Italian comprehension is a lot like learning how to drive a stick shift car.
When you’re learning manual transmission, the hardest part is moving from a standstill. Trying to find the perfect medium between clutch and gas seems impossible. It almost makes you sympathize with Kobe Bryant’s wife who, in 2008, asked Bryant to have her Lamborghini Murcielago converted from manual to automatic transmission. It’s pretty nice when you can install convenience, but learning how to drive your vehicle as it was meant to be driven is what makes the car uniquely beautiful in the first place. Italian university classes in Italy can last up to two hours. The professor lectures, without pause, while his students fervently take notes. We were still freshly immersed in Italian culture and the hardest part about class was finding the perfect balance between listening and scribbling notes.
If you get too caught up on one talking point, you can miss the shift in conversation. Next thing you know, you’re frantically scanning the pages of Tristissimi Giardini, a modern-day Italian philosophy book that would have been daunting in English. What was that about the human mask? Or was that human race? Which page are we on again?
It’s ok, you’ll get the next major point. Pen and book are back at the ready in your next class: The Ancient History of Emilia-Romagna. Instead of immediately writing, you listen. This is obviously a fundamental part of understanding why the Ancient Romans used Rimini as a major port. Ok. Got it.
Wait. Did she say the Romans used Rimini as a major port or that merchants considered Rimini a major port? Who were the merchants again? Who was trying to attack Rimini? What was that one really long word, aggiungere or attacare?
Italian comprehension was a Catch-22 where I wanted nothing more than to skip class but was so worried about what I would miss that I considered arriving fifteen minutes early to get a seat right in front of the professor.
The key is back in your hand, the engine is rumbling. You sigh, the pen is back in your hand, the clutch is in, and you start the cycle again.
But this time is different.
The balance between transcription and comprehension becomes a fluid motion. Analysis of the texts are easier to comprehend. First gear. Second gear, you make an asterisk next to important facts. Third, you’re writing your own thoughts next to those of your professor.
As the weeks went by, the cross-outs became less frequent, my frantic scribbling minimized and unfinished sentences were practically gone.
Anyone who witnessed my first month behind the wheel of my manual transmission Honda knows that I was no Jeff Gordon. Everything felt awkward. Stalling out was so frustrating that it was hard to breathe. But eventually, I found my balance. The movements became more natural and shifting gears became second nature.
Looking back on my notebooks from Italy, I smile at the throng of question marks that follow unfinished sentences and the exclamation marks that symbolize my mini analytical breakdown of one of our texts.
I’m glad I never switched to automatic.