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Fearing Numbers

Learning To Speak Italian in Italy


The pianist bowed to the applause, took his seat on the perfectly placed bench, hesitated over the keys, and unleashed a lifetime’s love of Beethoven. My friend Marta and I watched his fingers race up the keyboard, turn at the top, and descend in a pink flurry of sound. When the final note faded, we joined the rest of the audience in wild applause.

Our evening could have turned out so differently.

The day before the concert Marta had asked me to buy the tickets, unaware of the danger latent in her request. Also oblivious, I had agreed.

I’m in Italy on a campaign to become fluent in Italian. While my word comprehension has accelerated steadily during my stay in Rome, my numbers understanding—which I needed in order to buy the theater tickets, among other things—has stalled. I simply cheat with sums. Instead of asking the baristas to repeat the price of my coffee again, and again and again, I plop down a euro. I either get back change or, if they hesitate, I put down another coin.

Oddly, the Internet spot in my neighborhood has given me the best number exercise. While I check my email, old and young men playing Lotto read their lucky numbers aloud to the young woman at the counter. While I send messages home, I silently translate the unbroken litany: quarantadue, sessantasette, dieci, novantanove, due. 42, 67, 10, 99, 2.

Each bumbled daily transaction pushes me forward as well. The first time at the train station, I asked for a ticket to Naples and rattled off a specific train number and departure time. The clerk looked at me and said, “Do you want to speak in English?” Recently at the station, I asked in Italian for tickets for a journey that required three train changes on two different train lines. The Trenitalia clerk asked questions, offered alternate schedules, and handed me a stack of tickets, without ever looking up. I skipped home, celebrating my numbers success.

However, when I went to buy tickets for Beethoven, my newly gained confidence evaporated. The ticket office was closed and I had to order by phone. For me, speaking Italian on the phone is always risky business. I not only had to give numbers, I had to spell my name without a nod, a frown, or a smile to confirm I’d been correctly understood.

The night Marta and I went to the theater, my heart was in my throat as we approached the usher at the door. I’d seemingly ordered two tickets, chosen two seats, and paid with my credit card, but I wasn’t really sure. I held my breath when I handed the usher our tickets. She paused, then pointed to two empty spots midway to the stage. Marta, a twenty-year resident of Rome and fussy about her theater going, said, “Great seats, wonderful.”

If only Marta had known.

About the Author: Bonnie Smetts first fell in love with Italian when she decided to take a few classes before visiting a friend who’d moved to Umbria. Five years later, she’s studied all the grammar, read stack of classics, and participated in myriad conversation groups. The time has come for her to be fluent in Italian.

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