Wilkommen, Benvenuti, Bëgnodüs… in Südtirol, in Alto Adige… that’s South Tyrol in plain English.
I made it. Despite the horrendous weather in Munich, we were able to drive to Italy, through the Alps, and here we are. In a tiny little village called St. Michael, S. Michele and something else in Ladin, but that’s not an official language, so we’ll skip it for now (with all due respect). Here I’m speaking German, but it’s technically Italy. Historically, this Ferienwohnung (vacation apartment) where we are staying, that grows its own apple trees (amazing!), was part of a larger present. The whole town of St. Michael in Eppan actually. Well, literally. A present given to Italy by (primarily) England – the king of the allies back then – for joining the war against the central powers. The thing is, this present came with no return policy and no user manual. Like that funny German video available on YouTube that went around awhile ago. You know the one with the grandpa who uses the iPad as a cutting board because he loves to cook and didn’t quite understand what the damn board was for anyway. Nobody explained to him how the iPad worked so he made it his own. Years (many years) later, the present, tired of being used as a cutting board, decides to speak up and claim their rights to being a computer… of sorts.
Now going back to St. Michael or S. Michele. Here, I’m speaking German and I feel like it could be in (or) an extension of Bavaria… with much better weather and somehow a more relaxed atmosphere. A mere 10 km away is Bolzano or Bozen, or even Bulsan in Ladin, the capital city of this present, I mean, region of South Tyrol. In an impromptu opportunity to meet someone there for an interview, we hop in the car and drive to Bolzano. I thought I’d get by with German in the ‘big city’, but I didn’t.
Now I’m confused. I don’t know which language to use. I suddenly feel like a tourist, or a German-speaking minority, a Brazilian-American German-speaking minority that is, and rely on the limited Italian I know to get around. At the parking lot, I ask the man on duty if I should speak Italian or German… he looks at me with a “obviously-Italian” face, so I try… ho bisogno di…hum… como se dice… Conto? Fatura? hum… ( at this point I’m trying to signal with my hands a square, you know, the shape)… si? – the guy looks at me very unimpressed ( I mean a square could mean ‘matches’ for all he knew) and asks “Tedesco?” I smile. I can speak German much better than Italian. Ich brauche eine Quittung… I quickly spill out. He explains to me what I need to know, in German, and, no idea why, I thank him in Italian. He smiles. “Prego”. The first smile I see on his face. At the supermarket, an old couple in front of me speaks German until they reach the cashier. So that’s how I knew, that with her it would be Italian. The thing is, it’s not like anything I’ve experienced. I use to speak Portuguese with my mother when I was a kid until we hit the cashier of our local Toys R Us, but not for any other reason than, well, that we lived in a country that spoke English. I obviously wasn’t going to pull a Grandma Iza on the poor cashier and speak Portuguese. Yes, every time my grandmother came to the States for a visit she would speak to everyone, and I mean everyone, in Portuguese. “Grandma, they don’t understand what you are saying” I would plea. She would shake her head ” It’s ok, I have no clue what they are saying either.” Fair enough, Grandma Iza had a point. My husband and I speak English until we hit a cashier at our local Edeka in Munich, because, well, we live in a German speaking country. You can’t expect the cashier to speak English, though I’m sure most of them can sing along to most dance tunes. Here it’s different. This is a bilingual region. At a café, the waiter jumped between languages. In the streets you hear both German and Italian. All the signs are in both languages. The Italian presence is definitely prominent in the city, something that isn’t in the country side, but still, it’s technically a given that with either Italian or German or both, you’ll get around.
It’s my first real day in South Tyrol and I just realized that I’m experiencing every bilingual kid’s dream: to not be the exception but to be the rule.
The language and culture freak inside me comes out and as we drive back to St. Michael I think out loud: Well once I’ve nailed German, I could definitely learn some Italian. I mean I already have the Portuguese, French and enough Spanish to learn it you know? “What about Russian” my husband asks. Yes, if you know me you know that I really wanted to learn Russian at some point in my life because I’m a reader and I come from the theater. Russian masters all around.
You’ve got to immerse yourself in a language to be able to really learn it and unless you’ve got it at home, you must have it around you daily. I don’t see that happening with Russian. But I wouldn’t mind having to come to South Tyrol… you know, as much as possible.” He smiles. He knows where I’m going with this. But no really it’s true… I wouldn’t mind learning just one more language. I know I said I’d stop after German, but really… South Tyrol is just oh so close and it’s just so inspiring to be in this multi-lingual context. For me, as a foreigner, a language & culture freak foreigner, it’s just plain cool. I wouldn’t want that closeness to go to waste.
And then I’ll stop…
No, wirklich. Lo prometto. 😉