Hmm, I wonder where the forks are? “Dove sono le forchett….” Le forchettE sono lì. LE FORCHETTE! Errrrrr how embarrassing to have my pronunciation corrected by a five year old in a fancy hotel breakfast room. Of course we were in Tuscana the birth place of the Italian language. Learning Italian has been challenging for me. It has also provided the entire village of Pontelandolfo with comic relief. From school children to shopkeepers to old men playing scopa – everyone corrects me and giggles. Some also roll their eyes and wander why they have to repeat a word 5 million times in order for me to remember it. Yes, it does take a village to teach this old dog new tricks. Hmm, that adage, “You Can’t Teach an Old Dogs New Tricks,” has really never resonated with me.
First of all – DEFINE OLD! Go on – I dare you. Secondly, learning a new language keeps the brain young and active. Thirdly – well – I started to learn Italian when I was 50. It has been 17 years and I’m still learning. I hear you – why didn’t she listen to her grandmother? Why didn’t she learn Italian as a child? Why? Because growing up in rural agrarian Somerset County, New Jersey I never heard Italian.
Unlike the kids growing up in urban pockets of Italian families, I never heard Italian. Not one of the five Italian families in Flagtown, New Jersey spoke Italian within my ear-shot. My grandmother, aunts and uncles – all born in Italy – spoke unaccented standard American English. I thought that was the norm. I didn’t know that some kids grew up in duo-lingo Italian American families. DUH!
When I was older I asked Zia Caterina why not one member of our family spoke Italian to us. There were two reasons – one was survival. They needed to assimilate to get jobs and not be picked on. Aunt Cat recalled the taunts of dumb dago or wop and the smack she got on the head from her first teacher in Dundee Lake (Passaic County) because she had just arrived and didn’t understand English. Simple, they had to be American so they had to learn English. The second reason infuriates me. I was born just after World War II – that period of time when Italian Americans were put in interment camps. Yup, just like the Japanese. Fear of Mussolini’s ties to Hitler and Fascism ignited the ignorant and Italian immigrants – many of whom had sons serving in the American military were whisked from their homes and locked up. No one talks about it. Italo-Americano refer to it as Una Storia Segreta – the Secret Story. Italian Americans couldn’t have a wireless radio. They had curfews. My Uncle Nick, who was too old to be naturalized with my grandparents, was threatened with deportation.
I’ve seen a few documentaries on this period and they incite me. Today, when I hear politicians talk about opening up interment camps and building walls I wonder how many Americans know their history and understand what that means? Not every person of a race or a religion is evil. Hell, my family wasn’t evil.
My family took the signs to heart and “spoke American.” Actually, they spoke English better than lots of folks I have known. They were so good at it that Italian may be in my DNA but it isn’t embedded in my cervello. Studying Italian is a challenge that grounds me in my past and opens doors to new beginnings. In New Jersey, I study with other Italophiles at Dorothea’s House in Princeton. For total immersion in a fabulous ocean front city, I head to Alghero, Sardegna and Centro Mediterraneo Pintadera.
Learning the language has introduced me to parts of my heritage that I have embraced and history that has both saddened and intrigued me. My Italian – as rough as it is – has helped me research my family tree, become part of the fabric of the village and make new friends on both sides of the Atlantic. I figure, I am not too old to learn and if I wasn’t learning and exploring my brain would turn to mush.