A Language Lesson

Who knew that a shining moment in my quest to be a loving and helping person would come by saying fewer than 20 words?

A little background…

My sisters, two friends and I are living the dream in southern Italy. We have rented an apartment for a month in a town rarely visited by Americans and are immersed in the culture. Few people speak English. My rudimentary Italian must serve as our communication when we are away from our few local friends who speak both languages.

Still, communication is good. We are able to make it through our days with smiles, gestures, and minimal conjugations of about 20 verbs.

The difficulty comes when I speak to someone in Italian and they answer. Unless they catch my doe-in-the-headlights look, they are apt to continue the conversation as if I understand. Yesterday was a touching example.

We were wandering separately through a neighboring town when I spotted my two travel friends on a bench. An Italian woman was speaking to them. As I neared, they gestured their helplessness in understanding and the woman looked toward me. I greeted her as my friends explained that they had all been watching some sort of wedding tableau. Although the woman was dressed very casually and hadn’t seemed to be involved in it, she was very emotionally involved in what had been happening.

P1000627In Italian, i asked her if it had been her family. And she began her story.

It was mostly unintelligible to me. I know that her son had been married in a small nearby church.  Since we had just visited it, I couldP1090285 “ooh” and “aah” when she explained that they had decorated the church beautifully with flowers.

The saga included people in Milan and Rome.  She must be far from her son since her daughter-in-law is a hairdresser in California.

Perhaps it is the distance. Perhaps it is distress that her husband is ill and (perhaps) did not make it to the wedding. I understood that he uses a walker and/or is not mobile.  And I understood that she is heartbroken. Her sorrow and angst were palpable, although given the cadence and drama of the language, perhaps she was relating a timeworn story. Still, she was living it fully as she related it to me.

For the next 20 minutes I listened. I nodded. I touched her shoulder, her arm, her hand, and even her hair at different moments in her story. I brought my hands to my own heart and looked into her eyes with compassion and understanding.

She had pointed through an arch on the narrow street, indicating where she lived. As a young woman walked through the arch and waved, she said, “My granddaughter, ” and indicated her need to leave.

I bid her goodbye.

My temporary friend went away feeling understood. I went away realizing that my propensity to give advice and interject my own stories doesn’t accomplish as much as being there for someone. It’s a poignant reminder that listening is the key to caring in any language.




  1. A good lesson in learning a language…sadly, this sort of thing isn’t able to be taught – it is felt. Much easier to learn an actual foreign language if you’re missing the “human” gene.


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