Monday, 8 July 2013

Why Italian?



Ever since I learnt how to read, I have been fascinated by foreign languages. I would read all the shampoo bottles, food labels and board game instructions featuring multiple languages that I could lay my hands on, with the enthusiasm most people reserve for a gourmet banquet. At first, I would try to guess which languages they were and later, when I had a more sophisticated lexical scope, I would try to learn new words in other languages by comparing the foreign paragraphs with their English equivalents.

I’m not entirely sure what intrigued me so much about languages from such an early age. Perhaps it was the air of mystery that they contained, like dozens of secret codes just waiting to be unlocked. Perhaps it was the idea that their acquisition seemed to pass on a certain sense of power; I had heard tales of men and women successfully pulling off extraordinary feats of espionage or escape during the Second World War because of their ability to speak German with native fluency. Or perhaps it was the fact that I yearned more than anything else to one day travel the world and I knew that English alone would not be enough to open the doors to all the adventures I dreamed of having. It was no coincidence that my favourite book was, and always will be, the atlas.

The more I discovered about languages, the more I realised what a vast and endlessly fascinating subject linguistics is. I love the ‘genealogy’ of languages; the way they fit into familiar clusters, many with ‘deceased’ ancestral bases, like Latin. The way in which dialects differ and linguistic circles intertwine is a subject that could be studied for a lifetime without even scratching the surface, and since languages are constantly evolving, even if you did learn everything there was to know, you would then have to start at the beginning again to acquire the new vernacular.

As an exchange student and a university student, I studied Swedish and Indonesian and discovered that the word for cinema, bioskop, was the same in both. These languages have had no influence on each other over the course of history, yet this one particular word was identical! (I believe this is because Swedish and Dutch have numerous linguistic similarities, both being northern Germanic languages. The Dutch language played a role in the evolution of the Indonesian language, due to Dutch presence on the Indonesian archipelago over a period of more than 350 years. ‘Cinema’ in Dutch is bioscoop).

I also found out that the Swedish word for cake, tårta, although spelt differently, is pronounced exactly the same as cake in Italian, torta. But, torta/ tårta is not the word for cake in any other European language – neither those related to Italian, nor those related to Swedish. I would love to known the story behind that linguistic journey: did an Italian chef fall in love with a beautiful Swedish girl long, long ago and follow his heart to Sweden where he began producing celebrated cakes, thus introducing the delicacy and the word at the same time?

{“A torta of any other name just wouldn’t taste as sweet!”}

More interesting still, why, for example, does the word ananas mean pineapple not only in Italian, but in numerous other languages as well, and not just in other Romance languages such as Portuguese and French, but also in languages that have no relationship to each other whatsoever, such as Turkish, Swedish, Greek, Croatian, Arabic, Russian, Polish and Finnish? Even in Indonesian, many thousands of miles from the countries in which these tongue are spoken, the word for pineapple is nanas (undoubtedly because of the Dutch influence since, low and behold, ananas means pineapple in Dutch too). Who first gave the ananas its name, I wondered, and why did everyone else copy?

Yes, linguistic discussions of any sort have always captured my attention, but Italian was my first, and always will be my greatest, love. I have no difficulty in explaining why: almost all Italian words end in a vowel (those that don’t are prepositions, the cardinal points and words borrowed from other languages). The effect this has is that, when spoken fluently, the words all cascade into each other in a lyrical ramble. Add to that a tongue trundling Rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr and some of those theatrical gesticulations (a language within a language) and there you have it – a melodious, melodramatic euphony; a language of love.

Similarly, Italy itself and all things Italian intrigued and allured me.  I grew up in a semi-rural suburb where many Italian migrants had settled after the Second World War and planted orchards and vineyards, opened a green grocer’s, a gelataria, a pizzeria. A couple of retired Sicilians lived down the road from us. Even after forty years, their accents were still so heavy that when they spoke English to me I thought they were speaking another language. The man used to fill his ute with fruit and vegetables he grew in his own back yard (the ‘yarda’) and drive slowly around the streets, stopping at each house, knocking at the doors, asking if you needed peaches, zucchini, pumpkins, lemons, plums. You name it. You’d have been a fool to say no. The soil was as hard as rocks up there in our nook of the Perth hills, but he knew secrets about tending the earth that nobody else did.

I went to the local Catholic school where almost half my friends had at least one parent who was either Calabrese or Sicilian. I’d listen to them discussing their families and their social lives and in comparison my own life seemed like a great big yawn. The entire time I was in primary school, I attended just one wedding, but these girls seemed to go to at least half a dozen a year. And these were weddings not just with two or three bridesmaids, but with five or six. Once, I saw pictures of someone’s cousin’s wedding with 10 bridesmaids and 10 groomsmen. Their wedding party was bigger than my family’s Christmas get-togethers. Even the words they used to describe their family get-togethers made those events seem like elusive undertakings which I knew were too far out of my reach to ever be a part of. While I would talk about going to a ‘relly bash’, for example, on the few occasions a year when we met up with our extended family, these girls would talk about going to ‘feasts’. I had six cousins on my mum’s side of the family and had never met the ones on my dad’s side, who all lived in New Zealand. If you asked one of the Italian girls how many cousins they had, they’d look at you as if you’d just asked them to multiply two two-digit numbers together in their head. Their families were enormous, vociferous micro-dynasties, their social events colossal, extravagant spectacles and as a child, from the outside looking in, I did not think of it as ostentatious at all. I longed to know what it felt like to be enveloped in such an impassioned life.

I first tasted Italian life when I was fifteen as a naïve exchange student on my very first overseas trip. Not only had I never been overseas, but I had never seen snow, never slept at someone else’s house besides my own for more than two nights in a row, never had to change schools, never been to a high school with boys and had definitely never been kissed. When I got back on the plane to come home two months later, all that had changed. And not only that, but I had seen the Pope, written on the wall under Juliet’s balcony, cruised down a Venetian canal, drank real hot chocolate and eaten rabbit. But best of all, I had conversed in that beautiful, beautiful language – genuine, comprehensible, two-way conversations. Never mind if I had a terrible Australian accent and still didn’t know how to properly conjugate a verb – I was speaking Italian.

Those two months changed me irrevocably: I itched to travel now more than ever. The last two years of high school dragged by with sloth-like lethargy. I couldn’t wait till they were over so I could go on exchange once more, but this time for 12 months. Yes, I would live in Italy for an entire year and by the end of it, I promised myself I would speak like a native and somehow I would find a way to stay there forever.

That didn’t quite happen though. The exchange organisation that I signed up with, after interviewing each candidate and reviewing a list of their country preferences, basically just allocated a country to each student. I got Sweden. I had stuck it about half way down my list after all the countries where Romance languages were spoken. It took a little while to get over the shock. In a way, it was like playing Russian Roulette with your life: sign up with us and we’ll send you anywhere in the world even if you’ve never even considered visiting the place! When you’re seventeen, a year is a long, long time.

I did have some incredible experiences in Sweden and learnt a language that I would never have had the opportunity to if it had not been for that exchange year. I also met some wonderful friends and whenever I look back down the years of my life and reflect on how dearly I wanted to go to Italy and not Sweden, I remind myself that if I had done so, I never would have met my Swedish classmates or the other exchanges students, some of whom became my friends for life.

Of course my next plan was to study Italian at university and participate in an exchange program as part of my degree. You could say that I made some poor life decisions or you could say that life just dealt me other cards, but that didn’t end up happening either. I did study Italian at university for a brief period and I was offered a scholarship to study in Milan, but I turned it down to chase a boy to the far north of Australia. That’s how I came to study Indonesian – it was the only language offered at the time at the small University in Darwin. But again, whenever I reflect on that decision and what I missed out on as a result (that boy and I have long since parted), I remember that had I not given up on that dream, I never would have had my son. So even if I could have a time machine to travel back and make that decision all over again, I’d still make the ‘wrong’ one, because that was the path that brought my little boy to me.

For all my undesirable qualities, I do have one that, although it has led me to cut off my nose to spite my face on many an occasion, it has also been my greatest ally at other times: when I decide I am going to do something, I will eventually find a way to get it done.

And so it was that in February 2010 my five year old son and I boarded an aeroplane bound for Italy. We didn’t have much money and we didn’t have much of a plan. We were headed for an organic farm in the south east of Sicily, where we were going to be WWOOFers (Willing Workers on Organic Farms). But all that is the beginning of another story. Not only did I live in Italy for a year, I lived there off and on for a total of two, and not only did I learn to speak Italian fluently (not like a native as originally planned, but I have grown quite fond of my terrible Australia accent!) but my son is now able to speak it too – and better than I do I might add.


Over the last three and a half years we have had some remarkable adventures in Italy and now that my partner lives back here with us in Australia, those adventures continue, as he learns to speak English and everyone else learns to stand clear when he starts to speak with his hands J

This is the first of what I hope will be many posts about what I have learnt about Italy and the myriad of fascinating things she has to offer: food, art, music, architecture, history, politics, religion, soccer, fashion and spectacle. Always, it comes back to spectacle.

So avanti, come on, let’s talk about all things Italian …