An American In Rome
|Benvenuti a tutti!
Thanks for stopping by my blog where I attempt to decipher Italian culture for the English-speaking world. It’s always my intention to go a little deeper—beyond the stereotypes and la dolce vita—to discuss the many reasons why this beautiful chaotic city continues to inspire the dreams of travelers and expats year after year. Travelers, if you’re new to my site, you might want to start here. Expats, check out this post.
In the spring of 1348, ten young Florentines gathered in the Piazza of Santa Maria Novella to plan their escape from the city. Florence was caught in the grip of The Black Death, and so they thought ten days spent in the verdant hills outside of town would be a good way to pass the time while the plague had its way with their fellow citizens. There would be tales of tragedy, trickery, and eroticism, along with plenty of teasing and flirting. The little stories that these fictional characters told each other became the collection known as “Decameron,” by Giovanni Boccaccio, a classic of Italian literature.
Fast forward to the spring of 2014 and I’m sitting in the very same square, waiting to meet my friend and tour guide, Elena. She is going to lead me on a walking tour of her native city and show me some of the highlights, including those connected to classic Italian literature, of which I have a particular interest. Back in Florida, I have a degree in Italian Studies awaiting just two more courses to complete my diploma. The class in Medieval and Renaissance literature was my favorite to date, and so I was anxious to visit the actual sites where literary history took place in Florence.
The topic selected by our group of bloggers this week was: “Weird questions sent to you by bat-shit crazy readers.” Potentially good stuff, but I must say, at first I wasn’t totally thrilled by the choice.
Why? To remind everyone, until recently, I was the only male in the bunch, and the oldest by at least 20 years. So I don’t get the juicy inquires about “hooking up with an Italian” or “the late-night club scene” or even awkward questions about the practice of non-circumcision in Italy. No, unfortunately I get pummeled day after day after day with the boring and mundane, like: “How do I obtain an Elective Residency Visa?” or “How do I find an English teaching job in Rome?” or “How do I change the transmission fluid in my 1983 FIAT Panda?” This last one is particularly vexing, since I don’t even own a car in Italy.
Then not long ago, I received another such email, which at first glance struck me as equally dull, not to mention vague. The reader wrote, “Rick, last month I re-visited Italy for the first time in over ten years. Not that I was disappointed, exactly—we had a lovely vacation. But I don’t know, something seemed ‘different’ to me. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but if you’ll allow me to say it, Italy felt less ‘Italian’ then what I remember from previous visits during the 80s and 90s. What do you think it is?”
This is a guest post by my wife, Jessica Burgio, who writes about her Island of Sicily, and her hometown of Messina. After reading it, you’ll understand where much of the inspiration for my blog comes from. Not only does she have acute insights, but it’s hard to believe that her English is almost entirely self-taught. I did very little editing other than some formatting and punctuation because I wanted to make sure that the essential emotions remained intact. This is the true story of her family.
If you’d like, you can read my introduction to the history of Messina from an earlier post. But honestly, you’d miss nothing by skipping it. The real story is here.
ON THE NIGHT of December 27th 1908, the town of Messina was in full holiday mode. Christmas had just passed, and the streets were still decorated with lights and trees. Every kitchen, even during those times of financial hardship, released the inviting smell of traditional dishes of the season. That night, at the Vittorio Emanuele Theatre, there was a grand performance of Verdi’s Aida, and all the wealthy Messinesi had ventured to the city center from their countryside mansions to see the show.
On the early morning of Monday the 28th, the town was mostly asleep. It was still dark, and only the fishermen and the bakers had already started their working day, and maybe a few roosters in the suburbs. Everything was ordinary and quiet.
In a modest working-class neighborhood, my grandmother Giuseppina, 6 years old, woke up her older sister Maria, saying that she had had a nightmare. The two of them were snuggling in the bed, keeping each other warm, long after the wood-burning stove had been turned off.
Then suddenly, a roar like a freight train.
An Englishman arrives on the shores of The Continent—presumably somewhere in Northwestern France—eager to fight in The Crusades. He asks a fellow soldier at the basecamp, “How do I get to The Holy Land from here?”
The reply is at once vague and yet very accurate. “Go east until you hear Italian being spoken, and then go south until you don’t.”
In this movie reenactment (“The Kingdom of Heaven”), part historical and part fiction, the place where you “don’t” is Messina. This was/is the proverbial crossroads of the Mediterranean where Europe, Africa, and the Middle East all collide.
This also happens to be my wife’s hometown, and we’ve been staying here for over a month now while our little bambina gets to know the Sicilian side of her family. I’ve really been enjoying my explorations of this often overlooked destination. We’ve been lucky, because we’re staying at my brother-in-law’s apartment right in the very center of town, and everything is just a 5-10 minute walk away.
Italians do many things very well. The perfectly tailored suit, the high-performance automobile, and undoubtedly the best food in the world. And there was a time when we could add music to that list. Opera Lirica is known world-wide as the benchmark for vocal achievement, and the stars of opera train their voices with the same intensity that Andrea Pirlo works on his corner kick.
However much has changed in the Italian music scene in the 200 years since Verdi, Puccini, and Donazetti enthralled us with the arias of their bel canto style. Italian pop music of today pairs unimaginative melodies with overly sentimental lyrics making for a pretty unbearable combination. That’s not to say that there aren’t a few exceptions, but I think the overall trend speaks for itself.
Our arrival into Modica was as inglorious as it could have been. As recounted in an earlier post, an outdated iPhone app and my questionable sense of direction conspired to get us trapped within the ancient city walls. Literally. Our little FIAT Panda was firmly lodged between a church and an apartment building, with no conceivable way to turn around. Even the nonna watching from her balcony could only shake her head in disbelief. After inching back down the tortuous trail, we eventually righted our course and found our hotel in Modica Alta.
Yes, Modica has two city centers; a high one, and a low one (Modica Bassa, appropriately). And therein lies the problem: relying on a two-dimensional map to solve a three dimensional navigation problem. I come from the Florida, the flattest state in the Union, where our only mountain is Space Mountain at Disney. We don’t have these types of geographical dilemmas, so I was ill-prepared for the challenge.
This week’s theme for our Italy Expat Blogger Roundtable (official name and acronym to be announced VERY soon) is language learning and speaking Italian. Now, I’ve written before on various aspects of this topic, from my first encounter with Italian in Italy, to the later stages of my language learning journey. I’ve talked about the many diverse dialects throughout the country, and even scratched out a little eBook on the subject.
And I’ve also discussed the other side of the coin, which is Teaching English to Italians. Perhaps this last one is a good jumping off point for what I’d like to discuss today: How teaching English while speaking Italian has ruined my English language skills. These days, I catch myself saying, “I make a shower now,” instead of “I’m going to take a shower now.” Or, “Let’s repose ourselves for a few minutes,” instead of “Let’s rest for a while.” And then there the times when I say a perfectly correct English sentence, but replace one of the objects with an Italian noun. For example, “Put the baby in the passeggino, please.” Nothing wrong with the word “stroller,” but I happen to prefer passeggino. Of course, there are circumstances where there simply isn’t an English equivalent, such as “Darn it! There’s another sciopero in Rome today!” Or better still, when the English just isn’t strong enough to convey the emotion. “Porca puttana! There’s another sciopero in Rome today!”
“Where are we staying again?” I asked my wife, as we drove through a remote area of southeastern Sicily last month while on my blog tour. We were bumping down a dusty path, abandoned by reliable road signs long ago, hopelessly consulting a map that resembled someone’s failed attempt at origami. Before leaving on this epic journey at the end of April, I had handled most of the communications with the hotels, B&Bs, and agriturismi. This one, however, she had taken care of without my intervention. I was starting to question that decision.
“It’s called a ‘masseria,’” she replied, as if it were the most obvious thing, like a Howard Johnsons or Days Inn.
“OK then, what is a masseria, exactly?”
She paused, then started to answer, using random hand gestures to aide in her description, “Uh, well, you know, it’s one of those…places. Like…like…a masseria!”
I could see I wasn’t going to get far with this. In fact, as it turns out, it’s one of those words that doesn’t have a perfect English translation. When I looked it up with Google translate, it simply said, “farmhouse.” But that’s not entirely accurate. For an accurate definition, I had to consult Italian websites.