I continued my study of Italian, and on the odd days that George was home, I practiced on him. He was patient with me, and very slowly, I began to build my rudimentary vocabulary.
In California we had heard that “everyone in Italy speaks English.” Not true at that time, and I expect even today in many rural areas of Italy it might be hard to find adults who speak English. After a month on the farm, we found that only Piero, George’s friend from the furniture store, spoke a few words of English. None of the local store clerks, and not even the postmaster in Cerrina spoke English. We thought that we’d have better luck in the city. After the first few weeks we traveled to the nearby city of Casale to shop at the open-air market. George drove us, but I wanted to try to order by myself.
The market sold many useful items, but they didn’t carry some things that I needed, like powdered sugar, flavorings, food coloring, and large pots for canning the fruit from our fruit trees. And even there none of the merchants spoke English. Worse still, most of them, just like Zio Remo, didn’t understand my Italian!
The problem was not just me. I was fighting tradition and history, as well as my accent. The Italian of my book was one dialect of many that had been elevated to the official language of the country. But in the area where we lived, the dialect was quite different from Italian, and many of the older people weren't fluent in official language. George's uncles spoke the Piemontese dialect with each other and with their brother, Marino. Even George could speak a fair amount of dialect. The older people usually understand the modern Italian, but my foreign accent confused them. Even in the marketplace, which had always been my domain, I had to let George speak for me. I was becoming frustratingly mute.
One day, a cousin's wife appeared in the courtyard at Gabi. We had seen their car drive up the hill, as they had arrived to stay at their house for the weekend. I was on the balcony hanging laundry when she looked up and waved. I smiled and waved back then said, “Aspetta” (Wait), and indicated I’d come down. I looked for George to help with the translation, but he was nowhere around, so I ran down the stairs, opened the door and said “Ciao,” and smiled. They wouldn’t come in, but stood on the doorstep to talk. On full alert, I summoned the proper greetings from newly formed spaces in my memory banks.
“Buon Giorno,” the cousin's wife replied and then introduced her friend.
“Piacere, Signorina,” I said and shook her hand. (I remembered to add the respectful “Signorina.”)
Then they asked some simple questions that I was able to answer like,
“Come va, qui a Gabi?” (How is it going at Gabi?)
“Va bene,” I said smiling. (It is going well.)
I felt really great. I was communicating!
They pointed up and laughed at the laundry hanging over our heads, and even though I couldn’t translate every word, I understood that they thought our clothesline was great. I gave credit to my father-in-law, Marino, her husband's uncle. They asked if I had been to Casale, and I answered yes, that we had bought meat and fruit there. I was feeling good. Even though our conversation seemed an imitation of simple classroom exercises, it wasn’t easy. I was working hard to process their words and to formulate my replies in what I hoped was the correct grammar. I found I could understand far more Italian than I could speak. I suppose that by listening to the clerks in town, my in-laws, and the few visitors we had, I was gradually assimilating the sounds and some of the meanings, even though I couldn’t always recall the exact words when I needed them.
They asked if I’d been to a nearby castle, and I answered no. Then the cousin's wife said one small word, "Mai?" and I was stumped. I didn't know the word mai, so I shook my head with a slight frown, hoping they'd see that I didn’t understand the question and find another way to ask it. But they repeated that one word, "Mai?" and I shrugged and told them I didn't understand the word "mai." I couldn't answer their question. Then they looked pitifully at each other, shook their heads, and one said in Italian,
"Oh, poor woman. She can't understand us or speak properly."
I heard and understood each of those words, and I blushed. They talked about me as if I were a child, or deaf, or had disappeared. And I wondered then just how well I had been communicating with them.
After that they said goodbye, and I went upstairs to our apartment and looked up that word, mai. It means "never." I never forgot it.
And I never forgot how stupid I felt.
However, it didn't stop me. I knew I needed practice, so I spoke Italian with George, my in-laws, and the boys whenever I could. That was sort of cheating though, as I could switch to English if I got stuck. The real challenge was to converse with the natives!