On Learning Italian

In a span of one year, I got bitten by a dog then later by a rat. Seems like animals were too fond of me they bite. Also in a span of a year, I have landed twice on the continent that has been occupying a great space in my mind and heart, and colors a lush of palette in my so far “adult” life since, let’s say, 10 years ago. That would signify the moment I scribbled “European Languages” in my application form for an entrance exam, and eventually, would become my heaven and hell for the next four years in the university. Dreams would be bigger since then, and the impulses to making them come true would be bolder.

Fall of 2017. For two days, I walked alone in Venice. Among perhaps thousands, there in a corner of the city known to bear far too many elegant labels such as “City of Bridges”, “City of Masks”, and “City of Canals” lies an unassuming and tiny restaurant. Careful enough to veer away from the temptation of cappuccino at this time of the day (even though I wasn’t roaming around with my Italian friends who might have scolded me for doing so), I ordered macchiato. Of course I inquired for something sweet too, and the busy donna behind the counter introduced me to a home-made classic Venetian dessert called pinza. It looked nothing special. But I have already learned that when you’re in Italy, the simpler the dish looks, the better it tastes. I stuffed a chunk into my mouth, and very slowly, delighted in its softness, making sure pinza’s taste and perfect goodness won’t escape my senses – the true mark of “la dolce vita” moment! It is the kind of scene that could dance in your memory forever, perhaps surpassing all the adventurous activities you’ve ever embarked on.

While waiting for my Couchsurfing host, I decided to head to the off-beaten path of the canal, somewhere towards Castello. From Burano, the boat dropped me off in a port called Fondamente Nove. Little did I know I would chance upon a treasure route of a very local area. In a consistently crowded, touristy city like Venice, it is like discovering an oasis in a desert. With every step and turn comes with a big-eyed expression and an astonished sigh. To describe the range of that feeling on an autumn afternoon in Venice, in fact in finally stepping foot in the continent of my dreams, will somewhat always seem lacking. Hours earlier, I passed by a free exhibition organized by European Cultural Centre. I was too lucky to be around during La Biennale Venezia because this means art everywhere. As there was no admission fee, I enthusiastically entered Palazzo Mora, all three floors of the building curated with contemporary art by artists and architects representing more than 50 countries. The artworks were expressed in different mediums such as videos, paintings, photos, drawings, sculptures, and installations. I was greeted with a sign on the door where the title of the exhibition is printed: ‘PERSONAL STRUCTURES: Open Borders’. Again, I was clueless of what would transpire in the next three hours. That after scouring all sections with high hopes to examine all artworks, that upon leaving those doors, I would be left disintegrated and recalibrated, undone and complete, all at the same time as if the revolving topics of Time, Existence, and Space have went with me, beyond that building, past that time and existence and space.

The power and meaning this afternoon walk carried had confirmed my love for Italy and for Europe. It wasn’t merely in my head anymore, as I was finally embodying it. While crossing the border to Czech Republic, my face was wet with tears. I was leaving Italy, the country in Europe where I had stayed the longest. Looking out the window from my Flixbus seat, I promised myself that upon returning to the Philippines, I would learn Italian.

Summer (on this side of the world) of 2018. I am here in Italy, looking out and exploring inwards, pondering on that one question some curious friends had asked me before I left when I told them of my major reason for returning to Europe – to study Italian.

Earlier this year, I was granted a scholarship by the Philippine-Italian Association and Rimini Academy to participate in an immersive language course in Rimini, Italy. Classes would take place for two weeks, and for four hours everyday, I would embody what I imagined “la bella vita” to be.

Yet there it is, on the other side, practicality waves. Here I am, situated the farthest from that side. Friend, another friend, then more friends had interrogated, “So what are your plans after this?” “Well I could use it for my work”, not exactly that conclusive in the tone of my response. The more languages you know, the higher your monetary value will be. I voiced out yet more reasons: “It might be useful for my future higher studies, or perhaps, who knows when I impulsively decide to be whisked away in the middle of the Dolomites mountains and look after animals whose names I have never encountered in my life.”

Could it be that I only wanted to do this…simply because it makes me happy?

13th of January, I enrolled and attended my first-ever formal Italian language class in the Philippine-Italian Association. I would run to my Saturday morning classes and enter breathless, greeting Ciao to everyone in the small room and lightening up with the presence of the best people to learn Italian with. Being there was non-negotiable, regardless if I was late hanging out with friends the night before, or if I have an oncoming beach trip on a weekend. It was as if, in the next couple of months, this was the only thing I was sure of in my life. For three hours, I would be ecstatic to be transported to that boot-shaped country, to the melodic sounds of cobblestones and accents, to the smell of espresso and pizza, to Ciao here and Grazie there.  I studied Italian because I loved it: I enjoy speaking it, listening to it, writing and reading it. When people had asked me years ago why I wanted to visit Myanmar, I would respond proudly with a full smile on my face, “I saw this panoramic photo of a foreign landscape magically dotted with trees and temples slightly enveloped in mist. The rays of the rising sun were slitting through branches and leaves and endowing the tops of temples a golden glow. It was so sacred, so peaceful, so mystic-looking.” Right then and there, I knew I had to go to this country. The other reasons my mind invented along the way were secondary.

Can an action spring from a pure wonder and childlike motivation?

In the words of strategy artist Tim Leberecht, “If a sense of purpose is strong, it doesn’t need be to codified. It is implicit and intuitive, and I don’t want it to be shouted from the mountains, I want to discover it in the caves of hidden meaning. Purpose is a story I can tell after I’ve followed my instinct.”

There is a term I’ve encountered in Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experiences. The author coins a term for a type of personality: “autotelic”. Rooted in Greek words “auto” meaning self and “telos” meaning goal, a person embodying this personality tends to do something just because he/she loves doing it, and doesn’t look far ahead for its external goals.

Learning Italian would be like that for me – a means and an end in itself.

After yet another month in Europe, I am back in the Philippines. Heat would be unbearable on days that I expect storms to come and, sometimes my mind would scour for that 2-week routine in Rimini. However, there is no sentiment of being stuck, rather an excited vision of the Saturdays to come.