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October 30, 2005

Buying Time

Thursday, October 27 to Friday, October 28, 2005

Perugia, Italy:

Somewhere midway through the week I decided to leave Perugia at the end of the month because, unfortunately, I can only legally spend a total of 90 days within the 15 or so EU countries that have agreed to the "Schengen" Treaty. This agreement allows these countries to keep relatively open and unmonitored borders with each other and facilitates the back and forth passage of nationals without undue security requirements. However, the downside for somebody in my position is that the countries effectively treat themselves as one entity when it comes to the length of time a tourist can remain. I can remain for up to 90 days without a visa in many countries all throughout the world, but only for a total of 90 in all of the Schengen countries combined. After that I have to leave for another 90 days before I am allowed to come back. Although these rules often go unenforced, the penalties for violating them can potentially be severe and result in fines and a five-year bar from entering the Schengen countries. Jail time is a possibility but would be virtually unheard of for somebody who overstays simply for the purpose of tourism. As for obtaining a visa to stay longer, it is extremely difficult once you are already in the Schengen countries to do this. It's something I probably should have thought about before but didn't. As a consequence I decided not to spend a final month studying in Perugia but to use that time to travel through parts of Italy and Europe instead. My plan all along was to spend some time in Spain and possibly revisit Paris as well.

With the month coming to end and a number of other friends also getting ready to leave, my class organized a dinner at one of the better pizzas in the city ("Pizzeria Capri" on Corso Cavour) and in total about 17 or 18 people turned up. As usual, I was the only American (and native English speaker).

A few friends of classmates also turned up. I found myself with an unknown Brazilian guy on my right, a former lawyer who had quit his job at least three years ago and was still travelling. Sounds good, but maybe, just maybe, that's a little bit too long. In any event, he speaks four or five languages, as many Brazilians I've met abroad seem to do. The Spanish, in addition to Portuguese, was pretty much a given, his English was decent, and the girl across him, Stella, from Paris, attested to his French.

On my left sat my friend Florencia, from Cordoba, Argentina (although I usually just call her "Argentina") and across from me sat Argentina's roommate, Franca, who I met recently and who I have recently taken to calling "Argen-two-na." Both Argentinas speak decent Italian and Florencia speaks excellent English (I think Argen-two-na does as well, though I never bothered to test it out). Many of my conversations and SMS messages with Florencia involve a mash of Italian, English and Spanish, sometimes deliberately, often accidentally ("Que idioma are we parlando?" I once asked).

A little further down the table on my left sat Jolana, a pedagology grad student from the Czech Republic who is currently living and studying in Frankfurt, Germany. In addition to her Czech, German and in-progress-Italian, she speaks and understands far more English than she admits and also speaks Slovakian (not necessarily a given for Czechs anymore), Polish and a decent amount of Russian. I'm probably forgetting a language or two.

Apart from an unknown Swiss most of those left were Spanish, including Nicolas, from Gaelicia, and a swarm of girls whose names I cannot quite keep straight. There's Nati and two or three of them are named Lucia, but after that it gets kind of fuzzy. The Spanish enclave speaks, well, Spanish and not much else. The professors in my classes were always dismayed to hear Spanish spoken during lesson breaks and claim to often hear more Spanish spoken in certain parts of the city than Italian. Many of the Spanish have never studied Italian before, but start studying Italian in a higher level because they can comprehend a significant amount of it. The problem is that they can't speak it. The grammatical rules are obviously quite close, though I hear a lot of people say that Italian grammar has, in fact, more in common with French grammar than Spanish. Whatever the case, my opinion is that Italian grammar is certainly more complicated. However, I find spoken Italian easier to understand than most spoken Spanish: the Italians speak just a quickly, but open their mouths up and annunciate (at least the ones I've met in and north of Rome do); to my mind many Spanish speakers swallow half of their words up before they can escape their mouths.

In any event, the pizza was probably the best I've had in Perugia and after a few hours and a few beers, we left and went to the stairs of the Duomo in the center of the city, where a thousand or more students congregate at night when the weather isn't too brutal. The Spanish girls were a bit drunk, prompting a few of them to start yelling "Josh, you're the best!" in the limited English they knew. (Of course, I had no problem with this. I am the best. At least the Spanish girls know this and afford me semi-celebrity status in their company.)

Towards 1 AM, the 6 or 7 or us left went to one of the smaller bar/dance clubs in Perugia, a place called (not so creatively) "Celebrate." As we walked, Franca (Argen-two-na) asked me what I was going to do now that everybody was leaving. Actually, she wanted to know how I was possibly going to lead an Argentina-less existence in Perugia, since she and Florencia were leaving for Milano at 6 AM the next morning. "Life will probably be meaningless," I told her (just a bit on the dry side). But, as far as my plans are concerned, I have decided to head back to South America in a short while, possibly within a month (when I have to leave most of the EU) and almost certainly before the new year. Instead of continuing on to Asia as originally planned, I want to spend more time in Argentina, particularly in Buenos Aires, working some more on my Spanish. While I want and expect to speak relatively decent Italian before I come back, I really want my level of Spanish to be of a higher caliber. My intention to head back to Buenos Aires and all of my glowing regard for their country tends to give the Argentinas fat heads, however.

I said good bye to a number of people and headed to sleep at about 3 AM. The next morning we had our final "Italian Conversation" class, in which the professor told me she thought I might be able to skip the next grade and continue studying at level 4 of the Universita per Stranieri's 5 levels. I wasn't too sure about this assessment (I have some holes in my grammar comprehension), but was starting to wonder if I wasn't making a mistake by leaving Perugia instead of staying on to study for my last month. Whereas I originally thought that I could learn a lot just by travelling around Rome and possibly the Puglia and Sicilia regions, I began to wonder how I was going to learn the rest of the grammatical rules I hadn't yet covered. I had until Monday to decide, though if I wanted to stay I would then have to wait in three different lines and find a new apartment all on that day. The weekends are dead in Perugia and you can't expect to get anything productive done.

Strangely enough, recharging my cellular phone had a hand in helping me to decide what to do. I entered a Vodaphone store and told the girl at the counter "I want to buy more time for my phone" ("Vorrei compare piu tempo"). She couldn't help but smirk and shake her head at this and when I asked her why she told me that Italians don't use the expression "buy more time," and that it sounds, literally, like you want to "buy time." After learning the correct phrase, I decided I was probably better of sticking around. I can understand a lot now and can get by in most situations (I had no problem communicating that I wanted to buy time for the phone and doing it) but I wasn't exactly speaking the language at the level I wanted. It takes more than two months of study for that, and admittedly probably more time that I have. But with three months, I should be fairly far along.

The next time I walk into that Vodaphone store I want my request for more phone minutes to sound like the Italian equivalent of a Byron sonnet.

Posted by Joshua on October 30, 2005 04:44 PM
Category: Italy: Living in Perugia
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