Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Schizophrenia

I'd like to throw a quick question out to any expat readers. There are a few posters around Florence advertising language classes with the slogan 'chi parla due lingue vive due vite', meaning 'people who speak two languages live two lives'. Am I the only one to find this a disturbing concept?

I often have the nagging feeling that when I speak Italian, I'm not quite the same person as when I speak my native English. And just to be perfectly clear, I don't actually enjoy feeling of there being two people in my head. There's not that much room in there as it is.

The Italian-speaking me is, well, a bit more Italian. I yell at people who cut me up on my bike, I talk to strangers on the bus, I chat to the fruit and veg man about the different ways of cooking pumpkin (it's his favourite vegetable too). The English-speaking me, on the other hand, is all please, thank you, yes sir, yes sir, three-bags-full. Would you mind terribly if I inconvenienced you - I'm really awfully sorry - but could I trouble you to move your shopping trolley off my foot? Terribly sorry to be such a bother. Thank you. Sorry. Etc, etc.

Nonetheless, I behave differently here than I would in England because (and I know how ridiculously pathetic this sounds) the English me is nervous of not knowing how things work and of making a fool of myself. Brutta figura may be a quintessentially Italian concept, but I seem to live permanently in its shadow. I can't seem to shake off this round peg/square hole feeling.

I recently signed up at my local swimming pool, which I had been putting off for about two years for fear of being different. Will I be the only one who doesn't take a dressing gown into the pool area? (yes) Do they all chat and shout and laugh together naked in the showers? (yes) Do I look completely stupid in my swimming cap? (oh yes). I now have to contend not only with helmet-hair, but also goggle-eyes in the morning. Beautiful. The thing is that despite being different and foreign and thinking way, way too much about this stuff, the swimming pool is great. I don't know why I waited so long to join.

Next year will be my 10th year in Italy and the Italian me is finally and inevitably starting to get some ideas about supplanting* the English me. My other half (my other 'other half'?) has heard me talking in my sleep in Italian, which is both bizarrely discomforing and wonderful. What still throws me completely off kilter is if I end up randomly having to speak Italian in England. Or, as happened at a Brit/It wedding I went to recently, I speak Italian all night to Italian friends while surrounded by English people who are round pegs like me, but complete strangers. That kind of situation can lead to some seriously confusing schizophrenic feelings.

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* As this is absolutely the first time I've ever used the verb 'to supplant' I looked it up and found the following definition: To usurp the place of, especially through intrigue or underhanded tactics, which sounds like just the sort of thing the Italian me would try to do.

8 comments:

Louise at Abbastanza Buono said...

Don't know about the two different people in one head concept but I completely agree with the brutta figura fear. I get nervous over just about every interaction with my Italian friends and neighbors--how big a fool am I making of myself this time? Biggest problem is being nervous causes me to have hot flashes (well, that and a lack of estrogen :-)). Thank goodness I only live here part-time or I would just go up in a blaze one day.

Anonymous said...

Think of those people who speak three or four languages and how messed up they must be...

Anonymous said...

Mel!!

I cant believe you have found another thing to stress about....

blasco said...

I have come to be at ease with the fact that there are a lot of people in my head...don't know if that's ok or if I'm just goin' crazy ;-))

Anonymous said...

I like the fact that when I speak Spanish I am a different person. I feel more at ease and I feel as though that personality is something I set out to create when I set out to learn Spanish. I have a friend here (in Costa Rica)who is an English teacher (he's Costa Rican). The one time we spoke for any length of time in English, because there was a gringo with us, he told me later he liked me better in Spanish.

I just discovered your blog today and I think it's really, really good. I see that you're writing for some newspapers. Your writing is so good I think you should pursue it as a career.

Mel said...

Well, thank you Anonymous! I think the whole subject of speaking two or more languages and what happens to our brains in the process is really fascinating...Great to get some feedback!
Mel

sharon estacio said...

Hi Mel,

I've been living in Florence now for about a year and a half and decided to go it alone in terms of learning the language (real smart by the way. REAL smart.). At this point I find myself caught smack in the middle of two languages- not being quite comfortable with the new one and scarily starting to lose the old one.
More often I find myself thinking in 50% English and 50% Italian, and when American friends come to visit, I somehow feel more comfortable talking to my Italian friends even though I still don't have enough vocabulary under my belt to carry on a real in-depth conversation without stuttering.
How's that for effed up.

Anyways, glad to have found your blog as it helps me find the humor in the horror of it all ;)

Cheers!

Bianca said...

Well, it's good to know I'm not the only crazy person here! 5 years in Florence and almost 2 in Prato and I struggle with this every day. I like to think of it as turning the language switch on and off.

And what about your sense of humour?? I'm totally not funny in Italian (unless I'm making fun of myself or someone else and even then it's not very funny), yet not funny anymore in English as I'm totally out of the loop...I'm not exposed to it on a daily basis so when I'm home visiting I can't keep up with the wittiness and new slang and then my brain gets all confused and I say "boh" and "meh" when no one knows what it means and I feel like an goober/social outcast. Speaking of, that's the feeling most of the time, isn't it? Social outcast, as in you're not quite like them and you probably never will be! It's a difficult conundrum. BTW nice blog, I've been meaning to start one too...