The Sybil, one of the ancient Greek oracles, was alleged to write her prophecies on oak leaves. Given that these prophecies were couched in the most ambiguous terms anyway, her clients, usually slightly dim heroic types about to embark on some adventure or other, were on a hiding to nothing as regards getting any sense out of her. As they made a grab for one leaf, the others would swirl around in the wind and blow away, so they would always be left with a few incoherent and meaningless fragments. The heroic types would never fail to interpret the prophecies in ways favourable to themselves; and the prophecies would never fail to come true in unexpected and distinctly unfavourable ways. The hero would then end up doing just what he was hoping to avoid – like sleeping with his own mother or murdering his own father, occasionally both.
I mention this because I was hunting for some way of expressing the tantalisingly insecure mental grasp that I get when trying to interact in a foreign language. I should say that Joan and I are incoherent in a number of languages, mainly self-taught from the Michel Thomas 8-hour language courses. My problem is that I find Michel Thomas’s voice somewhat soporific and tend to drift off partway through a CD, so that my grasp of the language in question tends to be, well, patchy.
Attempting to piece together fragments of discourse was what I was trying to do when the genial, silver-haired proprietor of the hotel at Pomieri appeared and tried to engage me in conversation. The previous day we had walked in considerable heat from from Petralia Sottana and, when the next day dawned very misty and threatening rain, we were very easily put off from doing the long circular walk (Vallone degli Angeli) proposed in the Inntravel notes. Instead, we made up our own short circular walk along a sort of nature trail amongst some majestic trees, returning to the hotel quite early for beer and games of pool. At the end of our walk, we decided for some reason to have our first drink outside on the enormous and deserted covered terrace next to the hotel. While I popped inside to give our order, the others disappeared to dump rucksacks and remove boots et cetera and I ended up sitting on the terrace on my own, watching the mist, which had dissipated somewhat during the day, begin to thicken again down in the valley.
As I watched, the mountains opposite began to fade, and a white tide rolled up the valley, lapped at the balustrade of the terrace, then rolled over it towards me. The ghostly tendrils were just fingering the edge of the table, when a polite cough at my side announced the arrival of our drinks order in the hands of the silver-haired proprietor of the hotel, Ezio Gangi. At least, I assume this was Ezio because at dinner the previous evening he had worn a suit and walked up and down with his hands behind his back smiling at the guests, while our waiter, Giacomo, rushed about at high speed, taking orders, serving food and drinks and exuding a kind of frantic bonhomie. I got the impression that Giacomo would have liked Ezio to believe that he was rushed off his feet, and that Ezio knew this and was deliberately ignoring him.
Ezio, if it was he, having materialised like Christopher Lee playing Dracula, carefully placed the drinks on the table, while the fingers of mist slowly withdrew like tentacles back into the body of the beast which then slowly reversed back down the valley as if at his command. I said our room number and he nodded and put the tray under his arm, but he did not go away. And then he started talking – in Italian. Words flew past me and I grabbed at those that seemed familiar, and, while I was examining them to try to extract some meaning, others flew by and were lost to me. I sort of guessed that he was asking where we were from. Unable to address the complexities of the real facts – that Joan and I were from Knaresborough in North Yorkshire and Jon and Jean from near Wantage in Oxfordshire – I told him that we were English (which he already knew) – in French. I tend to panic when addressed by foreign speakers and there’s no knowing what might come out of my mouth.
Taking advantage of the stunned silence that followed while he adjusted to the idea of an English guest responding to his question about whether there was anything else he wanted by claiming irrelevantly in French to be English, I summoned up some Italian vocabulary from those bits of the Michel Thomas course that I hadn’t slept through, and tried to take the initiative by asking him a question.
“I’m interested in this big covered terrace of yours. You could easily hold a party or a barbecue for fifty people in here. On what occasions do you make full use of it?”
Well, no I didn’t. That’s what I wanted to say. What I actually said, literally translated from the Italian (probably) was, “Very good (all-encompassing gesture), very big something (another sweeping gesture)… why?” The ensuing “conversation” was friendly but somewhat lacking in mutual comprehension. However, I did gather that Ezio thought it was going to snow the following day – a piece of information I immediately imparted to the others when they turned up and Ezio melted away.
In the evening at dinner, the others tackled Giacomo on the weather issue. Surprisingly none of them believed that snow was likely in early September – and on reflection nor did I. The weather was going to be very good, he said, sunny; and this is what he told us again in the morning when it was already obviously very sunny. Later, we sort of pieced together what Ezio was probably telling me. He was telling me that the hotel was often very busy in the winter when there was often snow. Large parties of astronomers often came to take advantage of the lack of light pollution and clear skies to photograph the stars. Some of these photographs were on display in the hotel.
The problem is that native speakers never stick to the script – they haven’t listened to the Michel Thomas language course. Not only that, but (as Greek heroes ought to know) life doesn’t stick to the script either.