I could walk for hours in the foothills of Campania and never encounter a soul.
Each afternoon I left the rural Italian village I was calling home to head out on a daily walk. I spent mornings studying the language over a cappuccino, and when my brain could absorb no more, it was time to get outdoors and practice what I’d learned. One day I stepped onto a bridge as I was reciting my weather vocabulary when a truck crossed my path, blocking the way. Out hopped the postman, in full uniform, speaking bullet speed Italian.
I looked over my shoulder to see if he could be talking to someone else, but I was by my lonesome, with the village at least a mile away. The wiry young postman was coming closer, and I was catching maybe one out of 15 words. The confusion on my face must have been obvious. He smiled, began to talk much slower, and sat down on the bridge’s stone wall. Hesitantly, I joined him.
“Parla Italiano?” he asked, as I took a seat overlooking the stream.
I made the international sign for a little bit, bringing my thumb and forefinger together. His smile broadened. He spoke little English, but if I was willing to talk about politics in America, he would help me with my Italian.
This was just one encounter I had while spending time in a mountain village in Campania. A main focus of these weeks was figuring out how to communicate when you don’t speak the same language. This is the topic of an essay published last week by World Hum called “Catching the Gist”. I managed to learn some important lessons from an elderly neighbor, even though we didn’t speak each other’s language.
Although Angelina and I had no common language, we found ways to communicate. One afternoon when she saw me hanging laundry she shook her finger at me, pointed at the sun, and brought the heel of her hand to her forehead. I was confused until the hour when the sun went down and I lugged damp clothes back into the house. The next week we were both hanging laundry at 9 a.m. as the sun peeked over the mountain. Once again a smile engulfed her entire face—I had learned a lesson. One finger shake and I was never again faced with damp laundry at the end of the day.
As for the postman, we sat trying to talk for about half an hour before parting ways. That afternoon, people just had to wait a little longer for their mail to be delivered.