Into Traffic


There is a street and on it the traffic is intense. Cars, Vespas, three-wheeled Apes zipping along, people passing on foot. Oblivious toward me, but not blind. They know I am there, they can see me through the window of the backseat of the car in which I am sitting parked along the curb. A passenger, safe and secure. But also a prisoner, who must, if I am to walk amongst them, open my door and step out.

The street is in a busy part of the town and there are rules in place for this kind thing, exiting a vehicle. Rules, like the one I included above, that place value on safety over haste, caution over chance, reservation over embarrassment. Departing, or in my case, entering the world outside of the refuge I’ve found in the car is made safer, priva di qualsiasi rischio e pericolo, free from any risk or danger, if made through the right side door, the one nearest to the sidewalk and opposite the problematic traffic. L'apertura della portiera di destra.

I know this because number one, it makes the most sense to any seasoned driver and/or parent, and two, I recently failed the Italian license exam by answering that question incorrectly. The reason I did so was partly because I do not have a firm grasp of the language. I have hold of it like a toddler to the hand of a parent. I can see the world beyond, the potential in it, but like that busy, frenzied street, I fear it, too. I am threatened by what it asks of me, by its fluency, its flow. I’m unsure of letting go of the hand. I worry of what might occur if I am on my own.

But it is not without having tried. Since arriving in Sicily nearly twelve months ago, I have listened, read, studied, watched, flipped through flashcard after flashcard, applied learning apps on my phone, and at times even slipped myself into conversation when the situation felt safe, accessible, priva di qualsiasi rischio e pericolo.

As for driving, I’ve been following the rules of the road for over forty years without severe incident and writing this now, knowing the correct answer in both English and Italian, I’m not sure what even went through my mind when that question presented itself during the exam. I could make out the words, their definition. I could read them aloud one by one in my head, like those flashcards, but then failed, when it mattered, to bring them together coherently.

I could say I choked, but that is a disservice to the task that was at hand, which is, to be honest, to put safe drivers on the road. I could say the exam itself, notorious for its degree of difficulty or the luck one must possess to pass, even for native speakers, is designed to produce more failures. The volume of questions alone are beyond irksome, some seven thousand possibilities designed it feels to confuse or trick, written in language more fitting for a novel than a manual, then begs of the confounded tester to narrow that field into just thirty of them, presented on a flat screen, with twenty minutes to complete. Thirty questions, three of which you can miss and still pass. I got six wrong. One of which asked through which door should you exit the car. As if life were that simple.

In the question I shared above priva di means devoid of. Or literally, deprived of. Which is how I might describe my practice of learning Italian, as if I’ve been exiting the car always to the right, on the side of precaution, never to the side of risk, of discomfort and vulnerability. Where the threats of not understanding and not being understood are real, and, consequently, more relevant.

Everything I want and need to speak and understand Italian is there, on that other side of that street, beyond the congestion, the clamor and pandemonium. I just need to reach the other side to enjoy all it will bring. But to do so, to learn another language, cannot be done holding onto someone’s hand. It’s a crossing that must be made alone. Eventually, you have to make your own way through the traffic.

It’s a crossing for which my life in America has left me underprepared. Indeed, as my wife and I were leaving the license testing center and about to cross the street one of the other testers, a man my age, maybe older, an immigrant to Sicily like me perhaps, approached her and said, “You know, you can take the test in other languages, too, besides Italian. There is French, and German.” Franca thanked him and replied, “Yes, we know. But English is not one of them.”

A couple of days later, after the embarrassment and disappointment of having failed had dissipated, I stopped by our local bookstore and picked up an Italian cultural icon and one of the most shared stories in children’s literature, Le Avventure di Pinocchio. A story written, in Italian of course, of a toddler whose dreams propel the puppet out of the hands that hold him, literally, and into the world, into traffic and the heat and spectacle of the street.

If I’m lucky, that’s exactly what will happen with me.

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