Thursday, January 6, 2011

Universal Language

by Greg Larson

     I am convinced that men and women are wired differently when it comes to conversation.  Men often use few words, sometimes mumble and use an occasional grunt in their vocabulary.  They communicate mainly when it is necessary to help them complete their work or to find something they need…like a car part or a tool.  Women, on the other hand, network and connect on a more emotional level.  Gretta’s recent experience, which she shared with me, solidified the “women” side of my theory.

     She had gone to Panera’s, a bakery and deli in Prairie Village, with expectations of meeting an informal Italian conversation group.  According to a friend, the group met there every Wednesday at 3:30.  Gretta thought it would be a nice opportunity to hear and speak the Italian language.  Since it was her first time to meet with the group, she arrived at 3:35, thinking that it would be easier to spot them in the large dining area.

Gretta walked into the deli and inhaled the familiar smell of coffee, soup and the warm, fresh bread.  She scanned the interior, but didn’t see any obvious groups conversing in Italian.  She saw mostly groups of two or three people at the occupied tables.  Not sure of what to do next, she bought a cup of coffee and began to wander through the dining room.  Maybe I have the wrong date or time for the meeting.  She strained to hear snatches of Italian conversation.

     Gretta plucked up the courage to find out if others were also waiting.  She approached two women who were in the middle of a conversation, one a younger, dark-haired woman, and the other an older grey-haired lady.

     “Excuse me,” said Gretta, “Are you here for the Italian conversation group?”

     The women smiled at each other and sheepishly chuckled, apparently sharing a private joke.

     “No we’re not here for Italian conversation,” said the older woman, as she smiled and pointed to the younger woman.  “But I do have to tell you why we’re laughing.  My daughter here lives in Rome!”

     “Oh!” exclaimed Gretta, “My husband and I just came back from a trip to Italy, and we spent two nights in Rome.”

     “Where else did you go in Italy?” asked the daughter.

     “We were on a bike tour in the Abruzzo and Molise regions, and then we spent four days in Florence,” answered Gretta.

     “Very nice,” replied the daughter.  “It sounds like fun.  I hope you find your conversation group.”

     “Thanks.  I guess I’ll keep looking for them,” said Gretta as she began to wander farther into the dining room.  There were no new signs of a group gathering for discussion, so she approached two well-dressed women who were having coffee together.

     “Excuse me,” said Gretta, “I’m looking for an Italian conversation group that meets here, and I wondered if you were here for that, too.”

     One of the women laughed and then spoke a bit sarcastically, “Oh sure, we speak Italian!”  Then she politely continued, “No, we don’t speak Italian, but I wish we could.  I hope you find the group.  Speaking Italian sounds like fun.”

     “I’m learning Italian and when I heard about this conversation group, I thought it would be good for me,” said Gretta.  “I’ll keep looking for them.”

     She continued to wander through the dining room, feeling somewhat like the storybook chick that was lost and kept asking each animal, “Are you my mother?”

     No, I’m not asking the two girls by the window.  She watched one of them texting, while the other talked on her cell phone.  Then she noticed a middle-aged woman with blonde hair, sitting by herself.  I’ll ask one more person before I give up.

     “Hi! I’ve been looking for someone who’s part of an Italian conversation group,” said Gretta.

     “Well I’m not part of it, but won’t you sit down?  I noticed you’ve been looking for someone.  I’ve had a hard day,” said the woman.  “My name is Carol.”

     The woman looked tired but seemed eager to chat.  “This is the first chance I’ve had all day to get some lunch,” she said as she dipped her spoon into the bowl of chicken noodle soup.  “I grew up here in the neighborhood, but I live in Louisiana, now.  My mom just moved to a nursing home, and I’ve come to visit her and work on getting the house ready for sale,” she sighed.  “There’s so much to do!”

     “You must be exhausted.  I know how it feels.  We just sold my mom’s house and had an estate sale.  It took months for us to go through all the stuff,” Gretta empathized.

     “I went to Shawnee Mission East,” Carol reminisced.  “Now when I drive around here, so much has changed.  My mom and I used to go to the Tippins restaurant across the street, and now it’s closed.  We used to have a big piece of French Silk pie…oh, that was my favorite chocolate pie.”

     “You can still buy Tippins pies at the Hen House grocery store,” replied Gretta. “They have whole pies, and I think they sell them by the slice in the deli department.”

     “Oh, that’s wonderful!” exclaimed Carol as she grabbed a pen from her purse. “I’m making a grocery list, and I’ll add the pie to the list.  My mom isn’t eating well, and I think the pie would be just the thing to perk her up a little.”

They visited for about ten minutes.  Carol finished her soup, and Gretta was done with her coffee, so it was time to go.  They said “good-bye” to each other and left Panera’s.  Their random paths had crossed and now separated.

     If I had been the one to seek out the conversation group, but not found it immediately, I would have bought a cup of coffee and left.  But not Gretta.  She and Carol had connected, and their day was brighter because of the conversation…even if it wasn’t in Italian.

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