It’s a Canadian problem. When you’re overseas, people don’t know what to make of you. You’re not American but you sound like you are. You’re not British but you’re sentimental about the Queen. You’re not distinct the way Australians are with their funny accents and their freakishly-far-away, upside-down country.
I felt it when my Austrian classmate, whom I will call Hans (although his real name was Otto), told a joke one day which ended with the following punch line: “In England they speak English but in America, they only understand it.”
Get it? It’s hilarious, you see, because Americans don’t speak English.
I asked Hans – in Italian, because this whole conversation took place in Italian – what he thought about Canadians. Do we only understand English? Or do we speak it, too? He had no answer, no quip. He didn’t quite want to treat me with the contempt and snobbery so many Europeans reserve for Americans, but he didn’t want to elevate me to British status. An utterly Canadian problem.
Hans muttered something about hoping he hadn’t offended me, a comment I thought might have been better directed at our American classmates.
My decision to spend the autumn of 2016 studying Italian at the Università per Stranieri di Perugia, in Umbria, Italy, meant that my time there coincided not only with the presence of Hans the Witty, but also earth-shatteringly well with a smattering of quakes and aftershocks in the area.
The quakes were not the first I had experienced. Years ago, I lived in Japan, where I taught English in a car-part factory located in a tiny town nestled under Mount Fuji, in range of volcanic eruptions. But Fuji-san remained calm during my stay. What didn’t stay calm was the earth, which shook and lurched at moments it chose without asking my permission.
I don’t remember being frightened. On one occasion, I was mid-lesson with an “office lady” student, when our desk began to move and the cups of green tea in front of us began to swish. It lasted a few seconds and when it stopped, we both burst out laughing. Nervous laughter, no doubt, but laughter. Another time, I was woken up by a quake and in the time that it took me to figure out what was happening, it was over. I simply rolled over on my futon and went back to sleep.
This was not the case in Italy. I felt anxious, despite assurances from locals that nothing other than some rocking and rolling would happen in Perugia: a few new cracks might appear in my centuries-old building, a few bricks and plates might fall, but nothing more, I was told; we are 65 kilometres from the epicentre (as though that were a comfort) and not on a fault, my Perugini friends kept insisting.
Niente paura, they said. Don’t be afraid. There have been no deaths this time, they said, unlike the high death toll of the August earthquake in Amatrice.
I suspect that most of the difference is my age. I am twenty years older and gone is the insouciance of youth, the feelings of immortality and strength. I know that bad things can happen to me, to anyone, and randomly.
A Ukrainian classmate suggested I must have had more confidence in Japanese building codes than in Italian ones, but I doubt I thought about such things when I lived in Japan. I certainly thought about those things in Perugia, and it is true that it was impossible to know, in that beautiful medieval city, what may or may not have crumbled, and just how and where those Etruscan stones might have fallen.
That same classmate confessed that she was frightened, too, but that going home was more frightening, as she lived in the Donbass region, close to the war zone. She reasoned that the earthquakes didn’t want to kill her. Faultless logic, that.
During the terremoto (earthquake) of October 26th, I was in my little apartment studying the imperfect subjunctive tense when it suddenly felt as though a giant had grabbed hold of my building and was shaking it around. I reacted entirely on instinct – running down the stairs and out into the pouring rain ’til I reached the nearby piazza, thinking at least it was a relatively wide, open space. I learned afterwards that I had done everything wrong. What I should have done was stand under a doorway and avoid the stairs altogether. Lesson learned, and the following Sunday, when I was jolted out of bed by the return of the giant in the form of a scossa, or aftershock (which felt more powerful and lasted far longer than the terremoto), I dutifully stood under a doorway until he put my building back down. To use one of my favourite Italian verbs, mi sono spaventata. I got very scared. And to use one of my favourite Italian superlatives, that aftershock was lunghissima, very, very long.
Another thing I discovered I should not have done was follow Italian media. Italian news is not that different from news in North America: startling headlines and 24-hour coverage designed not so much to inform as to heighten emotions. Constant reminders of how many aftershocks there were and how there would likely be no end to them anytime soon were not helpful. Nor were headlines with attention-grabbing words like incubo (nightmare), apocalisse (apocalypse) and Calvario (Calvary). Nor were the re-played images of strapping, handsome, dust-covered firemen leading nuns from a church – though at least those pictures were touching, and very Italian. Nor was following the Twitter feed of Italy’s national seismological centre, which, in the weeks after the initial quake, tweeted news of over 1000 aftershocks, many of which were felt and at least one of which caused us all to be evacuated from the university’s main building halfway through a lesson on the cultural importance of the Spaghetti Western.
My classes provided respite, and recurring Canadian problems took my mind off a potentially horrible death stuck under a dislodged triptych and put it where it so frequently alights all on its own – the irksomeness of others.
Many of my classmates were Millennials convinced my prime minister was a Disney prince. Twenty-somethings from Croatia, Mongolia (I kid you not), Senegal and Uruguay frequently repeated some variation of quanto Trudeau è bello (Trudeau is so handsome!) when talking to me. A purely Canadian problem.
And then there was my English classmate, a 60-something man I’ll call Chester (although his real name was Jeremy). Chester had silver hair and an English accent and was never shy to list his accomplishments. I know everything! I’m English! I went to law school! I speak Latin!
My professors – all women – could not defer to him and gush over his distinguished British-ness enough. If some cultural or historical reference needed explaining, it would take only a second for the inevitable ci vuole Chester per spiegare – we need Chester to explain this – to ring out across the aula (classroom). It apparently didn’t occur to le professoresse that anyone else in the room could know as much as an Englishman with silver hair and a snooty accent. But I know all this stuff, too, I would scream…internally. A Canadian problem.
When taking our weekly walking tours through Perugia’s centro with an art historian, the inevitable ci vuole Chester would be heard whenever any Latin inscription needed to be translated. But I can translate Latin, too!Yes, that was me, screaming internally again. Did I spend years learning “Caecilius est in foro” and “Canis in via latrat” for nothing?
There was no glory for this Canadian – boasting is unseemly. Inevitably I would go back to my flat and back to the hysterical earthquake coverage, watching panel after panel of experts arguing – Italians excel at this. Even the most introverted Italian comes to life when given a microphone.
I did very much enjoy listening to the beauty of the language and the passion of the political discussion, much of which involved Italy’s lumbering, enormous bureaucracy. One could argue that a particular Italian problem is having excessive government in good times, and none when you really need it – like when an earthquake destroys your home.
When I arrived in Italy in September, I mentioned to my Significant Other that not seeing 24-hour U.S.-election coverage was a delight. Yet with the American election decided and the attention turned – however briefly – away from the faglie (faults) and the scosse, I enjoyed some relief. Watching puzzled Italian intellectuals discuss Donald Trump’s victory was like watching an old sitcom I didn’t much miss, but which provided distraction from the seismic parsing and from the habit I had developed of staring at whatever glass of water or wine happened to be on my kitchen table. A la Jurassic Park, the liquid would, at times, start to tremble, and I knew that T-Rex was in the vicinity.
The parsing was logorante, to use a word I learned thanks to those events. Logorante meaning draining, wearing, exhausting. I was in Italy to improve my Italian, so at least I picked up new vocabulary, including a play on words involving the verb scuotere (to shake). The past participle of scuotere is scossa, as in aftershock, so a standard joke my Italian friends were making, when anyone asked how they were, was to reply “Sono scossa.” (This only works if a woman is talking, though, as it would be “Sono scosso” for a man.)
I also learned that the Perugini aren’t as chiusi (closed) as other Italians assert. During my stay, I did a lot of grocery shopping at a small family-run store. The owners were a friendly couple and I could practice my Italian on them. In doing so, I believe that the word spaventata passed my lips on more than a few occasions. One morning, during the period when we were feeling aftershocks every day, I didn’t have enough money to pay for my purchases and the husband told me not to worry, to take my groceries and come back later that day. As I turned to leave he called me back. “No,” he said. “Don’t come back today. Come back tomorrow or next week or next year. Because we’ll all be here.”
It was a sweet attempt to quell my fears. And it might have worked, but I wasn’t able to relax and get back to worrying about earthquakes until I had paid for my purchases.
Rondi Adamson is a writer and teacher in Toronto.