Apart, of course, from reaching Rome in one piece, my secondary objective on this trail, is to take my command of the italian language to somewhere between competent and proficient, from its present state of conscious incompetence. Britta tells me that I am a highly accomplished linguistic bullshitter, in as much as I can quickly master the pronunciation and just enough vocabulary to give the impression of great fluency in the first utterings in most languages. This is usually sufficient to allow me to order a bottle of water or to direct a taxi driver to the hotel, but thereafter we start to move on to pretty thin ice. Thus it is with my italian. Over the years, strapped on to a decent grounding in the classics, I have accumulated a reasonable vocabulary of usable italian, but no grammar, no declinations, no tenses and plenty of potholes, in terms of adjectives and prepositions, for me to fall into.
So yesterday, I decided to dive in at the deep end and phone through to the first hotel en route in Consuma, to at least secure a bed for Sunday night, wielding my best italian, in the hope of impressing both myself and my host.
“Vorrei una camera per la domenica prossima, le quindici maggio, per favore” I sung mellifluously into the telephone.
“Buona sera signore, aspetta una minuta”.
This was followed by an exchange in the background, in which he was checking with her (presumably Signora Hotelliere) on availabilities and rooms and prices and so on. I could hear this exchange quite clearly. Whilst I was only managing to actually recognise about 50% of the words, I still felt reasonably confident that I would master this early skirmish and account myself quite well. Back he came, having satisfied himself on all the necessary data for the conclusion of our converstaion, at which point it all came unstuck: obviously assuming that I was a fluent italian speaker (chalk up 10 points for pronunciation), he launched into a full and voluble explanation of the current situation, taking me completely by surprise, my having expected nothing more than a “Perfetto signore” followed by something which I would probably have recognised as “We are so looking forward to seeing you next week”. As it was, my pigeons were well and truly scattered by the time he drew breath, leaving me with the classic bullshitter’s dilemma (a lesser-known game theory conundrum) of whether to maintain the pretence or collapse my defences and surrender.
Given the fact that having a decent bed at the end of a long day’s hiking is high up on my list of priorities and also, given the fact, that I could not be sure that my host had not told me, that, yes they did have a bed, but it was in an eight bed dormitory which I would be sharing with the hungarian olympic shot-putters team, who were staying for a training session, I felt that the risks of replying with a “Perfetto! Grazie.” were just too high. I meekly switched to english, apologising that my italian had already broached its feeble limits and would he mind continuing in my language. This he did, rubbing salt in my wounded pride by seamlessly conducting the rest of our conversation in flawless english.
This initial skirmish had, at least, the positive effect of spurring me on in my quest to improve my italian language skills. I have now downloaded the “Learn Italian with Paul Noble” audio book on Audible. Paul (we’re all on first name terms here) informs me that he is now my personal language coach. He has garnered 5 stars in Amazon and many rave reviews from happy students, who have presumably found freedom and their italian voices under his tutelage. My plan is to execute a chapter a day, in the morning whilst walking, which will make for interesting spectacle, as I peregrinate, talking loudly to myself, repeating the same phrases over and over again. Part One, I note, will provide me with “essential vocabulary to use when booking into a hotel”, which I am sure will be very helpful. I may also brush up on a few hungarian phrases such as “stop snoring” (megállítani horkolás, if you must know). Just in case.