Before I traveled to Italy some years ago, I learned a little Italian. Ciao! Mi chiamo Rebecca. Building on my basic (I repeat, basic!) knowledge of Spanish, I felt I could pronounce phrases pretty well and make myself understood at restaurants (Sono vegetariano) and museums (Un adult per favore). By the middle of the trip, I could have a small conversation of say, three or four sentences. A hike between the villages of the Cinqueterre gave me a chance to do exactly that. I smiled and pulled out my stock phrases as soon as I saw a friendly-looking woman coming the opposite direction on the trail. The conversation quickly opened up in a way I didn’t expect.
Let me set the scene. Connecting five tiny Mediterranean villages is a scenic trail. It winds through forest, then emerges onto coastal views. The towns made the UNESCO Heritage List. Easy to see why. They’re downright edible! (I took that top photo from the trail.) There’s nothing much to DO in these towns, which is why a visit here can be a vacation from your vacation, as travel guru Rick Steves says. For me, it was a sip of seashore between chewy bites of cities like Florence and Rome.
I started the hike with a spring in my step, but parts of it get rugged and the wide sidewalk turns into a narrow dirt rut every time the trail swings away from the ocean and into the woods along the inlets. My camera was smoking as I snapped shots of every beautiful leaf and vista. By the time I reached an ocean overlook near the end of my hike, I was happy, but sweaty and hot, my glasses sliding down. As shown below!
When a smiling woman with two scampering children appeared around the bend, I envied their energy. I also liked them immediately. We exchanged smiles and traded some “intro info” in Italian. How long are you in Italy? Where are you from? My Italian was running out when I heard her say a phrase in what sounded like Spanish to one of the children. It might have been about not running head first into a tree.
“?Hablas español?” I asked if she spoke Spanish.
“!Si! Mi esposo es de” — I can’t recall the Spanish-speaking country she said her husband was from, but it set of fireworks in my head.
“Mi papá es de Guatemala!” I told her my father’s Central American origin. This launched us into a wide-ranging conversation. Suddenly Spanish felt like a large lake compared to my puddle of Italian.
We sailed along in Spanish for several minutes. I confined my comments to present tense, which let me keep up. I showed her photos of my kids, and she told me about meeting her husband. Then she mentioned living in Canada.
“Canada?” I asked. “Do you speak English?”
“Yes! It’s my first language!”
“Mine too!” How we laughed! Now my lake expanded to an ocean. We talked on until her kids couldn’t wait any longer to get hiking and I couldn’t linger without missing my return train. It was a beautiful linguistic experience and one of my favorite moments in all of Italy.