The Inertia of Wings
The past couple of weeks my work as a historian of the sixteenth and seventeenth-century Spanish empire has taken me from my home in Anchorage, Alaska to Palermo in Sicily. I’m here conducting archival research for a book about a duke and duchess. They were Spanish nobles, but they lived for most of the 1610s in what historians often refer to as Spanish Italy. I spend seven to eight hours a day in a former convent sifting through manuscripts and trying to piece together the patronage and information networks that this elite couple created in order to benefit the crown and themselves.
This is my first time in Palermo. It’s an enchanting city. Some might call it scruffy or in disrepair, but it has charmed me with its layers of architectural styles, its hundreds of churches – some lavish and others sparse, its narrow cobblestone streets, and its delicious food. My problem is not with the way traffic darts aggressively or the street life that carries what the Sicilians call la vucciria up to my window at night. It’s with my own ability to talk. I’m essentially fluent in Spanish and can read Italian fairly well, but my speaking is wretched. I want my words to soar. Instead, they trip off my tongue. I wonder if the stone lions that adorn the Teatro Massimo hear me mangle words. Their stone visages show no sign.
The first few days about half the people I speak to assume that I am Spanish and the rest think I’m an English speaker. The past week, that ratio has shifted so that almost everyone now concludes I’m American after I’ve spoken a few words. I’m not sure if that makes me feel better or worse about my language abilities. On the one hand, it might mean my grasp of certain words and phrases has improved and now I’m not lapsing into the more familiar tones and cadences of Castilian. On the other hand, there is something disappointing about their responses that I can’t quite put my finger on. Most people have been very nice. I try to take comfort in that I’m probably doing better than many foreigners. Maybe not the Dutch, but certainly better than most Americans. Yet, because I’m not here as a tourist but rather as a historian, I feel a pressure to be able to speak better than I do.
At the archives where I consult seventeenth-century tomes, the staff has kindly put up with my pidgin mix of Italian, accidental Spanish, and hand gestures. One day I am ill and can hardly manage to speak at all, but one of the archivists graciously offers to pack up my documents and reseal them with the complicated tying methods used in many European archives. I almost cry because of this kindness.
In spite of this graciousness or perhaps because of it, I wish I could articulate my thanks with greater sophistication. Since I was a child, I have considered Italian to be a beautiful language. The language of the operas my father loved. In fact, when I was in college, I took a semester of it. But the professor was so rude that it was a miserable class. You’ve probably heard of hate fucking? Well, I hate earned an A in that class. And after the climax, I swore I would never see the Sicilian woman who taught it ever again. I went on to take three semesters of German, which has since nearly completely atrophied due to lack of use.
Looking back, I’m not sure my instructor was all that mean. Demanding, sure. Rigid, yes. Still, with that perfect clarity that hindsight offers, I wish I had stuck with it and taken at least another semester. Maybe then I would be able to correctly conjugate some verbs in the past tense. Even as I think this, I know I wasn’t predisposed to the kind of emotional growth learning a foreign language demands. As you remake your vocabulary, a new you emerges. In the fall of 1999 I wasn’t capable of it. I was stuck in a quagmire of grief and depression. I wasn’t ready to claw myself out yet either.
My father had passed suddenly and unexpectedly away the previous winter. My mother had just started on a road to recovery from substance abuse. My sister and I barely knew how to communicate. I was devastated and pretending to hold it all together. No, I was far too vulnerable to be vulnerable, and that is what learning a language requires. It demands discipline but also a willingness to make mistakes. To make space for the embarrassment of when you accidentally utter something vulgar instead of simply saying “I am going for a run.” Back then I feared a single mistake would cause me to unspool.
Now I am making lots of mistakes. Even though I know the word in Italian, I can only think of the Spanish word for driving while I’m speaking to a taxi driver. I mix up tenses and use words that are outdated because I’ve been reading seventeenth-century letters, contracts, petitions, and wills all day long. My mouth struggles to mimic the accented vowels and rhythmic deliverance of the locals. But with each mistake I somehow feel lighter, less burdened. And there is progress, too. While standing awestruck before the glittering mosaics of Monreale, I understand almost everything a tour guide is saying in Italian. I manage to converse with a couple from Milan for the better part of an hour before my brain shatters. One evening another of the archivists and I go out for drink. We take turns speaking in Italian and English. His English is far better than my Italian, but I try not to mind. The next day I watch birds taking off from the domes of the churches and later look up the words for pigeon, raven, seagull, and dove. Falcon, I already know.
At night I dream vivid dreams of participating in a triathlon with only a bathing suit, or heading to the starting line of a marathon I haven’t trained for, or realizing I need to be at the airport while my clothes are in the washer at the laundry mat. Not very subtle. But then I also dream about being the recipient of a gift of silk from a noble or about conversing with friends in Spanish with a few Italian words mixed in. I wake smiling.