Speaking Italian Like a Canadian
by Helen McLean
We were half-way through our first visit to Italy when I said to my husband “I’m coming back to this country and between now and then I’m going to learn to speak the language.” That was in April of 1957, the beginning of a lifelong love affair with Italy and all things Italian, a more-or-less undeclared yearning to run away and spend the rest of my years in what must surely be the most beautiful and welcoming country in the world. Vowing that I would learn the language was a vain boast. Generous gifts were bestowed on me by the Creator, but an ear for languages was not one of them.
I was at that time the thirty-yearold mother of three young children, a third-generation Canadian through whose veins coursed thin Anglo-Saxon blood, a child of the depression who came to adulthood during the Second World War, when foreign travel was off limits for everyone. Before that journey, I had never been off the North American continent – nor, indeed, had my parents before me.
When I was young, the names of Italian cities like Pisa, Florence, Venice, Rome sounded as mythical to me as Samarkand and Shangri-La. Italy only began to be a real place for me when large numbers of Italian immigrants came to live in Toronto after the war. My gray old city bloomed: wrought-iron balconies replaced dowdy wooden verandas on brightly-painted house-fronts, Italian cafés spilled out onto sidewalks where old men sat sipping fragrant coffee in the spring sun; bounteous displays of fruits and vegetables appeared outside the shops of Italian greengrocers in summer – phenomena we buttoned-up Torontonians had never seen before. We ventured into aromatic shops that sold cheese cut from vast wheels; we were introduced to anchovies packed in barrels, to salami and prosciutto, and different kinds of olive oil. We learned that pasta wasn’t necessarily a baked casserole of macaroni and cheese or a plateful of mushy canned Heinz spaghetti. We tried cooking things we’d never seen before – and sometimes we messed up. On her first attempt to cook zucchini my mother-in- law rendered the delicate vegetables inedible by throwing them into a pot of water and boiling the bejasus out of them. For the present generation it must be difficult to imagine what an un-cosmopolitan lot we Torontonians used to be.
I took to walking in the new Italian neighbourhoods so I could eavesdrop on conversations in the shops and cafés and grocery stores. The language was unintelligible to me but it rippled with musical cadences and I loved listening to it. I picked up the occasional Italian newspaper, read the signs in the grocery stores and the menus in cafés and tried rolling words quietly around on my tongue – farfalle, melone e prosciutto, gelato fresco. Marcello Mastroianni. Incidente automobilistico.
On that first adventure back in 1957 we had entered the country from the north, planning to spend the first night in Udine and then making haste to fabulous Venice. The weather had been cold and wet for days and the mountainous terrain through which we had driven was bleak and forbidding. Then all at once, as we crossed the border into Italy, the skies cleared miraculously, the sun shone and the rolling countryside looked so green and lush we felt as though we were descending into the promised land. The attitude of the Italian customs agent was reassuringly informal after all the stone-faced heel-clicking correctness we’d encountered during the previous leg of our journey. The man handed our passports back through the car window with a smile, wished us a happy journey and waved us on our way. This was my kind of place. I felt as if I’d come home.
I walked into the Piazza San Marco with an English-Italian phrase book in my hand, but words in any language, including my own, would have failed me. My first sight of the cathedral, the banners, the campanile and the glorious vast piazza was so overwhelming that I stood there gaping, openmouthed, feeling as if my heart could scarcely bear the weight of such splendour. I think a person can be starved for beauty, just as one might be starved for some essential nutrient in one’s diet, without ever being aware of it.
We left Venice reluctantly and went on to Florence, where once again there was too little time and much too
much to absorb. We emerged from our pensione early each day and returned to it late, dizzy with fatigue, overwhelmed, a pair of mute, glassy-eyed tourists who couldn’t open their mouths except to mumble buongiorno or grazie when the occasion seemed appropriate, and the rest of the time managed to mispronounce everything they tried to say.
As soon as I was back in Toronto, I enrolled in a one-on-one course in conversational Italian at a Berliz language school. On our next trip to Italy I knew enough words and constructions to, at least, make my wants known, if in a stumbling manner. Between the many trips back in the decades that followed, sometimes with my husband and sometimes on my own, I made sporadic attempts to improve my fluency by taking courses at various institutions or private lessons with Italian speakers, buying records and the accompanying books that guaranteed to make me bilingual in a matter of weeks. The trips multiplied. We went back to Venice, visited Rome. One summer we sailed from Corfu across to Brindisi, and drove up the Adriatic coast to Ravenna to see the early Christian churches, in one of which, if I were God, I would certainly choose to dwell. On another trip we drove down from Rome to Napoli, prowled the lost city of Pompei, set out in early morning for Paestum and stood gazing in wonder at the sight of Greek temples casting long shadows on the dew-beaded grass.
As the journeys multiplied my efforts to speak Italian continued. I could make my wants known in a hotel or a shop, but comprehending what other people said to me was still a problem. Enough of these mickeymouse courses, I decided. Twenty-odd years after that first visit, I flew by myself to London and thence to Pisa and spent an entire month in Firenze – mornings at a language school in the Piazza Santo Spirito and afternoons following an art-history professor through the Duomo and various churches and monuments and piazzas, listening while he expounded, slowly and in beautifully articulated language that even I could understand, on the wonders of the Italian Renaissance. Before the month was over, I took a day trip to Siena and to my surprise was able to carry on a simple conversation with an Italian woman sitting beside me on the train, without having to mentally translate every word before I opened my mouth.
I was in my mid-sixties, when a half-Italian Toronto couple offered my husband and me a month’s holiday in their villa overlooking the valley of the Bormida in Piemonte, in exchange for a painting that I would execute during our stay and of which the motif was to be something from the breathtaking Piemontese countryside. As soon as we arrived, I stretched a canvas, set it up on an easel on the terrazzo and went to work, doing what I was born to do in the country I felt I should have been born in. A few days before our visit was to end, we were invited by a neighbour to help with the grape harvest. I worked in the rows with several other women, cutting the bunches of grapes and dropping them into plastic bins, finding myself at last able to converse in Italian – shaky Italian to be sure, but comprehensible. Since that matchless September, I have had the good sense to decline the couple’s invitation to return to that wonderful place,
in case the second visit should in some way blur the remembered perfection of the first.
I had already passed my alotted years of three score and ten when we flew to Genoa and boarded a ship that carried us down the Mediterranean coast to Palermo. There we hired a car and made a leisurely trip through and around Sicily. We climbed the Scala in Caltagirone, looked out over the ramparts at Enna, gazed with awe at the archeological wonders in Taormina, Selinunte, Siracusa, Agrigento. We spent a day at Piazza Armerina and then, by way of a rest, we settled for a few days in the unpretentious city Sciacca. I fell in love. I found my Italian home.
Our pensione was a few steps from the main piazza with its views of mile upon mile of the angular shoreline that recedes into the distance until sky and water and land blend into a haze of indigo and violet. Directly below the piazza, at the bottom of a steep cliff, winds a ribbon of white road lined with palm trees where parked cars look as small as ladybugs. Houses cling to the steep slope in overlapping layers of red tiled roofs and honey-colourd walls, with palms and orange trees tucked here and there on tiny patches of ground between. Oleanders and geraniums bloom on the balconies and lines of laundry flap and bleach in the sun.
I went out onto the piazza on a Sunday morning before the bells began to ring for mass and soon a number of elderly men, pinkly fresh-shaven and dressed for church, came drifting out onto the piazza to promenade slowly up and down in groups of three or four, hands clasped behind their backs, leaning toward one another to speak, cocking an ear to catch what was being said. Some sat on the wrought iron benches, smoking and talking politics, receiving serious attention and affirmative nods from their friends. I perched discreetly at the end of one of the benches with my sketchbook, conscious of being the only woman in what was evidently a male preserve on that particular day and hour.
A shadow fell across my drawing pad; one of the men was standing beside me, watching me draw. He asked where I was from and when I told him his face lit up. He told me his nephew had gone to Toronto to work. “Will he ever come back, do you think?” I asked. He looked surprised. “Of course he will. He still owns a house here, and some orange trees. He’ll come back when his children are grown up, when he’s finished working.” The church bells began to ring just then, and he moved on to rejoin his companions.
I strolled into the upper part of the old city, an easier walk on a Sunday morning than during the busy weekdays. Shafts of sunlight were cutting between the tall old houses and laying brilliant yellow bands across the cobbled roads and on the stuccoed walls. I passed a tall wooden door standing open in an otherwise blank wall. Through it I could see part of a sunny paved courtyard where a few plump white chickens clucked behind wire netting; geraniums bloomed in terra cotta pots set about on the brick paving. A wooden staircase led up the side of the building in stages to what must have been three separate apartments, one above the other, and at the top, from a tiny rooftop balcony, pink bougainvillea came spilling down the ochre wall. A rooster crowed; my heart filled with longing. I wanted to stay here for the rest of my life, live up there in that topmost apartment, eat my breakfast on that balcony in the morning sun, look over the red-tiled roofs and across the piazza to the sea.
I have an Italian-born friend here in Toronto, a fellow artist. Sometimes we go to exhibitions together and she patiently allows me to converse with her in Italian. When she speaks, though, poetry sings through her words; she uses those elusive subjunctives so foreign and difficult for the English tongue – a mode that conveys a sense of might-have-been, of longing and possibility. What she says, sometimes, seems less important than the way she says it. Compared to hers, my speech is as flat-footed as a business letter.
I may, nel cuore, be an Italian, but I will never sound like one.
“Speaking Italian Like a Canadian” won Third Prize in the Accenti Magazine Writing Contest, and was read at the Accenti Magazine Awards during the Blue Metropolis Montreal International Literary Festival in April 2007.
Artist and writer Helen McLean is the author of four books. Her novel Significant Things was a finalist for the
2004 Commonwealth Prize. Her essays and reviews have appeared in the Globe and Mail, the National Post, Quill and Quire and others. Helen has exhibited her paintings across Canada. Her work is represented in many private and public collections.
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