Last week I got the great news, that a treatment I had written last year, has been awarded screenplay development funds. The first thing I thought when I got the news was: YES! I get to go do field work, I get to research for my screenplay, in a different culture and language! What a glorious feeling.
Research is one of my absolute favorite aspects of writing. Research that requires me to immerse myself in different cultures and languages is bliss. I think it’s the dormant aspiring anthropologist in me. Or maybe it has to do with the fact that I’ve always loved learning and that I grew up around many languages and cultures. The reason I even started acting was to be able to access different worlds. Not just emotional ones, but cultural ones. As a child I use to love to imitate accents as if somehow that would make me perceive my own world differently. Of course, one needs the language behind the accent to tap into what I was seeking; needless to say, the accents never took me as far as I had hoped so, as I grew older, I started picking up on languages. Spanish, you sort of just learn if you grow up around Chicago and then live years in NYC. French, because I didn’t want to leave Paris after the three months stint I was originally there for and stayed almost 4 years. Yes I graduated with a Linguistics degree. Surprise. A fitting choice if you ask me. Then there was the time I wanted to learn Russian, to be able to read Tolstoy, Bakhtin and Chekhov in their original language, so a dear friend of mine, Lana, tried to teach me the Cyrillic alphabet. I can still say: Я не говорю по России, but I can’t read a word of my favorite authors. At some point, Albanian came along because of a film project I was involved in and knowing that English would do very little for me while I was actually in Albania, I thought: Why not learn a bit of Albanian? It definitely constitutes as research. During my short time learning this Indo-European language with a family all of its own (!) I realized that as a back up I should acquire a bit of Italian since it was brought to my attention that Albanians also speak Italian, Greek or German as a half-second language. So for a few months I would meet with Felicia as much as possible to do exactly that: uno scambio linguistico. She was in NYC to learn English and I needed some basic phrases. Since we didn’t have another common language and trailed off frequently to talk about the meaning of life, relationships and food, not in that particular order, Italian ended up being our main tool of communication, and I learned two things from our meetings: 1. You’ll be amazed at how well you can actually get your point across in a language you don’t master if you don’t have a choice and like to talk, as I do, especially at a bar 2. Italian may come in handy more often than you think, though I’m sure Mandarin is at the top of your list.
Life definitely works in circular ways.
In the end, I survived my Albanian days with the bit of Albanian I knew, better than with the Italian I tried to use, but if I hadn’t taken the extra mile with the Italian back when I did, I wouldn’t understand as much of the language as I do now and I would not know that if I end up needing to communicate in Italian at any point, since the story revolves around one Italian-speaking character and one German-speaking character, so of course I’m also hoping to run into both languages while I’m down there, I will be able to.
Maybe after I’ve nailed German I should actually learn Italian properly. After all, as Fellini said “a different language is a different vision of life”, and as a writer the more visions of life I comprehend the larger pallet of emotional, cultural, linguistic resource I have to translate the human condition into action, dialogue, images and scenes. Or maybe it’s just my excuse to go ahead and perfect the Godfather or Scarface accent I use to imitate when I was a kid that only first-generation New Yorkers can do.