grammar nightmare

In my head, my broken Italian is utterly charming as I string together the very few verbs and nouns I know with all the wrong tenses and pronouns, combined with some deliciously fun charades and sound effects. I fantasize restauranteurs give us complimentary prosecco, hotel managers give us the ocean view, tour guides show us the secret grave of Marc Antony and extended family members tear up with joy that I have made the effort to learn my father’s tongue. But the reality is: I am way way way behind on my Rosetta stone and I leave for Italy in six days.images-1

A low level of panic is taking over. Last night I had a nightmare about prepositions, articles and pronouns. In particular I had a NIGHTMARE about the word abbiamo. I don’t know when to use it! And I still can’t pronounce Gle. In my nightmare my extended family is sitting around the big tavolo in bisnonna’s cucina, listening to me trying to say, “Io insignante…scrittore…teatro” and I can see that they’re wondering how on earth I got hired to teach writing. And then when they ask me where my husband is, I try to say “I am divorced” to explain why I am not traveling with my marito. “Io solo. Io ha una figlia, otto anno…bambina padre…”arrivaderce Lucia!” … and everyone leaves the table in disgust that I am an inarticulate FAILED Italian AND to top it off, I am outside of the favour of God as a Catholic.

I wake up, panting. For an articulate person to be inarticulate…it’s frightening.

The last time I was in Italy I was eleven years old. I had a wonderful time. In Palazzo I hung out with a cousin my age, Cecilia, and we didn’t speak of word of each other’s language. And yet somehow, we managed to spend hours and hours together, walking around the square, enjoying our gelato and giggling at cute boys. My great grandmother was alive then, well into her eighties. She was probably 4′ 11″ at most, hunched over in the expected black dress of a widow, grey hair pulled back from a rather severe face, a few long hairs on her chin. I was thinking she resembled a doll of a strega I had seen recently. She didn’t have much time for my Nonna, bossed her around. That was something to see! My fierce stoic Nonna bossed around?! She certainly didn’t have time for my “English” mother and her three English speaking kids. Maybe I am imagining it, but I think my Dad was embarrassed that we didn’t speak the language. Bisnonna’s kitchen was dark and one day I walked in and saw a strangled rabbit or piglet, I am not sure which, hanging off the corner of her cabinet with a rope around its neck. This confirmed my fear of her. Palazzo at that time was very old fashioned. Men controlled the money and the conversation. Women served the men at the table first and sometimes didn’t even eat at the same table with them. We had to wear skirts or dresses only. Watanabe_Hiroshi_Marta-Marchi-as-Strega_Comedy-of-Double-Meaning_2010-588x600

Why am I worried about talking? Because of my gender, I may not be expected to speak much at all anyway!

When I was in Italy, I remember a moment very clearly. Cecilia and I were sitting on the little wooden bench in the kitchen that also served as her bed (Zio Paulo and Zia Maria live in a tiny home with their four children and their basement opened up into a kind of barn where they kept chickens and a pig!) And Cecilia was trying to say something very important to me in Italian. I kept saying, “Io no capito” until she raised her voice, thinking if she shouted it repeatedly I might just finally understand it. And it was that moment I told myself, “Someday I am going to return to this place and understand what Cecilia is saying to me.”

But that dream ended up on the cutting room floor along with guitar, piano and ballroom dancing lessons.

Sorry, little Lucia. But maybe just maybe, I will be able to understand a noun or two. I will be able to ask Cecilia, “Quanti figli hai?” And like we did as kids, we may be able to communicate without words. We may look at the photos of our children and coo in the universal language of Mama.images


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  1. Rosie Perera

    I think you’ll find things have changed quite a lot in Italy. Women participate in the conversation and wear whatever they like. My experience talking in broken Italian (about 3-weeks worth of Rosetta Stone) with my extended family over there showed me that a little effort is worth a lot of love. I hope you have a wonderful trip. I’m sure you will come back with many memories. Buon viaggio!

    1. Lucia Frangione

      thank you, Rosie! that is mighty encouraging! xo

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