April 5, 2019 | Narrative
the language of a place
finding fluency at brown
During my first few months at Brown, I discovered a lot of things that I wished people had told me before. I worked hard to not let these nondisclosures feel like little betrayals, redacted knowledge nesting behind the starry-eyed smiles of neighborhood parents, relatives, and others who clasped their hands and joyfully informed me: “You’re going to LOVE it!”
And I do love it. Now. I think I would’ve been more willing to love it sooner if I had known about the entire pile of asterisks sitting in the bottom drawer of that sentiment. You will be homesick, and that’s okay! Orientation will be about as socially helpful as a trip to the dog park is for a goldfish!
But the number one thing I wish I had known was how often in college you have no freaking idea where you’re going. And Google Maps cannot save you. Google Maps laughs at your pain as it hands you 20-minute route after 20-minute route to places that, if you were familiar with the campus, you could probably reach in fewer than 10 minutes.
I’ve spoken with first-years many times now about those precarious first weeks of walking in one direction, realizing you’re going the wrong way, and wheeling around to pass everyone you saw on the way there. You pass a guy in an orange hat as you make your way to an English seminar with a spring in your step—only to realize the class is in the exact opposite direction. You pivot, briskly passing the same guy and pretending not to notice, wondering what it’s like to inhabit the part of society that knows where it’s going, that isn’t ruled by the looming automated voice of the Maps woman.
The walk of shame runs deep, and it runs on nonfluency. My first month, I endlessly tried to interact with others in a language full of nuances I didn’t quite understand. College felt like a hamster ball, both a barrier and something that spun erratically out of control, a constantly turning sphere of activities I should be joining and people I wasn’t meeting. It was nauseating, on the soul level.
It’s about 10 p.m. some night in September and a wink of light comes from my phone: a message from my dad. He’s at home in Michigan, probably working or looking at tropical fish forums (long story).
Ciao bellissima, come va?
Okay, not hard to respond to. My thumbs only momentarily hover over the keyboard before replying.
Così così. E tu?
Learning Italian was a disjointed road I had wandered off and swerved back onto throughout my life. My dad, born to two Italian immigrants, had persistently attempted (and been refuted by childish impatience when I was little) to make me learn the language: from him, from tutors, from the ever-threatening Duolingo owl.
At Brown, I took comfort in learning Italian. In a new place where every day felt farther and farther from home, studying Italian brought me closer to a piece of myself and my history.
Texting in Italian wasn’t always easy. Sometimes I’d forget whether the e that means and or the e that means is has an accent (the latter, in case you were curious). I often returned begrudgingly to the mocking arms of Google Translate to figure out how to say lost my key and ID today or changing my concentration to “lost cause.”
But my dad has always been patient. The fact that he tries at all is proof that he believes in me—proof that one day, we’ll find ourselves at the center of lofty cathedrals in Florence, and the language will dance out of us. No matter how long it took me, or how many mistakes I made, only two things mattered: that I listened, and that I tried again.
A knock on my door. I pad over and peek out; it’s my hallmate.
My old anxiety is at the door beside him. Just be yourself… But who is “myself”? Why am I (or anyone, for that matter) expected to know and quantify myself at the age of 18? Just say you’re tired. You have work to do. You—
I realized, then, that this was why I felt like I didn’t speak “the language” of this place. Because I had reduced it to just that—one language. A language that I could hardly hear over my own rigid expectations of what life here should be.
I had tuned out every effort of this place to communicate with me: the bass of the party next door, the din of the V-Dub, the smiles of people who I had dismissed as “not here to stay” before I even waited to see if they did.
We’re all here, trying to learn the language of this place—regardless of whether we are first-years or seniors. Trying to tie ourselves to some notion of home with giant (sometimes blue) bear statues and ugly libraries and ridiculously good muffins. This place speaks to us; we may never hear, or let ourselves hear, but it keeps trying. In the months that would follow, it spoke to me through people I can’t imagine not knowing now.
I had to start adding accents to e’s, even if it meant mixing up and with is sometimes. The importance was in trying, even if I didn’t know whether I’d be right every time. It didn’t matter if I walked the wrong way by a long shot. Because the sidewalk wasn’t going anywhere. I could always, always turn around.
No matter how long it takes me, or how many mistakes I make, only two things matter: that I listen, and that I try again.
My phone lights up.
Un abbraccio grande grande.
Even if I hadn’t known what the words meant, I would’ve felt it anyway. My dad’s great big hug, conveyed in a small gray bubble.
I open the door.