I’m still getting accustomed to this Italian dinner algorithm. Thankfully I’ve had plenty of practice and time to analyze. Since it’s the beginning of the season, our schedule has been sprinkled with organized meals—team dinner one night, dinner with a sponsor another. No complaints here from me or my stomach.
Still, I’m trying to figure out whether it’s the athlete or American in me (or explosive combination of the two) that sometimes makes it so difficult to appreciate a slower paced, multi-course meal. And I specifically say “meal”, as in the overall experience, as opposed to simply “food”. Lord knows I love food, and as long as it’s not still twitching on my plate (or you don’t tell me what it really is) chances are I’ll at least give it the ‘ol good try. A few weeks ago, our team manager successfully persuaded me to eat a few pieces of octopus, to my dissent, suction cups and all. The challenge is, when I’m eating, well, I’m eating. Taste and flavors aside, I look at a plate and see carbs, protein, and fuel for tomorrow’s two practices. It’s strictly business and that fact doesn’t always bode well.
In my little time in Italy, I’m learning as much as the dinner experience is about eating great food, it’s about communion, good conversation, and sneaking in funny stories between the antipasto and primo. At each group dinner, it seems everywhere I looked, different tables were in the midst of the most hilarious or captivating exchanges. This dinner was no different.
The back half of the restaurant was packed. Between handshakes and an onslaught of ciao’s, I took no time weaving my way to an empty seat to the right of my teammate Diego. When Mike said we had a team dinner after practice, I was expecting an hour or two of inside jokes, fizzy water and pizza sectioned off in some corner with teammates. He failed to mention all of our sponsors. He also failed to mention the consortium ownership organization structure of our club. I learned this little tidbit from Andrea (who works in marketing, seated to my right) as I sat wide-eyed half scanning to see where my other teammates landed in the sea of guests and half wondering about the legal capacity of the restaurant and fire codes.
Contrary to the exaggerations of my Italian teammates and coaching staff, I don’t speak much Italian. I maxed out in spanish during high school and just before deciding to take on chinese for my senior year, I’d say I was just short of fluent. Even though eight years rusty, I listen to Italian with a Spanish ear hoping to catch similar root words and context clues. Faced with explaining something to an italian teammate, I usually cook up a messy jumbalaya of whatever Italian nouns I know, Spanish verbs (since I’m more confident in my conjugation), English and hand gestures.
At one point during dinner I was curious about one of the guests.
“Diego, chi sta la donna… uhhhh… al lado de KG?”
“Si… Chi… Who right? Sta la donna… al lado de… you know, next to (signaling with my hands) KG? ”
“Aspetta… Uh wait. Non capito.”
“Chi. Like quien…. Who… sta la donna next to (again using my hands)…come si dice ‘next to’… KG?”
That’s when he called on another teammate sitting a few seats away. Probably would’ve been better going all english on this one.
“Chee? Ehhhhh cheeee? K? G?”
He didn’t understand either. After a few moments trying not to draw too much attention to the situation with pointing and such, I resorted to Google Translate. Just as my phone registered the translation, the question registered with my teammates.
“Ahhhhhhhhh. Capito. Capito. Chiiii (pronounced like key not CHEE). Eh, next to is ‘accanto’.”
Like I said, it’s messy.
As a foreigner in these semi-structured social gatherings, one clings to whomever (or whatever) will save them from the crushing weight of linguistic asymmetries. For me, those safe havens were Diego, an eighteen year old rookie who admittedly didn’t speak much english, and a plate of delicately molded ricotta flan that’d keep me occupied for no more than three or four bites. Despite my hunger, I’d eat as slow as possible. But having a teammate play human dictionary or praying that a cylindrical trapezoid of cheese lasts forever (or at least until the next course arrives) is no way to live. And while the seemingly endless supply of wine may have had the potential to loosen me up, it wouldn’t magically have had me speaking Italian.
As I sat there wondering about the dinner guests and the companies they owned, about how the one gentlemen got started on his way to dominating the northern Italy mushroom market (as I learned from Andrea), about what was the second course, and whether I even liked the flan, I realized dinners were yet another motivation to learn this foreign language. Sure, I’d been making strides on DuoLingo, but simple sentences like “Io ho ragazzo” and “Il tigre mangia il tacchino nel zoo” weren’t really applicable here. Glancing ahead at the lesson plans, I had a bit to go before things got interesting. I needed to learn for functional everyday application right then. By keeping it “business” with my protein and carbs, there was so much I was missing. I wanted to be able to appreciate good company—to appreciate dinner.
I spent the last two courses mumbling verb conjugations to myself. Every few moments, I’d lean over to Diego, ask for a new word, review each conjugation and pronunciation, and then return to my monk-like chant. Bored with his phone, Diego would check in now and then with a sentence for me to repeat. Naturally in the process I collected some new nouns that I would toss into my mix of muttering hymns. It was when Diego started whispering the sentences that I grew suspicious. And when he had me repeat the sentence to another teammate who proceeded to explode into a fit of laughter, the jig was up. I started Google Translating each “lesson” before blindly repeating explicit, but arguably hilarious one liners. I was learning. And though I was not yet chopping it up with our sponsors in Italian, it all began to feel a little more the way I imagined dinner should.