Four months living in Italy- the getting around, the meeting people, the getting out of tricky situations- and, of course, getting into them. My favourite saying is, after all, that famous, 'when in Rome, do the Romans'. Oh, that isn't it? Ooops.
It was a touring teaching job and I lived with Italian families. I do not speak Italian. You work it out. We survived, in general, on broken odd words here and there, a bit of French and lots of those annoyingly redundant hand signals that mean different things to different people and so cause more harm than good.
I was trying to explain to one host 'dad' that at school the children were very loud in the classroom. I tugged on my ear to signify 'loud'. Simple enough. Except that I later found out that my gesture means homosexual in Italian, so essentially I had called my class a bunch of little gays. Awkward.
With another family, at dinner one evening, my host 'mother' finished her meal with something very yummy looking in a glass. I asked what it was (by pointing at the glass and then at the Italian menu which, of course, I didn't understand either) and she repeated the same word at me over and over again.
A bit like when once, when I was little, my Mama came back from the shops and as I ate my own chocolate bar I asked her what she had brought for herself. 'A secret,' Mama had replied. 'A secret?' I had said. 'Yes, a secret,' she reiterated. I got cross. 'Why is it a secret?' I demanded. 'Not a secret, a Secret,' she laughed and I got madder and madder as Mama said 'secret' over and over again and it took me until I was 21 to figure out that 'Secret' was the name of the chocolate bar and not the cloaked-and-daggered desire of my mother to keep her confectionary choices under wraps from her six year old. Like Dairy Milk can kill, or something.
It took until I was 23 to figure out that the bells I heard on Santa's sleigh that same year were actually rattled by Mama outside my bedroom door too, but my therapist says that in time that too will heal. I can't wait to screw up kids of my own.
Anyway. Eventually, after much hand waving and bad French alternatives, my host 'mum' started to hum Tchaikovsky at me, and at some length. Have you ever had somebody sing classical music to you in public? It is EMBARRASSING.
Turns out it was a walnut liquer and she was humming 'The Nutcracker'. I don't even like nuts.
I had drunk a significant amount that evening, but even without the half-litre of white wine I still would have ended up bent double on the restuarant floor at the ridiculousness with which my cross-culture interactions are laced.
Like when I hung out with a cute Italian architect and asked him why he was in the area. 'I burn here,' he told me, and I thought maybe he had come to repent his evil sins at the church or something. Actually, he was saying, 'I BORN here' which changes the nature of his trip entirely. Much less interesting.
Even my communications with fellow English speakers became riddled with problems. One night, I was sharing a room with an American girl. "I'm afraid you're going to have to share the mirror," I declared to her as she stood applying her mascara at the only looking glass in the room.
She spun around. "Afraid?" she said, obviously quite worried. "What are you afraid of? Are you okay? Don't be afraid," she insisted.
I sighed. "It's just an expression," I explained. "A polite way of saying shift your arse out of my way".
The girl stared at me and looked confused. "Why didn't you just say that? Don't talk in riddles".
On the inside I thought, "At least I use the English language properly". On the outside I smiled without showing my teeth.
Suddenly, I wanted and needed another Brit with me so that we would be horribly sarcastic and cynical and talk about Les Dennis. I sighed inwardly. Life on the road can be lonely. I don't think the girl was so much American as generally stupid though. I love Americans. I love British sarcasm more.
I think the trip was worth the humiliations and confusions and mental pains though purely for the moment when a seven year old girl ran up to me in a crowded school corridor after a small English language show we had done, totally naked. 'No pantaloni, teacher! NO PANTALONI!' she cried.
And for that, I needed no translation.