To Italy, With Amore

A couple of years ago, my wife and I went to France. (In case anyone from the IRS is reading this, obviously, it was not a pleasure trip. I, uh, went there primarily to write some columns about France.)

Before going, we decided to take French lessons. I had taken French in college, and even though that was a long time ago (I was surprised to learn that France no longer had a king), it came back to me pretty quickly. The idea that I could speak some French made me feel more comfortable before the trip.

I didn't want to be an "Ugly American" who thinks everyone in the world should speak English. It worked out great. I was able to speak with some of the French people I met, and I wrote a couple of columns based on my conversations with them.

So now that we've started making vague plans about a trip to Italy — as a good place for me to write about — I felt we should take Italian lessons. I believe that when Americans travel, we aren't just seen as tourists — or in my case as a working writer — but we also represent America. The least I could do was make an effort to learn a little of their language.

So, we signed up for Italian classes. But these classes are not like the old-fashioned language classes I was used to. Our Italian class uses the "immersion method." In immersion classes, the teacher speaks almost totally in the foreign language. She doesn't say, "Today we're going to learn how to conjugate the verb 'to be' in Italian." She just starts to conjugate. It's terrifying and frustrating. Supposedly, it's difficult in the beginning, but after a while, it's a much more efficient way to learn a language. Since we're still in the early sessions, all I can say is that it's true that it's frustrating and difficult in the beginning.

When I'm in class, I understand why they call it "immersion." It's because I feel like I'm drowning. I'm gasping for air, I'm confused, I'm disoriented — and I'm actually paying to feel this way.

When our teacher gives us a homework assignment, she gives it to us in Italian, including the page numbers. So I'm furiously flipping through the book, looking for the page that tells me how to say numbers in Italian while I'm missing out on the specifics of what I'm supposed to do.

I haven't even bought the tickets yet, and I'm already an Ugly American in the classroom. I get angry with the teacher just as many American tourists resent the Italian shopkeeper who speaks rapid Italian to them. But in my case, I know with a certainty that she knows how to speak English, but just doesn't want to. I also know she could speak slower in Italian if she just felt like it. So, what do I do? Just like Ugly Joe American, without any apology, I ask my questions in English. And how does she respond? In Italian. So, I resent her even more.

In other words, this class has had the exact opposite effect than I had hoped. I thought it would make me beloved by every Italian that I ran into. I thought they'd appreciate my ability to order a salad and comment on the weather in their language. I thought they'd have a better feeling for America because of my ability to count to ten in Italian. Instead, I've only met one Italian, and I'm already wondering why she's so anti-American that she refuses to speak English to me.

I don't like this attitude of mine. I don't want to be an "Ugly American" tourist. I don't want to come off as boorish or as if I believe our culture is better than every other culture in the world. I'll leave that to our elected officials.

So it's a race against time. Will I learn Italian well enough to speak it before the process turns me into a complete American "boorist?" It's hard to say. But I've already decided that if I get in a conversation with somebody and I can't understand his or her Italian, I know exactly how I'm going to respond. I'm just going to smile, then ask, "Parlez-vous Francais?" It worked last time.

Lloyd Garver writes a weekly column for He has written for many television shows, ranging from "Sesame Street" to "Family Ties" to "Frasier." He has also read many books, some of them in hardcover.

By Lloyd Garver