I was a 35 year old adult the first time I came to Italy.
Despite being raised in an Italian-American family, I never spoke Italian at home - although I thought I did. As a kid, our family dinners were spiced with Italian words like 'agita', 'scolapasta' and 'baccala'. Grownups talked Italian when the gossip got particularly racy or wicked. Sometimes, I would fall asleep listening to them and imaging that I understood it all. That's why as I was landing, I was thinking, "Well, talking Italian won't be a problem for me".
I was confident that my juvenile language skills would rise to the occasion and get me through any basic questions I might have. As it turned out, my fateful first visit to the fatherland was very much like my confused childhood.
It was my own, personal Italian version of "Back to the Future" except I couldn't figure out the plot... and there were no subtitles. In my very best 'Italian' I asked, "Where I go pottie now please?", "I can to find train go Rome?" and "Me here to sleep this night?" Those were my basic questions. Sadly, I had to repeat them again and again to various different strangers because I couldn't understand a word of their replies. Sometimes, they had no reply. They simply stared, searched my face for the joke, and grinned as if I were about to reveal a hidden TV camera. Try as I might, I could not make Italians understand me or their own language.
Yep. Things really came together for me on that trip. It took me about a month, but I went from talking like a giant, baby buffoon to speaking like a full-grown, dimwitted toddler with a speech impediment. That was when I decided to learn to speak proper Italian.
I know what you're thinking... two complete languages in one brain? No one can survive that!
That's what I thought too. But, 75% of my brain was being wasted on half-remembered song lyrics from the 60's, so I had available space. And, since I planned to live forever, (so far, so good) there was still time.
I learned that Italian is easier than English. English is the complicated language of law and technology and is corrupted at approximately the same rate as Windows 10 installs. Technogeeks already speak a sort of 'Bingo English'. They say things like B4 (before), 10Q (thank you), 2day (today), 2moro (tomorrow), and 404 (haven't a clue)... and I really don't 404. Even actual English is confusing. 'Fat chance' and 'slim chance' mean the same thing while 'wise man' and 'wise guy' are opposites. We park on a 'driveway' and drive on a 'parkway'. There is no egg in eggplant, nor ham in hamburger; writers write and painters paint, but fingers don't fing. If you throw out odds and ends, but keep one item, is it an odd or an end? Vegetarians eat vegetables, but what do humanitarians eat? And opera in English makes as much sense as baseball in Italian. Sometimes I think all English speakers should be committed to an asylum for the verbally insane.
Italian is the beautiful language of art, poetry and music. Everything is better... sweeter. Words sound exactly as they are spelled and spelled just as they sound. Each letter is pronounced and phonetics don't change to suit the time of day or what you're wearing. (Yes. I exaggerate a little but only for the sake of emphasis). Italian has colorful idioms like, 'Ubriaco come una scimmia' / Drunk as a monkey; 'Avere le braccine corte / To have short arms (to be a cheapskate); 'Hai voluto la bicicletta? E adesso pedala!' / You wanted the bike? Now ride it! (You made your bed so sleep in it); Non avere peli sulla lingua / Without hair on the tongue (to speak your mind and be brutally honest); which is as welcome as 'Un cane in chiesa' / A dog in church (which is not welcome at all); except maybe once in a blue moon or 'Ad ogni morte di Papa' / every time a Pope dies.
As an added benefit, when I write in Italian, I savor that delicious, awkward moment when auto-correct is forced to display the 'Dude, I got nothing!' message.
Many years have passed since my first visit to Italy. I live here now and continue to learn the language. Italian is far more than a useful vocabulary for me; it's essential to appreciating the history, culture, and traditions of my new home. It helps me understand what shaped the thoughts and aspirations of my ancestors. It flexes my mind, enriches my soul and deepens my friendships and experiences here in southern Italy. I don't believe that I will ever forget how to speak proper English, (that's just unpossible), so I urge you to learn another language too... in case you ever want to talk dirty in front of your kids.
Frank is an award-winning advertising professional, now retired, from Denver, Colorado who is living the sweet life in southern Italy. In addition to a successful career in advertising, he had stints as the owner of an old west saloon, a film and stage character actor, a certified Santa Claus and a university professor... all of which, he says, are 'remarkably similar'.
He now focuses on traveling, honing his skills as an Italian chef, and writing about Italy as he and his charming wife, the ever lovely Ora, renovate their home in beautiful Basilicata.
Their journey back to Italy started 100 years ago when their ancestors first arrived in the United States. Frank and his wife had dreamed of completing the circle of immigration by returning to their ancestral roots in southern Italy.
Their collective memories of the traditions, values and Italian lifestyle drew Frank and his wife back many, many times until they finally bought their house in Italy and moved there permanently.
In honor of the past, and in anticipation of the future, their lovely home is named, 'La Casa Cent'anni', (The Hundred Years House). 'Cent'anni' is also a celebratory toast of goodwill.
So, "Cent'anni" to you, and to us, and to the next 100 years!