Now let’s get one thing straight here, I am about to manipulate my data and experiences so that it will all fit nicely into the point I’m about to make. However, the gist of this will be true, and I’ve definitely encountered some big problems with what I’ve set out to do in Italy.
If I was to define the mission statement for this whole shibaz in a neat sentence, it would look like this; cycle all of Italy in an effort to learn the language and food.
To then dissect that further, we would essentially end up with 3 elements… Food, Langauge, and Cycling. In my head these all slotted together into this neat fantasy where they all worked together and helped each other out, but unfortunately in reality they all try and bend each other over a table and savagely have their way with the other. Cycling, food, and language? There’s no harmony, they ain’t friends, and I’m afraid instead they just chose to play a game of rock paper scissors.
How The Game Works
Cycling takes up a lot of your time. A lot. But your efforts can be rewarded with invitations into people’s homes and heaploads of other free stuff because people support what you’re trying to do and perhaps want to help you continue doing it. I could write on essay on why people are so nice to solo cyclists, but that would be for another day.
In this sense cycling is good for food sometimes, in that you will find yourself in the house of an Italian Mama, or getting an incredible discounted lunch ontop of Lake Garda, or you come across restaurants which you wouldn’t otherwise. However…
Cycling is absolutely shit for learning languages. Firstly you are cycling all day so you’re not speaking it. Then perhaps almost as importantly you are always talking about the same stuff when you do stop, and even if you get past the normal conversation of ‘what are you doing, where have you been, where are you sleeping, are you not scared?’ (questions I have answered so many times that I can do it while thinking about something else), the kind of conversation you often have is still quite formal, or at least full of formalities, since you’ve only just met that person. This helps when you are first learning, but once speaking these formalities are not a problem, you need regular contact with familiar people. Like this you develop relationships, and in relationships you tell jokes, funny stories and are generally more intimate. (…describing how relationships and friendships work is making me sound really autistic). I’ve read a lot about languages recently on the internet and people always talk about reaching a level where they can have serious conversations and chat about philosophy… In my experience this is actually pretty easy, philosophical points and your own beliefs can often be conveyed without too much knowledge of the language, it just takes a little time. What’s much harder is making jokes and having light hearted and playful conversations. This requires more flow in a language, and demands of you to learn it, so in this sense it’s hard to improve in a language while you keep moving and changing the people around you.
Though surely eating and language go together, as you sit at the table talking in Italian, eating with new friends… Well yes and…
No. When people give you or teach you about something, such as good food, it’s polite to give them something back. Here, this something is often a bit of an English lesson. Again I’ve read so much stuff on the internet in language leaning forums about how people ‘use’ you for your English, and that you have to be stern when you want to learn a language and not give them anything, demanding that they never speak in English and nor do you. But in this case and in doing so, surely you are just using them, and you are thus just as bad as the people that you are labelling ‘users’? A part of knowing English is being English, and a part of being English is having manners. If anyone helps me out with something I want to give something back if I can. Not only is this manners, but this is a basis of friendship (the autism returns). So when people show me hospitality and teach me how to cook, if they’d like that I speak English in return, I will.
To give a particular example; I met a family in Milan where both the parents are incredible cooks (the dad was even on Italian masterchef) and have invited me to come for dinner often when I return later. I expect in exchange they would like me to speak English a bit (in fact I know), and if I chose to come and eat their food, I don’t have any qualms with giving them my language.
Now of course some of this is clutching at straws a bit. Yes there are many people in Italy who cook really well and have no urge to learn English, though then admittedly do people like just doing something for nothing always? To some extent yes. But you actually get more out of people when you can give them something back (this post is far too autistic). For example you could search really hard for a family who will host you for 1/2 nights and feed you, and they do exist, or instead – like with the family in Milan – you can find somebody who wants to have you over all the time because you can also help them with something. In the latter you feel more comfortable for being there, and you also learn more.
Also cycling sort of in effect loses to both language and food. Thus it’s not really a rock as it loses to paper and scissors. So in this case I suppose cycling is like a haemophiliac, as if he gets cuts by either he’s going down. But the reason cycling loses is because staying still helps a lot more with both language and food. In doing so you get to live with people and sample their lifestyle, and here in Italy this lifestyle often revolves around eating and (surprisingly) speaking Italian. Yes you can meet families when you cycle round Italy, but not every night, and if you’ve found good cooks and people in one place, it’s always going to be better for the other two objectives to stay there.
A Final Hope For Harmony? The Ghost of Cycling
I suppose one thing I have to consider is that – when I return in December – I will have learned Italian, I will have learned a lot about cooking through meeting Italian people (how to even roll pizza and forcaccia out myself), and will have cycled about 2000km in total around Italy. Thus in this way I will have hit every target I had originally. I guess what I’m lamenting then is it just didn’t pan out like I expected, like my fantasies, as in it never really happened all together… It was more like a week of cycling, then some weeks around the language and food, then a week of cycling again, and so on. It wasn’t the adventuring and the cycling that at was a heart of it all, it just felt like I was sprinkling a bit of cycling on top of the time I’ve been spending here.
But perhaps the cycling did more than I thought. Not in its physical form, but in spirit. For even if the large majority of the people I stayed with were people that I didn’t meet during my cycles, perhaps a reason that they invited me to stay was because I was planning on cycling. As in they respected what I was doing in Italy, what I wanted to do, and wanted to help me out. Maybe the fact that I was trying to do all these missions at once was the reason why so many people offered their hand out to me.
Perhaps people just enjoyed that I had these fantasies. Fantasies that without, none of this would have happened… Even if nothing happened in the way that the fantasies envisioned it would.