05/29/2014 04:34 pm ET Updated Jul 28, 2014

I Still Just Don't Understand

I have been living my dream in Italy since September, so I have been watching and learning and trying hard to comprehend since then, with mixed success... there is still so much that I just don't get...

First, of course, is the language...

I have studied Italian in Boston, in Florence and in Sicily.

In Boston I got my introduction from Isabella, with a one hour/week class which was fun and non-demanding (and thus I learned the basics but not much more).

In Florence I took a two-week 'intensive' course with international college students, and it was a wonderful and exhilarating experience with a lot of homework and quizzes and camaraderie -- it was great and I made huge progress (at least I thought so).

In addition, I met with many 'language partners' in Florence, and maintained a few relationships with Florentines who want to improve their English; Franca and I, for example, met weekly for lunch and my friend Karen is now continuing those great lunches with Franca, spending 1/2 hour talking in Italian and then the next 1/2 hour talking in English, all while having a delicious lunch. Franca has invited me to keep emailing her in Italian so she can 'correct' me, and I will. She is a terrific, proud, demanding Italian woman, and her friendship is a valuable one. (She fears that my Italian will be 'corrupted' here in Sicily, so she desperately wants to make sure I keep learning 'correct' Italian, which, according to Tuscans, is the 'most correct' in the land of Dante, near Siena and Florence.)

In Ortigia, Sicily, I enrolled in a government-sponsored program (i.e., free) for immigrants, and was in a twice-weekly two-hour class with about eight students and two or three teachers. The class was mostly conversational, although the other students, recent immigrants to Italy from around the world (I was the only American) were studying to pass their language proficiency exams to get their Italian working papers. In other words, while I had the luxury of 'playing' at learning Italian, they were learning to speak and read in order to assure their economic survival in their new home! I was paired with Rita (from Russia) because our 'skills' were comparable, and the two of us had Rosella as our personal teacher, giving us assignments and exercises and answering our questions tirelessly; it was great and not overly taxing (no homework), so I don't think I really learned too much.

I also went for a few mornings to Biblios Cafe in Ortigia, where Luisa, the owner, gives conversational Italian lessons. She speaks all in Italian, and sometimes I don't have a clue what is going on, but I think the class is challenging for me and, therefore, is good for me. I have gone back for a couple of lessons this week, and there was one older Danish woman there who was not happy to share the teacher with me, I fear; however, the class was good because we read an article in Italian and I was way over my head when we began. Now I have homework again! And then I invited Kate, an artist from St Kitts living in Ortigia for a year, to join me at the lessons, and it was fun to share and learn together. I am now learning the past tense and am excited about making real progress -- hopefully, I can understand, remember and use it all. Kate and I did our homework together and showed up today for our class, but Luisa didn't' show up for some reason (no note on the door, no notice of any kind) -- oh, well.

I have gotten more confident with my language skills, and find that I can make myself understood, even when I am using the wrong words or expressions. My listening skills don't seem to have improved much, though, and I often find that I cannot understand the answer I receive. When I ask for directions, for example, I rely more on the hand gestures than I do on the words, since I am never quite sure what I am hearing. The same happens when I am ordering in a restaurant and often I end up being surprised (pleasantly, usually) at what dish appears before me; food, therefore, continues to be an adventure. When I am in the midst of non-comprehending, I merely smile (knowingly, i hope) and say 'si, si, si'; somehow this ploy (what do I think I am getting away with?) seems to work, for the most part.

And sometimes I make mistakes that must be really foolish because they do get attention from the Italians. Once, in the midst of the busy cheese shop, the owner stopped waiting on everyone else in order to tell me that I was pronouncing 'grazie' wrong and to impress upon me (I think) that if I say 'graz-ee-ay' then I am talking about Grace from heaven (and here he lifted his hands in prayer to the sky, just to emphasize) instead of merely saying 'thank you', which was my original intention. I had his complete attention, and everyone in line behind me just accepted the fact; indeed, I have seen that, although I and everyone else often have to wait in lines to get service of any kind, once I (or anyone else) reach the head of the line I do get undivided attention from the salesperson, making the wait worthwhile.

And I am proud that I do understand the numbers in Italian and can count quite well. However, I somehow still get confused when paying for something and am usually surprised when something costs a lot more than I understood it to. Fortunately, Italian law mandates that every transaction be accompanied by a printed receipt, so that helps somewhat. Apparently, if you leave the store without a receipt and you get stopped outside by the Guarda di Finanza (the tax police), the store (not the customer) can get a huge fine, so the stores make sure you have the receipt in hand. Italians keep all receipts because the tax guys can request them anytime and anywhere, and tax consequences here are very high...

I do have some funny interactions, and I am sure that, in spite of my brazen attempts to pretend to be Italian, I often seem silly and foolish and I am just learning to accept that and be ok with it -- not easy, but necessary.

And there is so much more in Italy that I just don't comprehend... Here are just a few examples:

1. Why did the gym in Florence tell me 'its the law' to get a medical exam before joining, sending me to see a doctor (needing to pay cash for the visit) across town to get a certificate of fitness, but the gym in Rome didn't mention 'its the law' and required no such certificate or exam?

2. Why are strikes are so common, and seem to make no difference (except for inconveniencing everyone, especially when the transportation workers stop running the buses and metros for a day in Rome or the students in Venice block the sidewalks and march and scream or the municipal workers clog the street in Ortigia, effectively blocking all traffic for all the day)? I have not heard that these strikes result in any meaningful changes, but they certainly are part of the culture here.

3. Why do the Italians eat dinner so late? My friend Giuseppina told me, '7:30 is for children' and 'Italians don't go out till at least 8:00 because that's when you get to see everyone.'

4. Why do some things work so very well here? When you call a taxi, for example, to pick you up, and the dispatcher says (in Italian) that it will be there in three minutes, the taxi does miraculously appear at the right place in three minutes! In the cities, if you hail a taxi on the street, you pay a much higher rate than if you call the taxi dispatcher; the system is pretty darn good, actually.

5. Why do some things work so badly here? The bureaucracy (and most people do work for the government in some capacity, whether it is town or city or region or state government) is impenetrable, and getting any document processed can take a lifetime and can mandate visiting many offices and many of the bureaucrats. Finding the right office and finding the right hours (closed, of course, for long lunches) can be frustrating and discouraging. Even if you have done your research and show up at the right time with the right documents, you can be re-directed to another time or office or ordered to produce another document; nothing is easy here!

6. Why are the signs so wrong? The posted hours on a store or restaurant window are not always correct, and even the tourist attractions often aren't open when they should be or say they are. Churches, museums, trattorias, etc just aren't always available when I expect them to be. Even in the big cities a store will often be closed unexpectedly because, perhaps, the owner decided to stay home that day; I have actually traveled across town to visit a particular store or church or museum only to find that it was closed unexpectedly, as was the case with Luisa and her bookstore today!. And the government offices often close for lunch and don't re-open for some reason...

7. And then there are the hand gestures, which do talk more loudly than words, I gather. Here in Sicily, especially, spoken words are always accompanied by gesturing hands, and the result is quite beautiful. I am intrigued and entranced with the variety and import of the total experience of communication; the Italians talk expressively with their whole mouth, one of my teachers once told me, and I also think they talk with their whole body. I've tried hard to learn some of the gestures, without success, although they do make so much sense. There is one move that combines a right hand gesture (only the right hand, moving parallel to the floor and only at waist level) that 'pushes it away' while the head simultaneously turns to the left and looks over the shoulder; together, these gestures say 'I don't want to talk about it now' beautifully.

I'm trying to learn some of the most common or colorful movements, but I think I will never be able to completely and easily make myself understood with either my hands or my words! Apparently, words convey only part of the story in Italian, and the rest comes from the hand and body language. And here in Sicily the hand language is even more exaggerated, making for wonderful conversations, even without words. And the swearing is not only verbal but also visual -- I yearn to learn...