un’isola

Today is a nostalgic day.  What is it that I’m pining for?  Being surrounded by a foreign language.  I’ll explain.

I’ve been going through things and reorganizing lately.  It’s a good spring-ish thing to do, and I ran into some old journals in the process.  The journals start around 1990 and more or less stop in 2006.  You can imagine the insightful commentary of a six year-old.   I’m sure I’ll laugh about this blog in the same way someday, but some of the journal pages did capture things that I’m glad to remember.

One journal has more interesting content than all of the others combined, and it’s from my semester in Lugano, Switzerland.  It felt essential to record my thoughts during those months, probably because there weren’t a whole lot of people around who spoke English.  It’s hard to verbally process anything if you can only apologize, say thank you, and ask for two scoops of ice cream.  Clearly, I learned the truly necessary phrases in Italian, but they didn’t get me very far.

Not speaking the local language seemed to put me on my own little island.  I was living among people, but I was almost invisible because I couldn’t communicate with them.  I could be a part of their world, but I couldn’t really impact it in any way.  No one there even knew if I was mute or spoke Russian or what.  It’s amazing how little you need to speak when you know it won’t communicate anything other than “I’m not from here,” so I spent a large part of my time there in silence.  I had friends, sure, but there were no small interactions with strangers and acquaintances that happen so often here.

People here know stupid things about me.  The cashier I see every week at the grocery store knows where I work and that I’ve been trying to quit drinking Coke for the last year.  I know that she has a son in college nearby and that she worries about him a lot.  Those kinds of interactions and acquaintances don’t seem important until they don’t exist.  I would have told a woman who sat down next to me in Lugano that this was my favorite bench, and she might have told me that it was her favorite bench, too.

Every once in a while, that lack of connection made me feel sad and alone.  It didn’t last long though.  Most of the time, I felt an overwhelming freedom and joy.  Too much of my time here is spent worrying about what other people are thinking–about me, things I care about, or totally ridiculous stuff that no one cares about.  When you don’t interact with anyone, all of that worry vanishes.

It’s that simplicity of life that I miss the most.  I started to love the silence that made up so much of my time.  Even other people’s conversations melded into a sort of Italian-flavored white noise.  It was a perfect time to sort through thoughts that usually get drowned out by louder ideas and distractions.

It did seem weird to be so utterly out of touch with other people’s thoughts.  The priest in the catholic church I sometimes went to could be talking about his new socks, for all I knew.  The only thing of theological significance that I did understand in several services was when he said that Mary was sinless.  Hmm.  So glad I heard that kernel.  And I was happy to go back to my world of complications and acquaintances at the end of the semester.  You can’t live a very full life if you’re alone on your small island all the time.  But sometimes I miss my island.  I used to pretend that people were having conversations about how much they liked the squirrels on the rail, when they were probably talking about that jerk from the marketing department.  My island is just a nicer place to be sometimes, and whenever I go to a place where English isn’t the dominant language, I have such a good time being back there again.

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