14. Sweet… but it can get sticky
One of the “jury” assessing my ability to understand short presentations in my languages, and render them in eloquent English, was Leopoldo Costa. A slight, unassuming, charming man, as I remember him, he was bilingual Italian-Spanish, interpreted into both from all 7 other official EU languages, and was studying Finnish, his first non-Indo-European language, to be ready for when Finland joined the EU the following year.
A prize for relaying idealistic platitudes about the future of Europe has since been named in his honour.
He gives me what I later discover is his standard speech for Spaniards who claim to know Italian, but have yet to show evidence of their knowledge. He has native fluency in two languages which have a certain overlap of vocabulary, if not necessarily nuance, in some fields more than others, so it is not much effort for him to knock together an Italian speech which gravitates towards key terms that would be unguessable to a non-Italian-speaking Spaniard. This, I suspect, is designed to catch me out, and expose my subterfuge. “Dick” has remained unflappably polite and generous in his phone calls with me, but his analysis of my situation has clearly been astute. The speech is about basil in window-boxes deterring mosquitoes.
Ironically, because it is a day-to-day subject (herbs and insects have cropped up in my lived experience of the language), I fare better than I would with a speech on politics or economics. The “aptitude test” is a kind of talent competition. A dozen of us start out at 9a.m., but by lunchtime we are only three. After each round, we are either dismissed, or given a simple personalised tip for the next (mine is to stop umming and erring, and wasting time being perfectionist- I remember thinking “Seriously? That‘s all I have to worry about? That‘s easy to rectify!”) I pass, and am told to report for duty on the first of the next month, to receive training from all three languages into English.
The course will be only six months long, with eliminatory tests every two months, a reasonable grant to cover living expenses, and if all goes well, a two-year full-time contract at the end of it, with the possibility of taking a competitive exam to become a European civil servant for life. It sounds fun, and when they find me out in a few months and send me packing, I won‘t have wasted much time, or any money (a very different situation to that facing misguided aspiring interpreters these days). Still, to give myself a fighting chance, I ask to postpone my training by a few months, to go to Italy at my own expense, and knock my more formal vocabulary into shape. I even start reading The Economist, a sure sign of desperation.
I learn a lot: how to look in 5 directions at once for oncoming mopeds, how driving requires an incredibly vivid and contorted sexual imagination (in case you need to pass comment on another road user), how to buy breakfast for a waitress (I ask “would you like a small croissant?”, and she replies “No, it’s all or nothing for me!”), how “business lunches” in restaurants are tax-deductible, so one should always phone one‘s self-employed friends around midday, how the receptionist is correct when he says you really won‘t get any sleep if you stay in the room next to the “Dominican ladies”, and, most importantly, how to interact. Rather than unambiguously sharing facts, priority goes to smiling, inappropriate flirting, and evasion of personal responsibility. I find myself feeling increasingly comfortable with that. A charity worker in vertiginous heels leaps out at me in the street, seizes both my hands, and shouts “Cercavo un angelo- e eccolo!!” (“I was seeking an angel, and one appeared!”) If you want to find your way, use a map. If you ask a human, the response will be… well, human. First they will ask you where you’re parked. If they eventually understand that you seriously intend walking, they will send you the wrong way, and become defensive when challenged. Or they may walk with you, and buy you a coffee.
Restaurants, interestingly, are about food and eating. This is an extremely serious business, more so even than in France, and you have to play by the rules. Not only is there profound innate resistance to the idea that the customer is always right, the foreign customer is in fact always wrong, by definition. You cannot have parmesan on a seafood sauce- I mean, really, what were you thinking? You cannot have a cappuccino after a meal. You might do that sort of thing back in Germany, or whatever barbarous place you come from, but I’m not having that sort of nonsense on my premises.
I am even told off for stirring my coffee too vigorously in the station cafe. I order a sandwich. They tell me I should have eaten the sandwich before drinking the coffee. They ask if I want it warming on the grill. I say no. They say it is better served warmed. I say I have a train to catch. They explain why it is better warm. I miss the train. This is basically the story of my time in Italy, with one significant omission: I am in love. Once you get a bit closer to eating like an Italian, thinking like an Italian, and speaking like an Italian (which you must do strictly in this order), there is no going back.
(Your palate has been ruined for places like “Jamie’s Italian”. You stare in disbelief at antipasti called “Jamie’s dance around Italy”. The pasta comes with a jumble of strong flavours, as if a four-year-old has been allowed to choose ingredients for the first time. The sad realization dawns that words like “Italian” have no meaning outside the country. In the English language, the phrase “going to an Italian restaurant” has nothing to do with food, and is simply code for inviting low-level sexual harassment from a waiter.)
The Italian relationship with language is just as special. Again, once savoured, never forgotten. Nothing matches the pleasure I feel interpreting from Italian- whatever the frustrations, it unfailingly gives me a thrill. Just the other day: “Esiste dunque la possibilità di vivere tranquillamente nel capoluogo toscano e andare a lavorare, ogni giorno, in quello emiliano. O vice versa!” Yes, folks: “You can commute between Florence and Bologna”.
I’m not saying emotional manipulation is rife. Life is too much fun for that. But at the next table, the waiter forgets to bring a child’s meal. The mother turns to her 5-year-old and says “Non te lo fanno!” (“They’re not making it for you!”), which causes a tantrum. The child must suffer, visibly, to make the waiter suffer. At the time, I find this perplexing- but I remember this moment, later, when I’m interpreting Italian politicians. It helps me more than many books.
My training in Brussels is given by the interpreters themselves, between assignments. It is very closely focused on the precise job we will be called upon to do (again, unlike the situation for students now). There is no textbook answer to our questions, just a range of personalities to inspire us. They are sometimes mutually contradictory. The head of the French booth gives me a speech which concludes “La culture c’est comme la confiture. Moins on en a, plus on l’étale.” (literally “Culture is like jam. The less you have, the more you spread it”, but used to imply someone is a vacuous show-off). I don’t understand the verb “étaler”, let alone the finer nuances intended, and say “Culture is like jam. Sweet… but it can get sticky.” I am praised for my creativity. At my two-month exam, though, I am told “Mr. Perret clearly has the makings of a good interpreter, but must learn not to bluff.” Treading that middle path has been a balancing act ever since.