Thursday, January 11, 2007

Lost on the way to Florence

Once I visited Pisa for a conference. I had a free afternoon, and decided to venture off to Florence. I took the train from the station, filled with anticipations for the great Renaissance city which I was visiting for the first time in my life.

After a while, I noticed that something was strange. I thought I had taken the express train, but actually it was stopping at every station. Evidently, I was on the wrong train.

I started to worry, being afraid that it would take many hours to make it to Florence. Maybe I would not be able to see the galleries. It might become dark. Uneasiness began to fill my heart.

I was traveling alone. Around me was a cheerful family and several students, all talking aloud in Italian. I don't know what it was that transfigured me at that time. Maybe it was the exasperation at having taken the wrong train, or the actual worry of arriving in Florence too late. Anyway, I started to feel as if I was to live in Italy for the rest of my life.

I would have to speak Italian, write Italian, listen to Italian always, day after day. There would be nothing else for me other than to work in Italian, somehow find a lover in Italian, have a family, raise kids, always immersed in the Italian language. As this illusion swelled in me, I felt as if I was being suffocated. It was as if there was now no escape from the world of the Italian people and language.

What happened was the result of the dynamics of a partially imagined context in which I found me. Before that incident, I was enjoying the context of being a traveler in a unknown land. A traveler has a home country to return, a native tongue to rely on, so speaking a foreign language is just a joy of acting a particular role temporarily, which one can leave after a few days.
Making a living in a foreign culture is a quite different thing all together. There is no escape. There is no joy of acting a particular context.

Because I was bombarded with a seemingly never-ending Italian conversation on the train in trying circumstances, my vivid imagination made me feel as if I was to stay and somehow make a living in an alien culture.

Fortunately, the train arrived in Florence after a few hours. The galleries were still open. I could see "The Birth of Venus" and other famous paintings. The joy of acting the role of a tourist gradually returned to me.

However, the insight gained from this small incident remained with me to this day.

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