Between the cobblestones and the hills, nothing is level here in Perugia, Italy, and although I’ve wandered through almost all of the piazzas, vias, and alleys of the historical center, I still haven’t found a right angle.  Nothing is flat.  Nothing is straight.  Nothing is easy in Italy, say two fellow Americans who have come here several times before to study Italian.  For example: At the very end of July, I wandered the same three streets for an hour trying to find the apartment I had rented.  (I swear half of the streets in Perugia aren’t even mapped.)  Once I finally found it, my landlady told me that something had happened: she had rented it to someone else, an accident that had never happened to her before.  However, she offered me another apartment for the same price, and I accepted.  A month ago, I was just happy to have somewhere to sleep and shower, but now I’ve realized that my move from Via Cartolari to Via del Poeta, although nominally fitting, landed me in a less-savory neighborhood—no worries, I’ve only had my butt grabbed once—and I can’t help but wonder how much less my apartment should really cost.

3 Sept 2013_colorful housesNot knowing much Italian also adds another difficult twist to Perugia’s unexplained idiosyncrasies, and I find myself circling around unknown words, using roundabout ways to ask how to say something as simple as “rain”[1]—what is it called when there’s water in the sky?  Or “cry”[2]—what is it called when there’s water in the eyes?  It’s a strange feeling realizing that you have no idea how to ask: what happened?[3]  Or, more importantly: where’s the bathroom?[4]  Or, even: what’s your name?[5]

During my Italian language placement test, I sat next to a Polish man, and we smiled and said “ciao.”  We eventually figured out our names and nationalities.  And that was it.  I couldn’t ask him what he did for work.  I couldn’t ask him why he was studying Italian.  I couldn’t ask him what “tedesco”[6] meant on the section of the information sheet where we had to check little boxes next to the languages we knew.  So we sat, quietly sweating next to each other in an elaborately painted, un-airconditioned lecture hall, our own little Tower of Babel.

I thought that “language barrier” said it all.  Without a common tongue, two people can only greet each other—if that—intersecting for a mere moment.  Then, they must go their own ways.  The shared path is shut.  There is no outlet.  There is no progress.  The tower is abandoned, I learned in Sunday school.

And, yet, this month, my close friends were not the Americans or Australians or New Zealanders or Canadians; they were not the Anglophones.  Instead, they were Turkish, Korean, German, and Kurdish.  For the most part, we spoke Italian.  In fact, my Korean friend told me that it was easier to understand my Italian because I spoke too quickly in English.  Even when I did speak English, I was limited by my friends’ vocabularies, and that was okay.  It was more than okay, actually, for I’m still not sure how much any of us have in common, and had we all fluently spoken the same language, I’m afraid our babbling would have called attention to our differences and would have separated us.  By not speaking constantly or perfectly, however, we grew closer.  We ate gelato on the palazzo steps and pizza on the main drag.  We helped each other learn the past tense.  We cooked together.  We walked together.  We were together, trying to figure out the beautiful, capricious Italia.

Twice, I went to mass at the Cattedrale di San Lorenzo.  I didn’t understand what the priest said, and I couldn’t sing along with the congregation, but my heart recognized the rhythms of the Nicene Creed and the Lord’s Prayer, and my ears picked up enough of the Italian words to make me forget the English ones.  During those moments I stood with my brothers and sisters in faith, speechless and understanding.  We stood together, and as I lost my English words and as their Italian ones trilled over my head, our differences were pared away.

3 Sept 2013_aqueductOne night, my friend Emir and I sat on one of the many city walls, trying to slurp up quickly melting gelato.  I had only been studying at the university for a week, so while Emir spoke Italian slowly and clearly enough for me to understand him, my responses were limited to short questions, longer stories being beyond my working vocabulary.  He mainly told me about growing up in Turkey.  I mainly listened.  But as we were looking out at the lights over the valley, he asked me: Credi in Deo?[7]  Sì, io credo in Deo, I paused, struck by the direct question, e tu?[8]  Sì, he responded.  I didn’t press him in whom, exactly, he believed, and he let the silence sparkle a bit.  We left it at that, both having affirmed: io credo in Deo.  Never mind that I am Christian and he Muslim, for in that linguistic moment, we believed the same thing, the limitations of language drawing us together as we sat on the same wall and under Abraham’s same starry sky.


[1] piovere

[2] piangere

[3] Che è successo?

[4] Dov’è il bagno?

[5] Come ti chiami?

[6] German

[7] Do you believe in God?

[8] Yes, I believe in God, I paused, struck by the direct question, and you?


  1. Avatar

    Beautifully written, Sabrina!!! You’ve captured your experience so well that I felt I was sitting next to you under that same starry sky. In fact I am– just thousands of miles away, in a colder place, on a wooden chair. Sending lots of love your way and hoping you’ll leave with as many positive experiences as France has left me! 🙂

  2. Avatar

    I’d never before thought of how an unfamiliar language could actually draw people closer, and highlight what they have in common, rather than what they don’t. Well said–a lovely post.

  3. Avatar

    Oh, so beautiful, Sabrina. I love “our own little Tower of Babel,” but “he let the silence sparkle” made me catch my breath.

  4. Avatar

    A couple of years ago, my wife and I (along with our four-month-old) spent a glorious month in Corciano, just over the hill from Perugia. If you go there, have pizza at Il Convento! Get to Assisi, too–although I’ll bet you already have.

    Your post makes me homesick for Umbria, but more importantly, it articulates fully and beautifully something that I noticed in Italy but didn’t really think about: the ways in which a language barrier helps human relationships by keeping some things out of them. Thanks for writing this.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Similar posts

post calvin direct

Get new posts from Sabrina Lee delivered straight to your inbox.

Do NOT follow this link or you will be banned from the site!