Saturday, February 05, 2005

More adventures in Florence (5/18/02)

I have spent a great deal of time lately reflecting on what a tragedy it would be for the world if Italian were ever to become a dead language. I am also pleasantly surprised by how little difficulty I am having with it, although for reasons I will get to in a moment, I do not expect that to hold true during the entire trip. As you know, I have been making it a point to use it as much as possible while I am here, even in situations where I don't know an important word or expression and have to improvise a bit. That, after all, is how one learns a foreign language. (Yesteday I visited the Baptistry, where one can rent recorded tour guides in a number of languages. I chose Italian, of course, and understood it just fine.) Several years ago I decided I wanted my Spanish eventually to become nearly as good as my English, and similarly I hope that someday my Italian will be almost as good as my Spanish. I'm not there yet, of course, but what I see so far is quite encouraging, and a number of people here have given me some very good feedback.

I did have one unusual situation come up yesterday afternoon, most of which I spent at the Casa di Dante -- where, among other things, I saw a Korean translation of the Divine Comedy. (It was opened to a page showing an illustration of the ten circles of hell, so that even though I do not know a word of Korean, I would have instantly recognized this for what it was.) The museum featured an exhibit on the Battle of Campaldino in 1289, in which Dante participated -- as a cavalryman, I believe. I also saw a painting of the meeting of Dante Alighieri and Beatrice Portinari, which shows the event taking place at the Arno and depicts Dante as being fully-grown. [To view the painting I refer to, click here.] I knew, of course, that it did not happen this way -- although I should add here that I also learned during the course of the day that the event did not take place at the Badia, as I had told you, but at the Santa Margherita Church. [I believe I was right the first time, and that the encounter did in fact take place at the Badia. The Portinari family worshipped at Santa Margherita, and in fact Beatrice was buried there when she died in 1290. In a subsequent post, I made another reference to Santa Margherita as the place where Dante and Beatrice met, but I incorporate this correction into that post by reference, and thus will not bring up the matter again.] This brought up a situation where, for the first time ever, I had to use the passato remoto in conversational Italian. (Italian has three past tenses. To oversimply the differences, and thus avoid a tedious grammatical lesson, one is the imperfect, which is used the same way it is in Spanish or French; another is used for events that happened recently; and the third -- the passato remoto -- for events that happened long ago. It sort of goes without saying which one is used to describe an event that took place in the 13th century.) Earlier in the day I had been chagrined to discover that the compact dictionary I purchased for this trip did not include a verb table, and now I had to improvise. Suspecting -- rightly, as it turned out -- that the artist who painted that picture really did not know the story, I asked the man at the ticket booth of the Dante house how old Dante and Beatrice had been when they met. (FYI, he said Dante had been about 13 and Beatrice nine.) I posed the question thus: "Quanti anni avevano Dante e Beatrice quando si conobbero?" I have forwarded this information to my friend Mimi for feedback, and if I did this right, I hope she will give me an "A" for the day. [Mimi, by the way, later told me that I had indeed been correct].

I mentioned that I expect to have some difficulty with the language later in the trip. The reason is that for most Italians, Italian itself is a second language, owing to the proliferation of dialects. As recently as 1982, a national survey indicated that only 29% of Italians spoke Italian at home, the rest using Barese or Piemontese or some other local dialect. The standard form of Italian is based on the Tuscan dialect, which of course is what is spoken here. We go to Ravenna on Wednesday, and I will report back on how the language is different in Emilia-Romagna.

I spent part of yesterday afternoon with Sheila, but with her health problems neither of us wanted to push her too hard. We wandered around a bit and had lunch -- bistecca alla fiorentina con patatine fritte e un litro d'acqua minerale -- at a trattoria, then I took her back to the Dei Mori before I went elsewhere. After spending a good part of the afternoon at the Casa di Dante, I visited the Duomo, where I am going to take Sheila after I compose this and send it off. Oddly enough, the principal landmark of Florence is nearly impossible to see from most locations unless one is right there next to it, as the view is usually blocked because of the narrow streets and multistory buildings that form the historic center of the city; instead, the Duomo just sort of leaps out when one turns the appropriate corner. (Later I may go back to climb the 463 steps to the top of Brunelleschi's masterwork. If I don't do that, I'm afraid I might regret it later. They say the view from the top of the Duomo is spectacular.) Before I went back to the Dei Mori for the evening, I spent a couple of hours at a wonderful bookstore, the name of which I can't recall now, but I will let you know later [it was Feltrinelli's]; I am sure they have a webpage, and in the future I may order books from them from time to time. While there, I found some Calvin & Hobbes anthologies in Italian and sat down to read them. At this juncture I will draw a curtain on this scene and let you imagine the result; it is far too tragic to relate here, but anyone who has ever been around me when my funny bone was really tickled can probably imagine what happened here. (One frame that elicited a particularly good laugh showed Calvin contemplating his dinner, making a face, and saying somnething like "Beh! Sembra come vomito di pipistrello!"(Closed-circuit to Mimi: I remember the essence of that comment, but I suspect my version of it contains a grammatical error. Feedback from you is invited.)

Yesterday morning I awoke at about 2 a. m. and never went back to sleep. I remained awake for the next 19 hours, and spent most of that time walking. At 9:00, after returning to the Dei Mori for the last time that day, I put on some headphones and lay down to listen to the broadcast of a soccer game in Italian. The very next thing I remember was waking up five hours later in a pitch-black room, with the radio off and my headphones beside the bed. Sheila told me this morning that I had begun snoring less than 30 seconds after I lay down.

I brought my portable CD player on this trip, along with four CDs -- one was the "Voice of Italy" 2-CD set that I bought a couple of weeks ago, and the other three were Cecilia Bartoli. If I had it to do over again, I think I would have left them at home, because on the way over the cabin sounds in the plane more or less drowned out the music, and I have been carrying the CD player in a carrier attached to my belt, which is bulky and cumbersome. But that being said, it has been nice at times to have it here. Near Orvieto, on the train from Rome, I decided I wanted some appropriate mood music -- and a moment later I was listening to Lorena Mitchell sing "O mio babbino caro" as the train sped through Umbria on its way into Tuscany. This was a minor event, but nevertheless one of the most beautiful moments of what is proving to be a very memorable trip.

I may send another dispatch as early as tonight. Other than showing Sheila the Duomo, I have no particular agenda, except for one thing. I want to scout ahead and find out where our church is so we can go to our Sunday meetings tomorrow. (The suggestion to travel light is an excellent one. I did okay in that department, although Sheila obviously did not. I did, however, bring two sets of scriptures, one in English and the other in Italian; and I would do this again, even though they did add some weight and bulk to my luggage. But I must confess that there have been moments in the past few days when I have pondered the benefits of not being religious.)

Love to all,



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