Before coming to the U.S. some 30 years ago, I had studied English in high school. Learning it was relatively easy as it was one of my favorite subjects. So, I packed my suitcases with a good amount of confidence anticipating no major issues. I did not know that there was so much more to learn. I was about to embark on a memorable, often humorous, linguistic and cultural journey.
When I got off the airplane, I soon discovered that understanding the language was much harder than I had thought. It seemed that people were talking at the speed of light. It was very difficult for me to hear each syllable that composed a spoken word. Something as simple as “teachable” would sound to me as “teach-a-bowl.”
Comprehending the language was not the only problem. Because of my newcomer’s accent, making myself understood was equally problematic. When speaking, I would often mispronounce a word. I would contaminate its meaning all together. During a visit to my friend’s house, I made una figuraccia enorme (such a fool out of myself) when I told the woman’s husband how much I liked his “deck,” referring to the new house addition. The compliment would have been fine, except filtered through my alien accent, it sounded more as if I was alluding to one of his body parts. When someone whispered in my ear what that sounded like, I expressed my utter embarrassment with a clear and loud “Dio Mio!” (Holy Moses!)
One of the most difficult sounds in the English language is the letter combination -th. From the mouth of a non-native speaker, it comes out as a single -t. For instance, when I would say the word “ three,” it was not clear if I were referring to the number itself or to the tree standing on the front lawn. Likewise, in Italian the “h” is silent. So, I would say (h)ot, (h)ouse, (h)orse and so on, as if the “h” were not there. Once, I was talking on the phone with an insistent and obnoxious caller selling pet services. He suddenly cut off the conversation when I told him I had no pets in the house because I “ate” them (not true, I love pets!).
My adventure as a novice foreigner was not just the language. It was also the culture. When I took my first shower on American land, I poured cold water on myself mistakenly thinking that the letter “c” shining on the handle stood for the Italian “caldo” (hot). The first time I attended a funeral service, I showed up wearing a gaudy red dress. I was unaware that the occasion called for darker colors. So, I stood out from the crowd for all the wrong reasons. I don’t think I need to describe the perplexed look on some of the attendees’ faces when I walked in the room.
Back in Italy, we all ate a steak prepared the same way. On the contrary, I discovered that not everyone’s palate is alike in America. Therefore, when I went to a wedding celebration for the very first time, everyone sitting at my table giggled when the waiter asked, “How would you like your steak?” and I replied that I would like it to be “very good.”
During a birthday party, I was quite surprised, and I must say a little disappointed, when the hostess did not insist that I help myself to the food with the famous Italian invitation “mangia.” That experience taught me that in America, you don’t need an invite to eat.
A few months after my arrival, my understanding of the language as well as my fluency improved. In time, I learned all the cultural tricks. I have had no problem adapting to, as the saying goes, “when in Rome do as the Romans do.” I am now at a point of my life where I have lived more on this side of the ocean than the other. However, my mother tongue still dictates the way I express some words. In fact, my two children still laugh at me when I order “salmon” by voicing the letter “l.” Eventually, my accent softened, yet it still gives away my Italian roots. In fact, I doubt it will ever go away. It is here to stay. It is part of me and it is okay because it means that at one point in my life, I embarked on a journey. I left one country and landed in another. A brave move that made my existence double as fascinating and intriguing, for sure!