I was eighteen when Italian swept me off my feet. I was a first-semester college freshman, wide-eyed and impressionable.
Italian found me, I like to say. It happened at freshman orientation where I sat inattentively in a circle with people called “peer advisors” and selected my fall classes. I only considered Italian because of Dane – the blue eyed, tan skinned enchanter of my orientation group – the one who happened to sit at my right and tell me, “You should take Italian. My mom speaks it, and maybe I can help you.” Dane was a god, the lover I sought whose words were the Gospel to me, and I needed no further convincing. Italian found me then.
I soon forgot Dane when a four-day-a-week Italian 101 course followed, one whose liveliness blindsided me, consumed me unexpectedly with its charm and its gift giving.
The class was everything to me. I don’t know; there was something magical about it. An Italian man called Gugu operated some thirty of us in 1460 Mason Hall, shouting in foreign tongues in his orange pants and leather shoes and demanding responses. Our assignments were playful. Often, they required our performance of these embarrassingly unsophisticated mock conversations at the front of the class. Other times they were these group discussions prompted by “talk about your favorite season” or “tell us about your friends,” all of which rendered hilariously pathetic attempts at the Italian accent. There was laughter often, infectious spirit, and such magic in that.
Soon, in Italian, I met my people. I met Paul, my first-ever oral exam partner with whom I’ve since spent innumerable hours of football Saturdays. I met Kara and Andreina, the two classmates with whom I continued the Italian voyage that became a passion over four semesters; with whom I spent Sunday nights buried in verb tenses and vocabulary; with whom I later took on six weeks in Italy, the six most magical weeks of my so-far existence.
And Italy was a dream. Purely fantastic. I know no better way to describe it. It was approaching fluency practicing the language with locals at the bar. It was hitchhiking home from the clubs and ending up trapped in the abode of cocaine dealers. It was the stone streets and the history and the willingness to be lost in both.
I recall all of this in retrospect – a notion that, overthought, sometimes defeats me. I now can recall Italian only in the past tense, in the form of its ghost, and thus I choose to recall it seldom. Italian left me like it found me. Like all love affairs that begin in high speed, Italian and mine ended in a sudden death.
But I prefer not to think about the reasons we may have parted or that there was even a severance at all. I like to think we neither approached nor abandoned one another. I like to think that all of it was coincidence, a series of spontaneous interactions that linked us for a time – brief but magical – before some forces provoked our inevitable diffusion.
That was Italian, brief but magical. It was Mason Hall and the orange pants. It was playfulness and effortless immersion. It was the luck of the draw, and I won the jackpot.
So to Italian, to our spontaneous affair and to the gifts it gave me, I will remain forever grateful. It’s better this way; it preserves the magic.