"Bellissimo!" My husband beamed at the assembly of relatives gathered to welcome us as we stood in front of their home outside Rome. They cheered and laughed and beamed back at him.
Then it was my turn. I cleared my throat and carefully began. "Piacere, cari cugini..." Pleased to meet you, dear cousins.
I looked around the group expectantly before I went on. After all, I had prepared for this moment for a year: classes in beginner's Italian, a weekly conversation group, daily vocabulary and verb drills on my learn-to-speak-Italian CD. But my words were met with only polite smiles and nodding heads. Crushed, I put up a brave front and trooped in to dinner with the rest of the family.
A year before, my husband and I had decided to plan a trip to Italy. We both love to travel, but we'd never been there together. Many years before, I'd taken a low-end package tour that crammed seven countries into 15 days. As we sped through Europe, all languages other than English were handled deftly by our leader.
This time, it would be different. We'd be on our own – in the land of my father's birth. Brought to America as a toddler, Dad had maintained only sporadic contact with our relatives in the Old World – an elderly cousin, his wife, and their six grown children. They all worked hard and lived simply. And not one of them spoke English.
If we were going to communicate, it was up to my husband and me to learn Italian. It was inconceivable to travel thousands of miles to meet my cousins and be unable to understand them. I'd been an adept student in my high school Spanish class. Could learning Italian be that different – especially if I gave myself a year? Of course, I would do it. It was my heritage, after all!
I jumped in with enthusiasm bordering on mania. To practice vocabulary at home, I bought a CD-based language program and asked my for husband's help installing it. He had no interest in learning Italian himself but wholeheartedly supported my efforts. Testing the CD, he heard the word bellissimo ("very beautiful"). He liked the sound of it, repeated it a few times, and then tucked it away. For the rest of that year, bellissimo was the only Italian he learned.
I learned many useful Italian phrases that year. I memorized the finer points of introductions and small talk, how to order in a ristorante and ask for pills in a farmacia. I was far from fluent, but if someone spoke slowly and clearly, I could manage a simple reply.
The day arrived: We left for the Old World! While my husband snoozed on the plane, I studied irregular verbs on three-by-five index cards and reviewed my arrival speech. Then we were there. We stood in front of the family home outside Rome, La famiglia gathered in the stone courtyard, smiling and expectant.
My husband's eyes lit up when he saw their faces. He was surprised and moved by their quick acceptance and informality. Smiling beatifically, he absorbed their warmth and interest in him, this cugino-in-law from the New World.
"Bellissimo!" he bellowed ecstatically at them.
They instantly loved him, this American who, like them, had no time for or interest in learning another language. They welcomed him, drew him into their home, made sure he was comfortable and had plenty to eat and drink. He responded with huge smiles of approval and delight. He nodded and made gestures of exaggerated gratitude, offering the occasional "Bellissimo!" when smiles and gestures were inadequate.
That's not to say that everyone wasn't friendly and polite to me. But – was it my ever-present phrase book that put them off? Or my fat wad of index cards? Or was it my intensity – to get everything right, to show them how much I cared, to miss not even a moment of comprehension at this, our family's reunion across the ocean?
Whatever the cause, it was clear that in my zeal to break down the language barrier, I had erected a barrier of another kind. With the best intentions, I had made them uncomfortable, shown them up, called attention to their inability to speak English.
While they appreciated my year-long effort to learn their language, they loved "Signor Bellissimo" for his humanity. Although not an Italian, he was most certainly one of them.
That first night as I tried to keep up, I could see plainly that while I had amassed a bigger vocabulary, it was Signor Bellissimo who understood the people.
I decided to put away my books and cards and prepared speeches. In the days and nights that followed, I relaxed and enjoyed myself. My long year of study was over, and although I missed a word here and there, I was there with my famiglia. As it turned out, that was all I really needed to know.