Endnote: Describing the Indescribable

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By Allea Martin '05

Allea Martin ’05 looking down from the top of Macerata’s bell tower

In my 21 years, I have rarely found myself at a complete loss for words. However, in the last six weeks since I returned from studying abroad, I’ve found myself frequently and completely paralyzed by the question, “How was Italy?”

It seemed like answers should flow from me like a river of marinara. I spent months learning about the Italian language and lifestyle. I nestled myself deep into the culture of Macerata, the small hill town in the Marche region where I lived with three young Italian women. I loved, in an intoxicated, head-over-heels kind of way, Macerata’s people, food, buildings, art, churches, and—most of all—language. And yes, Italian is the most beautiful and romantic language in the world, if there was ever any doubt.

Yet despite my fervent, three-month affair with Italy, I could not seem to articulate any of these feelings upon my return to the United States. How could I, in one sentence or less, capture the depth and the beauty of Italy? My first impulse was to respond in Italian. I believed that the meravigliosos and bellissimos could convey meaning better than any English word I knew. Since I didn’t want to be annoying and rude, I found myself instead responding with one-word descriptors like “wonderful,” “incredible,” or “fabulous.” Still, these words seemed lacking, as though I was somehow giving an incorrect answer.

View from a castle of the Marche region

I knew, for example, that one single word could not begin to capture the way I felt about Italian people. Words like “wonderful” didn’t illustrate the love and respect that I felt for Filiberto, the program director and stand-in father for Macerata students. Filiberto is easily the most intelligent and cultured person I’ve ever encountered, not to mention he presides over the largest stockpile of jokes in the world. Could anyone else understand how amusing it was hear him replace phrases like “at a later time” with the more comical “in a second moment?” I felt even more daunted in attempting to describe my roommates’ generosity and kindness. Could another person really comprehend the bond that had formed between my roommate Chiara and me as we sipped espresso and discussed our favorite books?

When I failed to reply to broad questions about my trip, friends and family members began to ask about more specific aspects, usually food or architecture. This was no easier. While “incredible” certainly could describe the food, it could not convey the extent to which Italian life centers around and gathers life from food, cooking, and eating. When asked, on a few occasions, to name my favorite meal, I became a mumbling idiot, changing my answer at least 10 times over. Similarly, “fabulous” might shed a tiny, keyhole-sized spotlight on the intense beauty of Italian art and architecture, but it could not encapsulate the emotions contained in church frescoes. Nor could it adequately explain the way I lost my breath when looking out across the countryside from the top of Macerata’s bell tower.

Allea’s favorite street in Macerata, where she walked every day to get to class

I felt trapped by my own intellect. I grieved my inability to express the fascination invoked by my cinema teacher’s flowing lectures, or the different but equally mouthwatering smells coming from each floor of my apartment building on Sundays. I longed to tell of the giggling, confetti-throwing children who had run through the streets during Carnevale, and of the beautiful, designer-clad parents and grandparents who scurried after them.

If I couldn’t describe how much I loved Italy, how could I explain how much Italy had changed me? Had anyone else ever experienced the freedom and happiness of traveling alone on a train, watching the sun set over picturesque farmland? Could anyone relate to the feeling of triumph that I experienced after I began to not only participate in, but to actually understand conversations in a second language? I felt as though Italy had picked me up, pointed at all my best qualities and said, “You can keep these. But the rest of them have to go someplace else.” Thus I found myself as I’d never been before, exploring things I never could have imagined, and feeling fulfilled beyond my greatest imagination. The possibilities seemed truly endless.

The truth is that no one can ever understand Italy’s magnificence without spending time there, and even then, each of us sees through different eyes. I have come to accept this, and be grateful for the experience I had. Now when people present me with those dreaded three words, I have a new response. Rather than fumble around for an answer, I simply smile and say, “I loved it.”

A child in costume during Carnevale
Article copyright Allea Martin. During her time at Catlin Gabel, Allea Martin ’05 served as president of Oregon’s Model UN program, for which she was awarded a scholarship upon graduation. She continues to study culture and international affairs at the University of Oregon, and will graduate in the spring with a degree in political science.