The letter arrived exactly like is does in the movies, in a big, off-beige, rectangular envelope. As soon as I fished it out of the mailbox, I could feel its weight and I knew it was full of my future. I had been accepted to pharmacy school and what’s more, the acceptance meant the next four years of my life were occupied. I know what you’re thinking here. Why on earth would I want to go into pharmacy school when I could have just finished my degree and then hop on the next plane to il bel paese? I also know it seems like a fall-back, a Plan B to medical school, second best, a condolence prize of sorts. I’ll admit it, it was, but not in the obvious way. I had already made up my mind about wanting to eventually live in Italy, and while I’m a self-proclaimed dreamer, I couldn’t help but to succumb to a bit of rational thinking. I chose pharmacy because I thought that it would be a fantastic Plan B if, and only if, my hypothetical dolce vita became not-so-dolce and I needed to return to Canada and not be homeless. There was just one, wee problem with this brilliant plan of mine. Massi would be in Italy and I would be 8000km away for a rather significant amount of time. When I told him I wanted to do it, that I had made up my mind, he was fully supportive which made the whole situation even worse. Part of me wished he had talked me out of it, sent passionate letters about how love would be enough and bought me a one-way ticket right then. But he didn’t. Massi had just received his Master’s in Mechanical Engineering and his picture is probably featured right underneath the dictionary definition of “logical”. We both knew that it was the right thing for me to do. So for the next four years, I buried my head in textbooks and dreamed dreams of dancing insulin ratios and nightmares of pharmacokinetics calculations gone awry. The first year, we were fortunate because Italy and Canada are diplomatic friends, thus there is a cultural youth exchange working holiday program offered for Italians to stay one year in Canada and vice versa. The paperwork for this is fairly simple and there is a non-existent chance of being rejected for the visa. Half-way through my very first semester, my Italian boyfriend made his grand return to work and live in the city that he had never even heard of just one year ago.
Remember me saying I’m a tad on the nerdy side? Well I took my four-year pharmacy degree sentence as an opportunity to work on my Italian just like I had promised myself. Prior to entering pharmacy, I had been studying Russian as a minor (again with the nerdy). I knew how effective universities were at teaching modern languages; the amount of hours involved, the written and oral examinations and class presentations, the sheer bravura of the professors was enough to set you up extremely well in any language. Two years of Russian had proven it during my Trans-Siberian railway voyage, albeit the vodka adjunct helped. Convinced that I could learn drugs and the world’s most romantic language simultaneously, I immediately cancelled the Cyrillic alphabet from my brain and started to try to roll my Rs and sing every Italian word I was speaking. I once had a Spanish teacher tell me that people learn languages for one of two reasons: for survival or for love. At the time, I thought this was one of the most profound and true statements I had ever heard. By the way, as a sidenote, never try to take Spanish if you’re new to Italian as a second language. You will inevitably start speaking a strange hybrid of the two languages and messing up in both of them.
Through pharmacy school, I had a grand total of five Italian teachers, none of which included Massi. We soon found out that speaking your native language does not equal knowing your native language. I would often ask him homework questions such as “why do I have to use the subjunctive after this?” and his response would be “boh, suona meglio”, I don’t know, it sounds better. There is nothing more frustrating than an answer like this when you are in the throes of language learning. My first teacher was a soft-spoken Calabrian lady which seems like it should be an oxymoron. Francesca had moved to Edmonton more than twenty years ago but still had that strong, Southern Italian accent that gave her away. She taught an adult continuing education course of Italian, the kind that pre-retirees take three evenings a week to “prepare” for their upcoming 13 night/14 day “Italian Glory” organized tour, the kind where you come out of it with the speaking capabilities of a three-year old but you can pat yourself on the back for being able to order a gelato amongst the throngs of the “other” tourists. No one wants to be part of the “other” tourists, also known as “those” tourists. And so my first baby steps into the world of the Italian language were made with Francesca’s help, three nights a week and I emerged with the basics and the uncanny ability to tell people my name and nationality.
The university courses are what took me to the next level. They were almost every day of the week, the exposure was a requirement for learning the language. My first two semesters of Italian were with a young professor named Karen whose last name rhymed with “cannolo” (a famous Sicilian dessert). She didn’t have an Italian accent but that made her all the more endearing because it meant she was like me, that she had been born here and eventually learned Italian as a second language. Karen symbolized the fact that as impossible a task as Italian seemed to be, it was possible. She was like a kindergarten teacher, insanely kind-hearted and non-intimidating, I never felt like an idiot in her classes even making elementary mistakes. She taught fun lessons on Italian swears and told us anecdotes about her years studying abroad in Italy and how her classmate, at the end of one semester, had learned only one Italian phrase: ho bevuto troppo ieri sera, I drank too much yesterday night. We all laughed out loud and inwardly, I was thinking, I cannot get stuck at that level.
So I kept pushing. After the first year of taking Italian was when I started pharmacy school. Pharmacy, like most professional programs, has a schedule of classes that are set in stone and that are already a heavy load of coursework. There were absolutely no free spots for Italian. I was devastated. I had just gotten the momentum going and was already at a conversational level, I didn’t want to stop. I went to the Department of Modern Languages to ask about options, if I could be permitted to enroll in a course even if there were timetable conflicts with my pharmacy courses. The department was willing to work with me, I just had to get approval from the Faculty of Pharmacy. I got the approval and soon, I was running like a true “studentessa matta” from a pharmacokinetics lecture across campus to my Italian lessons. Sometimes I missed one or the other. Some days, I stayed late on campus to make up an Italian quiz or exam, other times, I would get the pharmacy notes from my friends.
My third university professor was Patrizia from Padova. She was head of the Italian language department and for good reason- professional, precise, and a perfectionist, Patrizia was the kind of teacher that you need for second-year Italian. She was meant to weed out the serious learners from the ones there for fun. In fact, by the time I got to second semester of second-year Italian, the class sizes had gone down dramatically as all of the Arts students who were required to take a second language course had already fulfilled their credits. My classmates and I were the leftovers, but we all shared something in common: a love of Italian. The reasons varied, the majority were first or second generation children of Italian parents who never taught them the language. I was the only Asian left and the probably the only one that was trying to learn it with the eventual goal of moving to Italy. I was also probably the only one without the innate ability to roll Rs. After all this time, I still haven’t discovered this hidden talent, but I know it’s in me, or at least, that’s what YouTube tutorials insist.
Anselmi was the last name of my last university professor and he taught his classes for Italian and Italian Culture completely…in Italian. Once you had reached Anselmi’s lectures, well, you were in the Big Leagues. Now, it seems like a huge feat to go from Italian 101 to taking classes taught in the language that you didn’t know just four semesters ago, but on a university timeline, it was a natural progression. Anselmi was one of those professors that you just knew was important. I couldn’t personally pinpoint exactly why, but I later discovered that he has his own Wikipedia page, self-written perhaps, but important sounding all the same. He would breeze into the dusty, old arts classrooms in a cloud of cigarette smoke, hand-rolled if I had to guess. I can’t describe his clothing anymore, physical appearances were trivial to him although I felt like he took particular pride in his shoulder-length pepper hair, always tousled and knotty. You could almost picture this professor sitting with an oil-lamp, literally burning the midnight oil, running his hands through that mop of hair, chain-smoking, and writing significant dissertations on neoavanguardia Italian poetry. One of his courses focused entirely on interpretation of lyrics written by singer-songwriter Fabrizio De André, every time I hear an Italian song now, I immediately look for metaphors about prostitution and pacifism. He was far from my favourite Italian teacher through the years, but the most real, with an unwavering passion for Italian literature, poetry, and music. To this day, I have a very keen and trained ear for lyrics that surprises even my husband at times. That was four Italian teachers out of five so far. The fifth was a fellow named Roberto, between third and fourth year pharmacy, on the southern Italian island of Ischia.
...to be continued. Chapter 3 coming Tuesday, April 21, 2020.
This Sweet Life: Chapter One
This Sweet Life: Prologue