03 December 2008

Learning Italian from the Calendar

(written in 1999; now updated for modern minds)....

I've been studying my Italian Word Each Day Vocabulary Enrichment Calendar, Advanced Level. I'm going to Italy next Spring and I want to talk to Italians.

So far, I've been taught the meaning of acclimate, riservato, assoggetabile, amichevole, amoroso, ammortizzare, anemico and analogo, not even to mention l'apatia, stupefacente, and furbo. I like furbo. In English it means astute. Or sly. Or cunning. Pick one. My voccabulario is growing fast-o.

In this particular calendar Italian words for January start with the letter "A." If February is "B" and so on, by the time we get to Italy I'll have mastered the Italian language all the way up to "G." For some reason, this reminds me of those A-Z mystery novels by Sue Grafton. You know, "A" is for "Alibi," "B is for Burglary," down to "Z is for Ze End."

Most of the words in my Italian calendar have no earthly use for Americans traveling in Italy. What am I going to do with acclimatize, aloof, amenable, amicable, amorous -- OK, I KNOW what to do with that word -- amortize, anemic, analogous, apathy, astute, or atrocious? For whom are these words intended? Bankers with love on their minds?

I need the words for "no" and "way" as in NO WAY I'm getting in that gondola.

I admit I'm having more fun planning this trip than I could possibly have being there. Since I was last in Europe everything has changed, friends tell me, and not for the better. Italy in May will be like Mendocino in May -- crowded with tourists all seeking the same thing -- ice cream. We plan to travel off the beaten track -- there's a new idea -- to places even travel book author Rick Steves wouldn't go -- places so ugly, so dirty, so dangerous that we'll have them all to ourselves -- just us and the 27 other Americans who arrived on the same bus.

In Mendocino in May you visit the miles-long beach at MacKerricher State Park north of Fort Bragg to get away from crowds. Or walk among the stately redwoods in Montgomery Woods State Reserve on the way to Ukiah. Or visit Ukiah. In these places you won't see many other tourists. Especially in Ukiah.

Don't misunderstand me -- there's nothing wrong with Ukiah. It's just that Ukiah does not register in a single California guidebook that I can find. It just is not there. I'm hoping to find places like Ukiah in Italy. Places that, spelled backward, mean "short meaningless poem in Japanese."

I have my own special way to figure out which guide books are the most accurate. I look up Ukiah. Since most don't mention Ukiah, I look up Mendocino. Most descriptions of my adopted home town are glib and brief. The most thoughtful is in Kim Weir's Northern California Handbook from Moon Publications. The most original is Mark William's Northern California Off the Beaten Path. Williams writes, "The town of Mendocino is quaint indeed and does a thriving tourist trade. But while every one talks about how it looks 'just like' a New England fishing village, it really does not. The streets are too wide and straight, and the houses are set too far apart and don't have shutters."

So there.

A travel book round up article by David Butwin in Publishers Weekly points out that most guides to Europe take for granted that all the great sights are -- just great. Butwin finds one exception. The Rough Guide to Florence allows that "after registering these marvelous sights, it's hard to stave off a sense of disappointment, for much of Florence is a city of ... dour, fortress-like houses, of unfinished buildings and characterless squares." We need more honest writing like that in our guide books.

Last week I praised the Eyewitness Travel Guides published by DK Publishing in Great Britain. A friend wrote to remind me about the Insight Guides distributed by Langenscheidt Publishing Group. The Insight Guides are very good. So filled with color photographs and printed on excellent, heavy paper that you might want to leave the book home when you go. Insight Guides are about the same size as other guide books, but they weigh too much to carry around. Publishers Weekly figures the "Insight Guide to Italy" comes in at "just three ounces under two pounds."

The weight and size of guidebooks becomes a packing problem. Some people copy pages they need and leave the books at home. Others tear their books apart as they travel and burn the pages to keep warm. There goes Spain, up in flames. There goes Portugal. When you get home what you have left is the cover, the index, and a custom out-of-date guide to the places you didn't visit.

I guess you could travel without all this guidance, but that would be like trying to learn Italian from a calendar. If you don't plan-plan-plan you might walk right by an important museum or miss another ancient cathedral. Come to think of it, who needs another museum? And if you've seen one ancient cathedral....

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