I’ve just spent the few weeks in Italy, learning Italian. It’s the third time in 23 years that I’ve taken a long break, which probably isn’t enough. Why Italy? Well, it’s warmer than Boston, for starters. The food is good. And it forced me to learn a new language – and as a language buff, I am a huge believer that learning how another culture talks gives you unexpected insight into how other people think.
So aside from a few new nouns and verbs, what makes the most sense to take home?
Being a beginner again. We place so much emphasis on being on top of our game, and after a few years of work, or even school, we get embarrassed by it. We’re supposed to know, somehow, even the things we haven’t done. We hate being the rube. So we take private lessons, even in our hobbies, in whatever, to get ahead.
Confession: I’ve been taking Italian lessons for a few months here, a few months there, for 25 years. Yeah. A quarter of a century. So it felt pretty lame to be a beginner.
Tests. Hmm. I haven’t had one of those in about 25 years, either. The first one would determine exactly how low I would go, so I crammed. It can work – especially if you just need short-term retention. Like maybe 30 seconds. Anyhow, the other foreigners seemed to come-and-go from the testing room faster than me. I was wiped after 45 minutes.
Hanging out with kids. Almost everyone else in my class was about 30 years younger than me. It was up to me to make the years disappear. (By the way, one of the things I love most about my job is working with kids right out of school. I am sure they are smarter than I was. Certainly they’re better workers.)
Drop the shield. Sometimes, I plowed through on my own. Most of the time, I asked someone, anyone, for an explanation. Some of the time they just looked at me like I was a simpleton (“Just put the card in the slot…”). Once, on a rainy Monday, someone claimed she didn’t have the slightest idea where the street I needed was. (Turns out we were one block away. Italians hate Monday mornings even more than we do, I think.) But more often, I got what I needed. And that’s probably the biggest lesson: It’s really OK to ask.
So what does this all mean on the Thursday after the honeymoon ends? Well, for starters – just about all of these ‘lessons’ connect to the new social marketplace. The whole market can be our teacher. Being a ‘beginner’ has advantages. Being open is the only way to go, whether it feels comfortable, or not.
As for me, I’m trying to hold onto it too. Four new lessons are probably too much to absorb. The market can usually remember one, at best. So I’ll settle for being a beginner.