Category Archives: American Academy at Rome

Me Not Talk Pretty One Day

My class at the American Academy of Rome. Third from right in the white pants.

My class at the American Academy of Rome. Third from right in the white pants.

I have always believed that, to be truly sophisticated, one must be able to speak a foreign language well.

I’m 63 and running out of time.

To be sure, I have always been good at languages. In my heyday (i.e., not now), I dreamt in ancient Greek, could provide an almost simultaneous translation of any Latin text, read French and Italian with relative ease and extract gobbets of meaning from German. The only language I could remotely be described as speaking, however, was Italian and by ‘speaking’ I mean, locate the toilet (“Dov’e il gabinetto?”) and order off a menu (“Un’ cappuccino, per favore.”)

Once I found myself trapped in a stall of a woman’s bathroom at a train station somewhere in rural Tuscany en route to Florence. “Aiuta!” I cried. “Aiuta!” Meaning, “It helps! It helps!” It took a long time for the male attendant, armed with this disturbing information, to work up the nerve to enter the bathroom and release me from the stall.

Another time I noticed water coming from under a door on the upper floor of a hotel in Calabria. “La terra e coperta con aqua!” I informed the desk clerk: “The earth is covered with water!” Again, it took him a while to work out that I was not just learning that 71% of the Earth’s surface was covered with water, but that someone had left a faucet running in one of the upstairs rooms.

The patio of the Umbrian farmhouse we stayed in -- Il Palombaro

The patio of the Umbrian farmhouse we stayed in — Il Palombaro

My brother Peter experienced a severe toothache when my family was vacationing in a farmhouse in Umbria. We contacted the English agent who had rented us the farmhouse and asked if she knew of a dentist he could visit. She said, “Well, I think here’s a dentist in Montone. I don’t know his address, but I believe his name is Dr. Zucchini. Maybe if you went to Montone and asked people on the street, they might be able to point you to him.” Finding daunting the prospect of driving to Montone and wandering the streets, asking passersby, “Dov’e Dottore Zucchini?”, we ultimately did locate a dentist in nearby Umbertide. I accompanied my brother in the role of translator. We had a little trouble locating the office until  a woman exiting a door, pressing a large bunched up towel to her mouth and moaning, confirmed that this was the right spot. In the end, between my Italian and the equally scant English of one of the dental hygienists, we managed to affect a successful root canal, although I created considerable confusion by insisting that Peter’s offending tooth was “morte” (dead), while the dentist staunchly maintained that it was “morbido” (soft).

My French teacher in high school was Miss Rainy. Miss Rainy had been the French teacher at Chapel Hill High School for upwards of forty years and had the most appalling accent: “La plume de ma tante,” in Miss Rainy’s mouth, came out sounding like, “La plooma duh mah taunt.” Miss Rainy lived with her mother all her life and never traveled to France. That was her tragedy: she taught bratty high school kids French her whole life, yet never visited Paris. My tragedy (and I acknowledge that it is a “first-world” tragedy and of little import in the Great Scheme of Things) is that I will never experience the joy of speaking another language well. That must be unspeakably wonderful, like singing in harmony, which I also can’t do.

In un’altra vita.


Or, as Miss Rainy would have said, “Putt ettra.”

Daisy Miller . . . in a hat!

My husband and I recently watched Woody Allen’s 2009 romantic comedydaisy miller Vicky, Cristina, Barcelona and I found myself flooded with memories of my summer at the American Academy at Rome back in the mid 1970’s.  A newly minted graduate student, I signed up for a course in Roman Art and Architecture offered through the Academy and, enormous hot pink Samsonite suitcase in tow, made my first trip to Italy.

My fellow students were Latin high school teachers out to score Professional Development brownie points (this was back when such rarified creatures as high school Latin teachers, a now extinct breed, still roamed the Earth) and one other graduate student, whom I shall call Amanda.  Amanda was a tall, stork-like blonde from Dallas studying Greek vases en route to marrying a rich doctor and spending the rest of her privileged life sitting on the Boards of museums.   Like Vicky and Cristina, Amanda seemed to have no financial worries. Once I tagged along with her on a shopping spree (hers) on the Via Veneto, where all the stores had, essentially, bouncers in expensive Italian suits.    If your shoes were the right sort, you got in.  Needless to say, it was Amanda’s Gucci loafers that proved my passport into these glittering realms, not my bloody and battered Dr. Scholl sandals.  Once admitted, however, I disgraced myself by having a full-blown panic attack, forcing us to exit the store in considerable disarray and return to the convent where we were lodged.     I promptly ate a huge wedge of parmesan cheese, giving myself  a belly ache of epic proportions.  It goes without saying that Amanda never asked me to go shopping with her again.

The high school teachers were a jolly lot, there to soak up a modicum of culture and a whole lot of wine.  They would gather every night after dinner at one of the local bars to smoke and drink and just generally make merry, grateful, doubtless, not to be knee deep in sullen, insolent teenagers.

Not me.

I spent my evenings in the Academy’s library, poring over the reading material we had been assigned for the next day so that I could dazzle my professor and his graduate assistant, upon whom I had a minor crush, with the depth and breadth of my learning.   I was an appalling brown-noser, always at the front of the pack when we went on our daily field trips, sucking up big time while the high school teachers trailed behind, hung over and sweaty.

I was acutely aware of the social hierarchy that prevailed at the Academy.  Eminent American scholars and renowned artists made it their home away from home when visiting or working in Rome, as did recipients of the prestigious Prix de Rom.  People who paid to take courses run through the Academy, on the other hand — people like myself —  were secreted away in a nearby convent run by an order of German nuns, granted access to the Academy’s library and afforded the privilege of lunching on its grounds alongside the illuminati.   The high school teachers were cool with this.  They just wanted two aspirin and a siesta.    I wanted more.

In my sixty one years I have received three compliments that I cherish to this day.  Two of them I received that summer.

The first, hurled at me by Italian construction workers as I dragged my ass up the Janiculum Hill under the blazing noonday sun, was this.  “Ecco!  Una piccola Venere!”  “Behold! A little Venus.”

The second was bestowed upon  me my last week at the Academy by an energetic looking young Jewish male in tennis whites – one of the aforementioned and exalted Prix de Rom recipients, in his case for film.  He was “doing something” with Fellini, but not that afternoon. That afternoon, it would appear, he was doing me.  Pursuant of which, he bounded over to me after lunch, introduced himself and said, “In that hat, you look just like Daisy Miller!”

Now, in case you think he was going all Henry James on me, the film version of Daisy Miller, staring Cybil Shepherd, had come out just the year before.  I was pretty sure I didn’t look in the least like Cybil Shepherd, but was willing, for the sake of argument, to accept the fact that in that hat, I did.  One thing led to another and I spent the entire rest of that week mooning after him, unable, like Vicky in the Allen film, to accept the fact that what happened that sun drenched afternoon in his spacious room on the second floor of the Academy, was what it was — that I – Piccola Venere, Cybil Shepherd in a hat —  was  a once off.

Whatever happened to that young, vital man, so full of himself, so sure?  In the days before Internet, I was able to comfort myself by imagining dark futures for people who had in some way wounded me.  Perhaps like Icarus, he had flown too close to the sun and gone down in flames.  It pleased me to think so.  However, since we now live in an Online Age, I was forced to google him.

Turns out he didn’t become a hot shot auteur, as he had planned, but an agent in Hollywood with a reasonably respectable clientele of actors working largely in television.  Not bad, but not what he wanted.  Of course, I didn’t become an eminent scholar either.

Drat. All that brown nosing. And for what?