Andy Stone: A Stone’s Throw
October 6, 2010
Today’s the first day of school, and I want to bring an apple for the teacher. Really, I do; sucking up is always a good idea – but I don’t know how to say “apple.” Or “teacher.”
I’m starting two weeks of Italian classes today and my Italian vocabulary consists of “gelato.” And “pizza.” And, of course, “euro” – which is the money they use over here and it isn’t really an Italian word, it’s a made-up European word, which translates into American English as “It costs how much?!” (The accent is important. The words “how much” should be spoken with a rising whine of disbelief, which neatly complements the dollar’s sinking whine of desperation.)
So you can see, I really need these classes. Man can’t live by gelato and pizza alone. (Well, he can, but he’ll wind up fat and lonely.)
So it’s important, but things are looking grim here at school. The teacher just marched in and greeted us in an incomprehensible language. Italian I assume, but who knows? I don’t speak Italian. That’s why I’m here.
Doesn’t she understand that? She’s supposed to be the teacher.
What’s wrong with this woman? Come on, lady! Speak English!
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No such luck. She just keeps chattering on. Well, no point in trying to listen to her now. I hope she’ll start teaching soon.
Meanwhile, I’m thinking about why I really, really need to be in language school. It’s more than just reading menus.
Yesterday I had the key moment of realization.
I was standing in the middle of the street, hanging onto a map, a guidebook, a double-scoop cone of gelato, and a deeply bewildered expression.
The guidebook was creased and torn, the map didn’t bear any relationship to anything I could see, and a small rivulet of gelato was running down my hand and up my sleeve.
In short, I was a tourist. A thoroughly helpless, hopeless tourist.
Worse yet, I was surrounded by hordes of other tourists – all with guidebooks, maps, gelatos and bewildered expressions.
At least I didn’t have a fanny pack twisted around and worn in front – which is the same as wearing a sign on your back that says, “Kick me. I’m a loser.”
But a fanny pack would have just been the glaze on the chocolate-covered donut. (The cherry on the hot fudge gelato?) With it or without it, I was unmistakably exactly what I was: a tourist in a tourist town.
Yikes! As a long-term Aspenite, I know full well that being a tourist in a tourist town definitely isn’t cool – even if it’s a cool town like Aspen, where cool tourists go. Aspen tourists may think they’re cool because they’re in Aspen. Aspen locals know better. Tourists are tourists.
And, since it’s just us here right now, let’s tell the truth: Those of us who have chosen to live in Aspen want to be cool. (Come on, admit it. You know you do.) So none of us wants to be that guy wandering the streets with a bewildered look and a smudge of gelato on his face.
But here I am in Siena. And, not knowing the town and not speaking any Italian, I am definitely a tourist.
And though I really don’t have any serious hope of changing that in the mere month we have here (a month seemed like such a long time when we were setting out, now I realize it’s no time at all), learning a little Italian is certainly a first step. A tiny toddler’s step, but a step all the same.
So I’m in Italian class and, to be honest, it’s a wonderful thing.
Learning a new language – especially at my age – is a gloriously painful experience.
You can feel your mind stretching (like the waist of my pants after all those gelatos … wait, make that “gelati” – see how much I’ve learned already) and maybe even getting ready to burst (again, like my pants). But that’s a good thing.
And better yet, you suffer moments of deep embarrassment, feeling like an idiot as you fumble and stumble and thrash around helplessly, trying to say something … anything.
Most of us, by a certain point in our lives, have done our level best to swear off that kind of embarrassment.
We’ve settled into careers, settled into our lives, settled into our comfortable ruts.
Frankly, I love our home in the Roaring Fork Valley. I love waking up every morning and looking out at Mount Sopris as the sun rises. I love what I do and I love what I’ve done. I could so easily settle in and just cruise.
And that means I need to shake it up, knock it down and pick up the pieces again.
Now, sure, I know that’s not really what I’m doing. A month of eating gelato and trying to learn Italian is nothing like the heroism implied by grand phrases like “shake it up, knock it over and pick up the pieces again.”
But it’s something.
And now, as I look out my window every morning onto the Piazza del Campo, I can see that Siena’s Torre del Mangia is in its own way a lot like Mount Sopris – unique and inspiring.
And that, all by itself, is a revelation. Well worth the trouble. And embarrassment. (And the extra weight from all those gelati.)
Time to buckle down and listen to the teacher.
(And now … here’s a free tourist tip. Really. If you’ve read this far, you ought to get something for your trouble. If you’re ever in Siena and looking for a wonderful – though not cheap – meal, head directly for the Osteria Le Logge on Via del Porrione, just a block from the Torre del Mangia. We ate there last night and had the first truly outstanding meal of our trip. The rolled stuffed, chicken breast was staggeringly good. This is not some kind of “insider’s, super-secret tip.” We found the restaurant listed in several guide books. But you can’t always trust guidebooks – and, believe me, you can trust this advice.)
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