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Swiss Miss

Thoughts about the power of language, nationality, and remaining neutral.


I have a hard time explaining why I enjoy speaking Italian. Not because I can't ever find the words--in fact, my problem is exactly the opposite. It's the one subject in my life that I could talk about for days at a time. It could be a PhD thesis, a TEDx presentation (here's a link to one of my favorites), or a YouTube series. Years of working in publishing make me think,"Write a book," except all of the reasons why I love speaking Italian would result a trilogy. Usually, it boils down to something cheesy -- I'll say something along the lines of, "I feel at home speaking Italian." "My heart beats stronger when I speak Italian." "There's nothing more gratifying than being able to communicate with someone in their language."

But, on a more practical level, there's a stark reality as to why I enjoy speaking Italian. I live here (at least, I will for the next eight months), and speaking the language is critical to my safety.

That's not to say that Italy is dangerous; in reality, I feel so much safer here as a single woman than I do in the U.S. Gun violence? It hardly exists. At my language school's orientation on the first day, the teacher said that we will likely not be involved in a violent crime; the biggest issue here is that some people have "long arms" (meaning, don't keep your phone or any valuables in your pockets). This advice wasn't new to me; pickpocketing was a huge issue in the late 90s when my family lived here and I suspected it hadn't gone away.

But, the language is my protection. It's my camouflage. It's my way of blending in and being "neutral," even though I don't believe anyone would ever mistake me for an Italian. Who knows if it's my haircut, my shoes, my clothes, my eyes -- I'm banking on something to give me away. Since I never wear clothing with any logos and flat out refuse to wear something with an American flag, when I speak Italian with someone, it's their best guess regarding "who" I am and what my nationality is. One of the best compliments I've ever received was that I sounded "Anglo-Saxon." Score!

I have a theory as to when I became so passionate about language as a form of protection. As I mentioned, nothing negative has ever happened to me here, and I don't feel unsafe. Maybe it's the fact that in American politics, it's not only Americans who are at each other's throats, it's the fact that our decisions make an impact on the rest of the world (and we're not universally loved). When I visited Milan in 2019 after not having been there for 20 years, Trump was president. I remember getting in a cab and the taxi driver asked me my nationality. I trepidatiously revealed that I was American, and we ended up talking about Trump--amicably--for about 20 minutes. But, I know there's a chance things won't always go so well.

That being said, I don't rely on those interactions. Americans have various perceptions all over the world. Some of the more common ones I hear over here are that we are loud, we don't know any geography outside of our own country, and we think the world revolves around us. With that in mind, I nurture a healthy level of fear when it comes to how I'm perceived.

Heck, the whole reason I'm over here is to prove to myself that I speak Italian well and can blend in comfortably in a conversation. I work on my grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation. Being in school full-time to do so? It's a dream. I love figuring out big and small questions for myself, and sometimes I'm even lucky to help someone else.

Today, when I overheard one student ask another how to order a spritz, my ears perked up. "Is it 'la' spritz or 'il' spritz?" she wanted to know. I was happy to join the conversation. I explained that it was actually "lo spritz," since the word starts with "s" and is followed by another consonant. I don't make the rules, I laughed, but that's how it goes! It was a chance for me to introduce myself.

She asked me where I was from. We had been on a walking tour earlier in the week with one of our teachers, who is a local expert and professional guide, and since I consider this teacher a friend, she and I had a few conversations during the tour. This student had noticed.

I explained that I was American. She was German...and shocked. "I've never heard an American speak Italian like you do," she said. "You speak perfectly!"

Now...hold it right there. "Perfect" will never be a word I use to explain my language level, nor is it an aspirational descriptor for me. I speak the way I speak, with the goal of trying my best and learning as I go. But, it was a kind compliment that I deeply appreciated. It made me feel proud.

She added that she thought I was Swiss because of my pronunciation. When it comes to my goal of being a neutral, mysterious traveler, I'm not sure if it would be possible to get more neutral than Switzerland! Mission accomplished.


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