Saturday, April 14, 2007

On the Sessantaquattro/Quarantasei

I spent Spring Quarter of 1994 in Rome.

This is a picture of the Campo dei Fiori, which is the main produce market in the morning. I hear it's now become a tourist hang out at night, but it was more like this picture back then.

The center building houses the UW Rome Campus; it is spectacular. The penthouse on the building on the right? Yah, that's where the visiting prof stays. The second floor windows above the far restaurant umbrellas? That's where the classics students lived. Behind the statue is a movie theater where I saw "Scent of the Green Papaya."

So the classics students lived there, but us Romance students lived in homestays. Mine was a short busride away, on the 64, which turned into the 46 once it passed Vatican City. The 64 is pretty famous for being the pickpocketiest bus line, because it runs from the train station to St. Peter's Square. So the express tourists get off the train at Stazione Termini, and go straight to St. Peter's in their shorts and sunburns, and get their pockets picked on the way.

One time I gave up my seat on the bus to an older lady, who was very, very appreciative. I said "Venga, signora, prenda la mia posta," which almost means "Come have my seat, ma'm." I realized later that I should have said "il mio posto." She understood perfectly what I was trying to tell her, but I felt silly that I had invited her to take my mail, instead of my seat. Whoops.

Another time a drunk, homeless-looking guy yelled at me, but I couldn't understand it. Once he had gotten off the bus, I asked a lady sitting across from me what he had said. She said, "non fa niente, lui e cretino" something like "aw, don't worry, he's a jerk." But then, to make sure I understood, she said in English, "HE IS A SON OF A BITCH!"

Swearing, my friends, is highly cultural. Also, it's not lateralized in the regular language centers in the brain. That's why a) swearing doesn't translate well, neither literally nor in degree of offensiveness, and b) foreigners always sound wrong when they swear. Usually they sound creepy, but sometimes they only sound contrived, like they had rehearsted it but still got the intonation wrong.

For example, when my aunts and uncles used to get together and complain about work, they'd tell most of their stories in Tagalog, but then, where a punchline would be, they would break into English, "and so I thought, wow, this guy is an ass!hole!." Then all the aunts and uncles would burst into laughter. My cousin and I would then burst into laughter AT them, becuase they used the word ass!hole! as a punchline. 30+ years in this country, and their use of the word "asshole" still sounds foreign.

My stupid students always want to swear, but when a foreigner swears at them in English, which is sometimes the case, as a rule they burst into tears. Unless you've grown up in that culture, you really don't have a sense of how offensive you're being. Which is why you shouldn't swear in languages other than your own.

They also like to try their swearing out on exchange students, which is always creepy, never funny. I can't tell you how many times I've explained to American girls why the French guys think they're giant skanky sluts: it's because on the day they met them, they giggled and said, "voulez-vous couchez avec moi ce soir?" When someone your age comes up to you in public and says that, it not only sounds whorish, it sounds PLURAL. Will all of you have sex with me tonight?

Ok, one last 64 story.

One time, I was riding the 64 back to my homestay after school, and a couple of old american guys with hawaiian shirts, safari hats, and sun burned faces got on the bus, and systematically worked their way from the front to the middle of the bus asking everyone individually, "Parlez-vous français?" And of course, no, all the tourists had gotten off at St. Peter's, so the bus was full of locals, and no, nobody spoke French.

So it's a crowded bus, and they've asked 20 people so far if they speak French. When they get to the midpoint of the bus, a lady anwers them in Italian, as if they were crazy, "You gotta be kidding, don't ask us, ask a foreigner."

Of course I'm watching the whole time, but I really tend to not step in and help lost Americans when I'm abroad. Especially if they're being ridiculous. If they ask me directly, yes, I help them, but usually they don't ask me, because I'm Asian, right? I probably don't speak English.

Anyway, the lady scans the bus, and sees me, in the back of the bus, watching their conversation, and she points to me, and tells the two Americans to go ask me. They are confused, because, hey, I'm Asian! Why would I speak French! I look at the lady like "Come on, lady!" and she just shrugs.

So they make their way back to me, and ask me "Parlez-vous français?" with a gringo accent so strong, I could he couldn't possibly speak French.

"Yes, I speak French," I told him in English. "Would you rather speak English?"

"Comment?" the guy asked, not understanding. I repeated myself, and he laughed out loud and shouted to his friend that I spoke English. "Where do we get off for Savorelli?"

It was probably their hotel, but I had never heard of it. I looked over at the lady who had pointed me out, and I said, in a kick-ass Roman accent, "Vogliono sapare dove si deve scendere per Via dei Savorelli."

The lady, glanced out the window, and said, tell them to get off here. I told them, they thanked me, and got off. The lady shrugged at me, and I shrugged back. The stop they wanted was probably a couple of stops behind us, but the Roman way of giving directions is only telling them the next step. The next step was to get off the bus and to ask someone else.

1 comment:

Lisa said...

Yeah, I hear ya on the not swearing in another language thing. It just doesn't go down well, most of the time. I stick to asking for inoffensive local slang that I can use (with stress on the inoffensive part!). Things like "cool" or "right on" or whatever. It usually makes people laugh, in a good way.

"Voulez-vous" isn't necessarily as slutty as that, since it can be plural, or just polite. I think it would be worse to approach a stranger and ask "Veux-tu coucher avec moi?", since not only is it slutty but it's really impolite to be so informal.