As I approach the last week of my journey I wanted to share about two topics that have impacted me and my time at L’Arche.
The first is the language barrier. I came to L’Arche knowing little Italian. (I thought “ciao” was spelled “chow”. Very wrong I quickly learned!) Luckily, Spanish is very close to Italian, but they are definitely NOT the same. I took Spanish classes throughout high school and my father grew up in Mexico, so I grew up hearing Spanish being spoken.
By knowing some Spanish, I started off being able to understand the topic of the conversation but not all of the words and what people were saying. Often when I do not know a word in Italian I can try in Spanish and sometimes it is similar enough that the assistants understand what I am saying!
As my time at L’Arche progressed, my Italian improved tremendously. I can now speak much better and know many words. Each day I try to learn a word that I can use in conversations with the rigazzi (residents) for everyday L’Arche life. Today I learned how to say “Set the table.” As I learn to speak more Italian, my comprehension has grown as well. I can now understand much more in conversations and when others want to tell me things they can do so in Italian. Also I can understand what the rigazzi say to me and can respond to a certain extent.
The language barrier has been not only tricky for me, but also for the assistants and rigazzi. It has been interesting with the assistants because the assistants fall into 3 main categories in terms of communicating with me. The first is the assistants that speak English. In my house there are 3 assistants who are fluent in English and are very easy to communicate with. One assistant tries to tell me in Italian and if I do not understand she will then tell me in English. One assistant even told me, “speak English with me only, I enjoy getting to practice and keep up my English.” The second category is the assistants who do not speak English but still try to communicate with me. There are quite a few who know zero English but they still try to have conversations with me and try to get to know me and include me in everyday conversations. I really appreciate their efforts to try to get me to learn Italian and treat me as if I knew how to speak Italian. The third category is the assistants who do not speak English, but also do not try to communicate with me because they simply do not want to work around the language barrier. This group is very small and not many assistants fall into this category. But there have been a few assistants who merely ignore you because they just don’t even want to try. I responded to an assistant when she didn’t think I understood what she said, and it changed her outlook. She began trying with me more and wanting to help me. This meant a lot to me because I felt like I had helped her realize that I want to learn and it doesn’t matter that I am not fluent in Italian.
The rigazzi are all different in how they respond to my Italian. A few of the rigazzi are extremely helpful and I ask them what things are and they help me learn new words. One rigazzi even taught me how to count to ten with correct pronunciation. But some rigazzi sometimes do not understand me fully and give me a “huh?” look. There is one rigazzi who does not like my poor Italian and tells me “Basta” which means stop or enough when I pronounce the word wrong or say words out of order. So I try to have my Italian at its best when I am around this rigazzi and am sensitive to his feeling about my Italian. There is one rigazzi in my house that does not talk and does not verbally communicate, and does not respond to any words in Italian. When I am alone with him I practice my Italian with him by saying it aloud and just try to talk as best as I can. He does not respond to any words so it is a nice time for me to practice with him.
The second thing I wanted to describe is communication with the rigazzi. Not all communication and relationships with the rigazzi are ones where I talk to them. All the relationships with the rigazzi are different which makes them special to me. For example, in the morning when we go to the saloon to say good morning to everyone, there is a rigazzi who lives in a different house than mine that says “ciao” to me and then invites me to sit next to him. When I see him I fix his shoes and realign the velcro. After that I give him a short back rub and then we are done. He does not like to talk much to anyone. But that little everyday communication where I fix his shoes and sit next to him is our friendship. It is interesting how each rigazzi wants you to be their friend in different ways and how they interact with you.
With one week left, I will continue my relationships and build on my Italian, but I will also have a hard goodbye.