Slice of Life: Found in Translation
In which a Sarah Lawrence junior goes to Florence and learns the true meaning of conversation.
by Walker Koppelman-Brown ’05
Scene I: Florence, Italy. “You speak well. Are you Italian?”
The option of lying crosses my mind, but rational thought takes over, and I stare back into the pressing eyes of this dark-haired Florentine youth and reply, “No, io sono Americano.”
At this point the mask is off: My American heritage is revealed, and we begin what feels like part conversation/part debate/part PowerPoint presentation. After a few months in the Sarah Lawrence program in Florence, I can recognize the instant when most Italians realize they have been speaking with an American. First there is a pause, then an awkward weight shift, and finally a glib smirk signaling my cue to pipe up and defend.
Right off the bat my task is to differentiate the American people ideologically from the current American government. I see a sort of hopeful expectation in his eyes at this; the point was quickly accepted. After mutually establishing a left-leaning stance, we steer the conversation into commiserating about our respective national leaders (George W. Bush and Silvio Berlusconi), whether they are ruining the world, and, ultimately, a philosophical discussion on the role of art and art history in which we quote our professors and cite specific works that live around the corner in the Uffizi gallery.
Conversations like this one are the reason I came to Florence, because I wanted to infiltrate linguistically a culture not my own. Many an evening I spent with my colleagues on the steps of Piazza Santa Croce, nurturing a three- Euro bottle of wine, mingling with locals: upper-class, high school students trying their hand at the “hippie” lifestyle, University of Florence students planning a night on the town over beers, visiting students from throughout the country, and a general bevy of nocturnal rascals.
It’s an infiltration, in fact, that I had sought for much of my life. After a six-year conflict with high school French, I picked another battle during my SLC sophomore year and boldly marched into beginning Italian—for it was Italy that beckoned me. Much of my desire to get there came from my Italian-born, French Moroccan stepmother, Deborah. Simply hearing her speak fluent Italian around the house was enough of an aesthetic influence for me to take on a second battle with a Romance language; it didn’t require a great deal of Deborah’s energy to convince me to study that language prior to plunging in to the study-abroad waters. French had given me the fundamental groundwork for learning Italian: verb conjugation, sentence structure and a large supply of easily distinguishable Latin-based words. When I was accepted into the Florence program, I sensed I was ready for that plunge.
Then everything I had learned, I promptly forgot that summer—until, luckily, it all hit me like a speeding Fiat after my first two weeks in Italy. There I was, in the most beautiful place I had ever seen, with a resolve to practice as I never had with, say, piano lessons. My real language-learning began with fractured complaints to our orientation-week babysitter, Francesco. Our first Italian experience was spent in the Tuscan countryside (yes, under the Tuscan sun) with a pool, constant delicious meals, day trips, and the inevitable language classes. I emerged from those classes repeating words I had heard and complaining that my colleagues spoke too much English and not enough Italiano.
Everyone knows language immersion starts from within, and I wanted to disappear and somehow drape myself with Italianisms for as long as I was there. This would mean doing everything in my power to learn the language as if it were my first.
Scene I, continued – a loose translation
FLORENTINE: Are you sure you are not Italian?
ME (sarcastically): Yeah, pretty sure.
As I had long suspected, there is something to be said of conversations conducted in other languages, and they’re worth all the effort it takes to have them. It is not simply enough to prepare all of your dialogue before going into a store, reciting it, getting what you want, and hoping only for a simple business transaction. While this may be constructive in the short term, it’s a waste to limit speech to those simple scenarios that advance you from point A to point B. The real joy I felt from my conversations with Italians originated with the emotion and information I felt in my heart and in my brain and came from the act of exchanging words that represented feelings and ideas. That year in Florence, 2003-04, was a time of political upheaval in my own country and across the world, and the chance to discuss it in Italian, to get perspective from Italians, was what those pitched battles in language classes had all led up to.
Plato wrote about the act of dialogue between two people as an extraction of the truth already present deep inside each participant. It took a foreign language in a foreign country—in a political time when dialogue has never been so important—for me to understand what he meant.
Walker Koppelman-Brown ’05 is now a senior at Sarah Lawrence. In between stalking Italian speakers he enjoys conceiving, producing and editing film. He lives in Bronxville with his nine ferrets.