Come back tomorrow because the lights aren’t working

After a month of Italian classes, this week I have officially started my research.  Some of you know, that I am writing my dissertation on the Spanish community in Rome during the late 15th and early 16th century and in particular looking at the art they commissioned, I won’t bore everyone by laying out my argument here, but if you are curious, I am happy to e-mail you a copy of my proposal.  In order to do this, I’m doing most of my research in the various Spanish affiliated churches and libraries and the embassy here in Rome.

Monday I went to the Spanish National Church to try to get permission to work in their library and archive.  I was taken to a small room at the back of the church to meet the librarian, Don Francisco, a short, round priest who explained I was welcome to work in the library but that the archive is currently closed for renovation.  He then offered show me the library.  We walked across the courtyard passing several workman carrying construction materials (probably working on the archive).  Don Francisco then ushered me into a room with floor to ceiling bookshelves, and reached over to turn on the lights, but nothing happened.   He flipped the switch a few more times, then turned to me and said: “this is the library, but you will not be able to use it today because the lights are not working.  Come back tomorrow.”

Of course, why bother to ask one of the five construction workers we had just passed in the courtyard to restore the lights,  just come back tomorrow when the lights are working.

It was only after I left the church that I realized that for the entire conversation, Don Francisco had been speaking in Spanish.  While I had started the conversation with my memorized speech in Italian about who I am and why I want to use their library and archive, at some point, in response to his Spanish, I started speaking in some bizarre form of half Italian-half Spanish.

As many of you may know, Spanish and Italian are very similar languages.  So similar that Spanish speakers traveling in Italy and Italians traveling in Spanish speaking countries simply speak their native language and manage to make themselves understood.  There seems to be a mutual agreement that this will happen and, as far as I can tell, no one is treated with any less respect because of it.

This week as I have spent my time in the Spanish church and a Spanish research library in town, and of course everyone is speaking Spanish to me.  This is not a great situation for someone who knows a little of both languages because it is easy to start muddling them.  So if I spend the day around Spaniards, by the end of the day, when I go to the store or the gym, I can’t figure out what language I am speaking.

I was contemplating the Italian-Spanish language situation as I stood in a bar (as in coffee bar) today, mid-afternoon, taking a break from my work to have a cappuccino.  I was surrounded by Italians who were sitting eating lunch and drinking coffee and talking.  Suddenly, in the midst of this, an older couple rushes in the bar and the woman says very loudly in English “Two large coffees please.”

For those of you who have just cringed reading those words, you will be happy to hear, the woman had an English accent.  Whew.

The guy who seemed to be the proprietor of the place ran over to the couple and started speaking to them in this obsequious but shifty I-know-you-are-a-tourist-so-I’m-going-to-try-to-sell-you-things-you-don’t-need-voice: “Oh you would like a coffee?  American coffee right?  And would you like desert, I have lovely deserts . . . “

Hopefully I won’t offend anyone when I say that this drives me crazy.  I feel like if you are going to visit a foreign country, you should make an effort to learn a few of the crucial words in that language.  But, if you think you can’t manage that (and I would certainly forgive any English speaker struggling with Japanese or Arabic), smile and point or do anything other than order people around in your native tongue.

I offer as an example my father who is horrible at languages (sorry dad), but he would be the first to tell you this.  However, he always manages to learn a few crucial words in the language of whatever country he is visiting: ‘coffee’, ‘bread’, ‘wine’, ‘cheese’, ‘please’, ‘thank you’, and ‘where is the bathroom’.  For anything else, he smiles, points, and says please.  Given that my father can handle this, I think the English couple, who probably learned French in school, could have managed ‘due caffe’.

However, for those of you who speak Spanish, come to Italy and just speak to them in Spanish, they don’t care.


3 responses to “Come back tomorrow because the lights aren’t working

  1. Archivists and librarians were the same in France when I worked their in the 60’s and 70’s. If you complain, they say “Americans are always in a hurry.” Another stereotype.

  2. “rushes in the bar”, “says loudly”…

    Ignore the fact they’re not speaking the native tongue, and it’s like many of my consumer experiences in Philly.

    I have lots of great stories about working in West Yellowstone and watching many, many European tourists behaving just as boorishly. respectfully. Whether you speak the language or not, you have to mind your manners, wherever you are.

  3. So true Rick, its really all about having manners and nice to see it was the English for once who were lacking in that department.

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