learn a few useful words and phrases.
In the days that followed my initial conversation with Franco, I occasionally saw him around town. Waving and smiling, I’d yell at him, “Ciao Franco!....Testa! Spalla! Ginocchio! Pollice!” (Head, shoulders, knees, toes). He would look at me first with confusion, then a smile and a wave…and proceed to teach me a new word. “Occhio!”, he said, pointing to his eye. In English, I would beg him to teach me a few words that weren’t body parts. “Let’s talk about the weather, Franco. Help me learn colors or shapes. Something. Anything.” He shook his head, pointed to his nose, and looked at me expectantly, testing my knowledge. With a heavy sigh, I replied, “Naso”, and went on my way.
As I thought more about my frustration, I realized that although I wasn’t learning what I wanted or needed to learn, I was still interacting with Franco, listening to his words and phrases intermixed with the occasional body part. I had gained a friend, learned patience, and participated in his culture on his terms, not mine. While I had felt cultural dissonance in the beginning of our friendship, I had come to accept what Franco had to offer and take that knowledge away gratefully and graciously.
During one of our last nights in Cagli, I sat next to Franco as he quizzed me on my words.
“Cervello”, we said, pointing to the backs of our heads to indicate “brain”. “Piedi!”, we exclaimed, gesturing toward our feet and laughing together.
“Franco,” I said, pointing to my chest, “Come si dice?”
“Ah,” he replied, “Cuore. Coo! Oh! Ray! Cuore.”
“Grazie. Uhmm… Il mio cuore è grande….for Cagli….?” (“My heart is large for Cagli.”)
He smiled and nodded. “Brava! Brava!” “Occhio, Bocca, Testa, Spalla, Cervello….”