Is Italian Easy to Learn?

Once I met a group of friends for a beer and an Armenian girl and an Italian guy were talking about the possibility of the girl learning Italian. The Italian turned to me and asked me if I thought Italian was hard to learn.

I gave an enthusiastic “No!” and half the table looked at me in disbelief. I clarified my reaction by saying that while it’s difficult to speak like a native, I thought Italian was one of the easiest languages for a native English speaker to learn.

It’s true that it takes time and immersion to develop natural speaking patterns and to not sound awkward and foreign. Near-native skills in understanding, speaking, reading, writing, and cultural understanding take years and years to achieve, if ever.

But in terms of general proficiency, Italian is a good choice for native English speakers for learning a foreign language with a relative level of ease.

Even in the very beginning, before getting anywhere near “general proficiency”, it’s possible to speak and understand people in Italian. When I took a vacation in Italy for the first time fifteen years ago, I had only two university Italian classes behind me and I only knew two verb tenses. My language skills were very basic and my grammar was absolutely horrendous but I was communicating with Italian people and that was so exciting.

What makes a language easy to learn?

In objective terms, no one language is easier or harder to learn than any other. After all, young children in every country can easily learn their own native language.

The game changes when learning a foreign language. In general, the closer a foreign language is to a person’s native tongue or another language they know, the easier it is to learn. While Arabic is considered a more difficult language than English, it would be easier for a Persian student to learn it because it is more similar to their native tongue.

For an English speaker, the easiest languages to learn include the Romance languages, Italian included. While English is a Germanic language, for historical reasons it is closely linked to the Romance languages, and in fact, over 50% of English words come from Latin or French.

The Foreign Service Institute classified nine of the easiest foreign languages for English speakers to learn, and Italian is one of them. Listed in order of how many native speakers each language has, they are:

Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, Romanian, Dutch, Swedish, Afrikaans, and Norwegian

These languages are considered “closely related to English” and the Institute estimates that it would take 575-600 class hours to achieve language proficiency in one of them. (600 class hours means going to class for two hours and forty-five minutes a day, five days a week, for ten months.)

Although English is a Germanic language, German, with its complex grammar, three genders, four cases, difficult plurals, long compound words, and fewer cognates, is classified in the next category as a “language similar to English.” It would take 750 hours to achieve the same level of proficiency.

The Institute describes the level of proficiency in question as “General Professional Proficiency,” or level three in both speaking and reading. Click here and here for a detailed description.

The most difficult languages for a native English speaker are Chinese, Arabic, Japanese, and Korean, taking 2200 class hours to reach the same level.

That said, everybody is different, and individual results vary as the time it takes to learn a language is influenced by factors such as how complex the language is, how much time a student devotes to learning, the resources available, and the individual’s motivation.

Is Italian Really So “Easy?”

Italian is written as it sounds. Each consonant (and phoneme, such as ghi or ci) corresponds to a specific sound, making it fairly straightforward to learn to read, spell, and pronounce. (In fact, spelling bees are unheard of in Italy and looked upon with curiosity because hearing a word generally tells you how it’s spelled.)

Realistically for a language learner, it’s not that simple. Every word puts the stress on a specific syllable, and the general rule of stressing the next-to-last syllable has a large number of holes! It takes time listening to people speak to learn where to put the stress.

Some sounds are more difficult for native English speakers because they don’t appear in our language. Gli and the Italian rolled r can be troublesome, but this (usually) doesn’t hinder our ability to be understood.

There is more variation with Italian vowels, as e and o can be open or closed, but again, messing up here isn’t a big deal since even native vowel pronunciation varies from region to region.

That said, Italian pronunciation is still simpler than English. Consider our seemingly arbitrary pronunciation in the eight different ways to pronounce the letter combination ough in the following words: through, though, thought, tough, plough, thorough, hiccough, and lough [pronounced loch].*

In terms of grammar, Italian has a typical Romantic structure for word order and grammatical gender of nouns. Knowing some French or Spanish, for example, will help greatly in learning Italian. It also has no cases and its vocabulary is derived from Latin, resulting in cognates and easily recognizable words, not to mention all the English words that have been adopted by Italians (but sometimes they don’t always have the same meaning).

While English speakers have a leg up on learning Italian, it’s still difficult to speak well and master things such as prepositions and the subjunctive. It’s even harder to leave clumsy foreign constructions and just plain guesswork behind. That’s okay. “General proficiency” means speaking with enough accuracy to participate in conversations and convey meaning while allowing for errors and limitations in understanding.

Living in a country where the language is spoken will be immeasurably helpful. I can say from personal experience that I took classes and studied a lot in the US, but as soon as I came to Italy my language skills really took off. Textbooks and classroom environments can teach you a lot, but I didn’t really get to know how the language is used in many different real-life situations until I came here. It’s one thing to learn an expression in a book and another to actually see how it’s used. If immersion isn’t possible, I think language exchange with native speakers who live in the area is a great idea.

Enthusiasm Rules

It takes work to learn a foreign language. We’d all be polyglots if we could place a textbook over our heads, go to sleep, and wake up fluent.

We’re more willing to work when we’re enthusiastic about the subject, so perhaps the easiest language to learn is the one you feel most motivated about and enjoy speaking! With enough passion, any language can seem easy or at least enjoyable to learn.

I know that when I studied Italian in college I wasn’t as motivated as I was after I had goals for coming to Italy years later. I didn’t do all my homework because it was tiring to look up long lists of words for texts that I barely understood. With plans for coming to Italy in mind, suddenly studying Italian was all I wanted to do.

So, to answer my friend’s question, I think Italian is easy to learn, even if I use the word easy loosely. When it comes to Italian, I’m not lacking in enthusiasm so it doesn’t matter that I don’t speak like a native. I’m having a blast.

To me, that makes it easy.

*From The Mother Tongue English and How it Got That Way by Bill Bryson
Sources:
-http://www.businessinsider.co.id/the-hardest-languages-to-learn-2014-5/#FiIg78FU8M2krQjq.97
-httpmatadornetwork.comabroad9-easy-languages-for-english-speakers-to-learn
-http://www.answers.com/Q/Is_German_a_hard_language_to_learn#ixzz1lKdSR6KB

Posted in Italian Language | 2 Comments

How to Count on Your Hands Italian Style

When I was in the airport I saw this sign and I took a photo because it illustrates how Italians say the number three with their hands.

img_20160808_085306-blogItalians start counting with their thumb (one), then thumb and index finger (two), then thumb, index, and middle fingers (three, as pictured).

But to show the number four they switch it up and raise the index, middle, ring, and pinky fingers without the thumb.

Then for five they show an open hand.

Italians might raise their thumb instead of speaking to indicate a number with a one in it. For example, if you ask how much something cost and the answer is one hundred, the person can respond by raising their thumb.

To emphasize the number, they might raise their thumb and then move it around in a circle. For example, if someone had to pay an expensive bill of one thousand euros and you ask how much they paid, they might just move their thumb around.

Now go forth and practice.

Posted in Italian Language | Leave a comment

Estate! (Summer)

Summer is here. You might be saying that this post is a little late, that it’s been summer for awhile. Yes, that’s true. I read a blog post the other day written by an American lady who said that summer was winding down and I thought, what? It’s about to begin.

That’s because over the past few years of living on an Italian schedule I’ve come to think of real summertime as being the month of August since that is traditionally vacation month in Italy when people stop working and head to the sea, or the mountains, or their family home if they’ve moved away, etc.

Well, summer has been going on for awhile for me in one important way and that is…. summer fruit! I love fruit and I have been eating lots and lots of pesche (peaches), pesche noci (nectarines), albicoche (apricots), pesche percoche (a type of firmer, more consistent peach with light orange fuzzy skin), mirtilli (blueberries), more (blackberries, when they’re on sale), meloni (melons), angurie baby (sugar baby watermelons), prugne (plums) etc. So sweet and delicious, I’ve been in heaven.

Summer also means…. il mare (the sea). One of my favorite things to do in life is swim in the sea very early in the morning when the beach is deserted and the water is sparkling with early sunlight and everything seems more beautiful.

If you go to the sea you’ll (usually) need a bathing suit. Yes, women’s tops are optional in some places but I haven’t seen that in awhile. Unless you’re a child, of course:

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I ripped out this advertisement from a store circular years ago and have been meaning to post it. Female babies and little girls in Italy don’t wear bathing suit tops, just the bottoms.

When I was fresh off the boat and went to an Italian beach I was surprised to see that, but when you think about it, there’s no need for them to wear them, their chests look exactly like little boys’.

I guess an American might be uncomfortable with that sight because they know the child is a female and so society says they must have their top covered, but in reality it doesn’t make a lot of sense. Italians are more relaxed about these things. Actually, a few Italian friends were very surprised to hear about American babies/young girls always wearing tops or one-piece suits. They couldn’t understand why it was necessary.

Another thing about Italian bathing suits – you won’t find an Italian beach without hundreds of these:

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Men’s suits – 70% off. Hurry up and get your speedo while they last (it’s called lo slip or il bikini). Actually, am I the only American woman (or man) who likes them?!?!?

n.b: An Italian guy told me that he normally wears them but said when he goes to the United States he wears a long shorts bathing suit.

Going back to Italians’ schedule in August… yesterday I wanted to print something so I walked to the copy shop but it was closed. I walked a couple blocks farther to another one but that was closed too. I had forgotten that you can’t count on things being open in August.

But I think this is a good thing. It gives the shopkeepers some time off. Torino (and Italy) is full of small mom-and-pop type shops run by few people. Store owners need a vacation too. A small copy shop is not like a major chain, which can stay open around the clock because they have a large staff with rotating hours and because the population expects things to be available 24/7. Plus, Italian culture in general is more relaxed about these things and Italians know what to expect and plan ahead. I’m very happy to shop less in August and support small shops over large chains for a variety of reasons (see my post about it here).

During an eight-minute walk to the supermarket today I saw these signs on store windows indicating that they were closed for vacation. (See this post for more photos I took last year.)

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Closed for vacation from August 8 to August 21. Reopening August 22  (This is a clothing store)

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The store will reopen on August 23, 2016. Wishing everyone a good vacation! (Clothing store) – The sign below that says “Please ring the bell!”

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Closed for vacation from August 8 to August 28, 2016 (Hearing aid store)

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This store will be closed for vacation from August 2 to August 22, 2016 (Il macellaio, the butcher)

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Closed for vacation from August 6 to August 21, 2016 (Il fruttivendolo, a small fruit and vegetable shop)

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Closed for vacation, we will reopon on Monday August 29. Have a good vacation!!!! (A bar i.e a café)

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Reopening on the day of September 5, 2016 (A merceria, a sewing supplies and underwear shop)

estate-8The store will be closed from August 6 to August 21 (I don’t remember what this store is)

Enjoy the rest of summer everybody!

Posted in Expat Life, Italian Life, Signs | 2 Comments

There Are Signs Everywhere

These are signs that caught my eye over the past couple of years or so in Torino.  I took photos of some of them because I thought they were funny. Of course, except for the first one they aren’t supposed to be funny, but taken from an English-speaking “expat” perspective, they can be.

signs-1This sign is right inside the entrance of a pizzeria in Piazza Carlo Alberto. You know how establishments hang plaques or photos boasting of the famous people who patronized the place? This sign says: “ERNEST HEMINGWAY (1899-1961), WRITER, NEVER ENTERED THIS BAR”. Ha!

signs-2Sorry, but this advertisement for tours in Piemonte freaks me out. It says: “Grand Tour: Piemonte at your feet”.

signs-3Pay attention: bicycle, horse and cart, and (farm tool?) crossing.

(Anyone know what the last one is?)

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“Sorry, we’re chiuso.” Heh hehsigns-5

Italian food

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Ever wonder why the Italian post offices (known as Poste Italiane or more literally “post office”: ufficio postale) are marked by a “PT” sign?

(Usually the sign is just the part with the “PT” in a circle, but this looks like an old one.)

signs-7Not again… “Seeking staff with experience, max 35 years old”. I can’t help seeing something like this with my American eyes and hear my brain shouting “illegal!” Not here.

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“The Drunk Octopus”

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Play on words Prima – Dopo (Before – After) with the dentist office’s name.

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These candies are too good for you.

By the way, confetti are sugar covered almond candies that people give out as party favors at weddings and baptisms. Confetti, the stuff you throw on New Year’s Eve, is coriandoli. My favorite confetti don’t have almonds inside and have different flavors like lemon and pistachio.

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Yes! This cafe offers soy milk.

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Is this kind of picture really necessary? I remember the first time I visited Italy in 2001 and saw a commercial on TV with a topless lady in a bubble bath throwing her arms up in joy over whatever product they selling.

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2 Euros a pop

signs-15Choosato means “chosen” (past participle), and choosate means “you (plural) choose”. They are not real Italian words but nowadays people are taking English words and adding the Italian verb ending “-are”, so the infinitive would be choosare.*

Because English is cool. When they get it right. When they get it wrong, it’s funny (to native speakers). But no funnier than “one panini” or “one cannoli” on US menus sounds to an Italian. (Panini and cannoli are plural words. If you just want one, it’s panino or cannolo.)

*The real word for “to choose” is scegliere.

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OK this isn’t a sign but it’s still food for thought (heh). You might know this pasta as “orzo”. In Italian it’s called risoni (literally “big rice”) and that’s what it looks like. Orzo means “barley”.

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Sofia Loren and Totò just hanging out at the pizzeria.

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“Butter – Eggs”. Stores went all-out back in the day.

I should take a picture of the cafe downtown with a fancy old Farmacia sign built into the stone wall above it.

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Bear with me, this is my inner twelve-year-old making an appearance. They’re advertising a public transportation pass called a Pyou Card.

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Horse meat

signs-24The twelve-year-old is coming out again. Superbum… would be better if these were toilet paper and not napkins.

Bum (pronounced “boom”) means “boom! bang!” like fireworks.

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Seriously?

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I love this word: Spaghetteria. Remember the SAT exam analogies? “Pizzeria is to pizza as spaghetteria is to spaghetti.” Or something like that. I don’t think that one was on the test.

Una spaghettata is a spaghetti dinner (or lunch).

(This one wasn’t shot in Torino.)

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This is what un toast is in Italy. The ones on display are yet to be put in the sandwich press.

signs-28Fichi d’India are prickly pear fruit, also known as bastardoni (“big bastards”). Not a great name, but the fruit is really good, they come in surprise colors inside (you never know what you’re gonna get) and there is a secret method to peeling and eating them.

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I never really “got” why mustaches are in, but whatever. This was a booth at the chocolate festival in Torino. Da leccarsi i baffi means something like “so good it will make your lick your lips”, except literally it says “so good it will make you lick your mustache”. See this post.

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“My favorite color is chocolate.” Cute.

signs-31Frozen waffles have made it to Italy.

signs-32What?

See you with the next installment when I’ve gathered enough new photos for a new post in a couple of years 😛

Posted in Expat Life, Italian Language, Signs | 2 Comments

Last Day of School Fountain Splash

last day-3I know I haven’t blogged in a long time, I wasn’t really able to for a while. I like writing posts and hearing from you so I hope to blog more often now.

This morning I met my American friend and fellow blogger Sonia (she blogs here) at Piazza Castello to watch the middle and high school kids run through the fountains in the piazza to celebrate the last day of school. It’s a Torino tradition.

It made me happy to see them, they were so exuberant. I remember how it felt when school finally let out for the summer and three whole months of vacation were still gleaming shiny and new in front of me.

Please excuse the less than professional photography, but I only had my point-and-shoot camera with me. Still, you get the picture (heh 😉 ).

last day-1 last day-4 last day-5 last day-6 last day-7

Posted in Torino | 6 Comments

Impulse Buy

Dear fellow Americans, you might relate to this post. 

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Question: What did my eyes behold for 99 cents at the food store?

Answer: Milk’s favorite cookie.*

Question: What action ensued?

Answer: Impulse buy.

What can I say? Sometimes as an “expat”, any kind of small familiar thing takes on an exagerated meaning, and emotions take over.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some (double) stuff to do.

I apologize for propagating a corporate slogan on my blog. 

N.b.: Dear Michelle, next time try to remember that Oreos always give you a stomach ache. Especially when, like in this case, the whole package mysteriously disappears shortly after purchase.

N.b. 2: These are totally vegan, in case you thought we only ate fruit and vegetables 😀

 

Posted in Expat Life | 2 Comments

The Art of Taking a Break

Some travel stories about Italy are written by foreigners who express their incredulity at having to wait in a long line only to watch the employee at the counter leave to go have a smoke as soon as they get to the window, or, as I read recently, unwrap a sandwich, tie a napkin around his neck, and take a bite while a restless crowd of bank customers wait to be called on. I haven’t experienced anything near that colorful in my life here in Torino, but the following two episodes were strange enough to my American sensibilities to warrant a mention on my blog.

1. A few months ago I went to the post office and was sitting in one of the private offices with the postal employee while he helped me with a problem I was having. Besides talking about the routine business at hand, he started a friendly and personal conversation about where I was from, what I was doing in Italy, how I liked it, etc. Then he had to call the customer service number on the landline phone to try to solve my problem, and he was on hold for a while.

While he was on hold with the landline phone pressed against his ear, his cell phone rang and it was his mother. “Look!” he said, smiling, showing me the screen where MAMMA was displayed in big letters, with a facial expression that made it clear that when Mamma calls, there’s nothing to do but pick up. I’d say this guy was about forty-five years old. So he answered the phone and had a lively conversation with his mother, one phone pressed against each ear, while I watched and waited.

2. The last time I saw my hairdresser, in the middle of a haircut she asked me if I wanted a coffee, because they were ordering some espresso from the bar on the corner. It was around eleven in the morning. I politely declined (never did like the stuff). When it arrived, she excused herself to go drink her coffee, standing at the reception desk with her assistant and with a customer who got up from her chair to join them (wearing the black cape that protects your clothes and with her hair covered in pieces of aluminum foil from her highlighting job). I was actually sitting in my seat with half of my hair combed forward because she had been working on the layers, so it’s anyone’s guess how I was supposed to sip a coffee in that state anyway. So that’s how I had to wait until the coffee break was finished, about three minutes later.

I come from a country with a stricter code about not mixing the personal with the professional. I can’t imagine an American postal or bank employee chatting with me about my personal life, let alone talking to their mother on the phone in front of a customer, or a hairdresser leaving me stranded while she went to drink her very important mid-morning espresso.

When I worked at a newspaper in New Jersey, the boss said it was okay to call your mother from the office on her birthday, but to keep it short, and to otherwise not make personal calls while at work. That’s quite a different philosophy!

When my cousin came to Italy on vacation he couldn’t believe it when he saw business people having wine with their lunch. He said if he went back to work after having one drink he would be fired.

I supposed I could have gotten irritated by these two episodes, but I didn’t. I’m glad I live in a more relaxed country where taking a break is nothing to look down upon, where lunches (with wine) are lengthy, and where two-hour naps afterwards are encouraged.

Posted in Italian Life | 6 Comments

Compliments, Italian Style

Years ago, I nearly always spoke Italian with an ex-boyfriend of mine and was curious to have an English conversation with him. He came back one day from a series of work meetings in which he had to give presentations in English, and the following conversation in Italian ensued:

Me: “How’d your demonstration at work go?”

Him: “It went well.”

Me: “Were they Italians, or did you have to speak in English?”

Him: “I spoke in English.”

Me: “We can speak in English!!!”

Him: “Noooooooo, I spoke in English alllllllllllll day [gives a dramatic, tired look of having had enough.] Look at my face!”

Me: “I’ve been speaking only Italian for months now! How’s my face?!?”

Him: [pause…] “Bella!

[Sigh] Gotta love Italians.

Posted in Italian Life | 2 Comments

Setting the Record Straight

This is a post I wrote in 2011 but hadn’t yet published…

blog-1A while ago I went to the comune (city hall) in Torino to pick up a document for my sister, but it wasn’t available. I didn’t leave empty-handed though. I picked up my certificate of Italian citizenship and a transcription of my birth record. When I was about to leave, I realized that my mother’s last name was spelled incorrectly on the birth record transcription.

These kinds of errors are so easy to make, and they happen all the time. The reason the transcription contained a misspelling is because when I was born, someone recorded my mother’s name wrong on my birth certificate. Stapled to the original certificate was a correction, but the clerk in the comune didn’t bother to turn the page and thus copied down the erroneous name.

I wanted to go home so I almost let it slide, but something inside of me just wouldn’t let me leave without correcting the mistake. A little voice inside my head told me that it was important to fix it, and I understand where it was coming from.

I learned firsthand that such mistakes can make genealogy research much more convoluted than it might otherwise be.

I got a generous dose of this while researching my roots in Philadelphia in preparation for applying for dual citizenship. A lot of inaccuracies occurred when non-English speaking immigrants and American officials had to communicate during the years of mass immigration at the turn of the century, and my family was no exception. I ended up doing a lot more work than would have been necessary had all the records been correct.

Just performing an index search in an archives became several times more time-consuming because along with searching for the correct spelling of a surname, I had to search for its known (and possible) variations. This makes a difference when you’re scrolling through microfilm.

Finding information for one of my great-great grandfathers is a good example of what I experienced. The first time I went to Philadelphia City Hall, prepared with the names and marriage date of my great-great grandparents, the clerk was unable to locate their last name in the ancient index for that year in the late 1800s. That might not have been a problem as the records were also recorded under the bride’s maiden name, but there was no sign of her either. I found out later that this was because both names were misspelled!

The thoroughly nice and helpful clerk found a clue on the only document I actually had for that great-great grandfather (the clue was the address of the priest who married them in the 1800s), and he told me what to do to start finding more information about them. His tip led me on a long and emotional hunt all over the city. In the end, I pieced together enough clues to identify my ancestors in a different way, and the clerk then found their (misspelled) names in the index of the exact same dusty old book he had looked through earlier.

Inaccuracies are not allowed in the documents used to apply for dual citizenship, which meant that several of my family’s records had to be corrected. This was a time-consuming and expensive process. To correct the bride and groom’s last names on the marriage certificate, my sister and I studied booklets of court rules to learn how to change a record, and we successfully petitioned the court ourselves.

I don’t mind all of this now, since playing detective was fun and I learned a lot of information about these ancestors that has great personal value for my family, but at the time it was frustrating not knowing whether I would be able to find the necessary documentation to reach my goal.

Over a year later, with experiences like this behind me, something just wouldn’t let me leave the comune without correcting my mother’s misspelled name.

Researching my roots has helped me feel more connected to where I come from, and part of a larger reality that has existed long before I was born and will continue to exist long after I’m gone. What we do and who we are have implications that reach far beyond what we will experience in our lifetimes.

The correction was a simple process that took about five minutes, but who knows? It may save more time and frustration for a distant descendant trying to set the record straight.

Posted in Genealogy | 2 Comments