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Thanks, Eat Pray Love, for teaching me how to be kind to myself while learning Italian

Updated: Jan 21, 2021

At the risk of sounding dramatic and about 13 years late to the party, reading the Italy portion of Eat Pray Love — while living in, eating in and trying to learn Italian in Italy — has changed my life.

For one, it's given me a fun thing to do while drinking or eating in restaurants alone, which, if you've followed this blog for long enough, you know I do a lot. Being on my phone at the table feels like cheating, and staring into space doesn't give me anything to do with my hands (especially when the pasta hasn't arrived yet!), but reading, oh, that's good. You don't feel sorry for people who are sitting alone in a restaurant reading because it looks like they're exactly where they want to be. And when I have a spritz in one hand and Elizabeth Gilbert's accounts of the various Italian profanities she learned at a Rome vs. Lazio soccer game (more on that later), I'm exactly where I want to be.

For another, it has encouraged me on my quest to learn the Italian language with determination, patience and humor — and positive reinforcement in the form of gelato.

The timing for me to have picked up Eat Pray Love (published in 2006) actually couldn't have been better because I'm currently about two-thirds through my Italian Language for Beginners class at FUA. The class has solidified my mastery in the few things I already knew how to do pretty well, like introduce myself, ask where the bathroom is and order un bicchiere di vino rosso della casa, per favore (a glass of house red wine, please). I've also gained a much better understanding of Italian grammar and have learned a bunch of useful adjectives, but with all of the verb tenses, colloquialisms and thousands of other words still floating around in the unknown, I'd say I'm on track to be fluent in about 40 years.

But no! Elizabeth, the author (we're friends now), started learning Italian in New York, before she began her Eat Pray Love journey, in what she calls "Night School for Divorced Ladies." She continued with level-two classes when she got to Rome, where she also got a conversation partner named Giovanni, made friends with some really nice Italians and read one article in Italian every day, no matter how long it took her to look up every three words in the dictionary. A few months later, she was able to joke around with vendors at the market and dropped out of her Italian class because she felt it was keeping her from speaking Italian in, you know, Italy.

In other words, she has lit a fire under my butt to go beyond my daily 15 minutes of Duolingo and out into the world with confidence and curiosity.

So into the world I will bring a few useful words and phrases that Elizabeth has taught me. It's already been helpful for homework purposes to know that the words for "tree" and "hotel" (albero and albergo, respectively), are almost the same but very obviously different. I also learned that una buona forchetta translates to "a good eater," which I will now use to describe myself to potential mates, and that il bel far niente means "the art of doing nothing," which is what I plan to master when my mom and I stay in a hotel in the hills of Tuscany next week.

I've also learned a colorful array of curse words. When Elizabeth goes to a soccer game with her Italian friend named Luca Spaghetti, an impassioned old man sitting behind her shouts "a gorgeous flower chain of curses" at the players throughout the game. At his mildest, he says things like, TRADITORE! (TRAITOR!), NON HAI UN CUORE! (YOU DON'T HAVE A HEART!) and FAI FINTA! (YOU'RE A FAKER!), and at his harshest, things I will choose not to rewrite here. Not that I would ever use such language, but if I'm ever in the situation where I need to cuss out a wallet thief or an inappropriate grabber of my nether regions, I'll be prepared.

But the best thing that Eat Pray Love has taught me is to loosen up and be kind to myself while I'm learning something new. One of my favorite parts of the book is when Elizabeth is sitting on a bench in Rome and is thrust into conversation with a local woman. "I told her I was from New York and asked where she was from. Duh — she was from Rome," she says. "Hearing this, I clapped my hands like a baby. Ah, Rome! Beautiful Rome! I love Rome! Pretty Rome! She listened to my primitive rhapsodies with skepticism." This makes me laugh because it reminds me of how I must sound when I express my satisfaction with anything from pasta to Florentine culture. How do you like the orecchiette? a waiter recently asked me in swift Italian. Buono! Mi piace! (Good! I like!) I answered in earnest caveman speak.

So maybe, at the beginning of her journey, Elizabeth couldn't articulate all the things she loved about Rome in Italian. But she could understand what that woman was saying, and the woman could see that she understood. And that's something.

There's a cute guy who works at a bar in Mercato Centrale in Florence, and he impressed me when he told me that he learned Italian in just four months after moving here from Albania. I saw him again last weekend, almost two months later. He said hi and asked me how I was doing in Italian, and it was all smooth sailing, but then he said exactly one more sentence and my brain, not understanding a word, rejected it and changed the subject by sputtering out something in English. I felt embarrassed and inadequate for still being able to speak so little Italian after all this time, especially since this guy learned it in a few months.

But you know what? Later that night when I curled up with Eat Pray Love, I realized that during that conversation with Mercato Centrale Guy, I got at least a couple of sentences down. And that's something. In a few weeks, I'll go back to say hi — armed with all my handy new phrases like, "I'm a good eater!" — and I'll get some words right, some grammar wrong and some other things laughably incorrect. And I'll be kind to myself through it all.

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