The Next Page: Learning Italian, Italian-style
Say 'Ciao': We 'Three Musketeers' (from left, Attilio, me and Dick Napoli) stand with our teacher, Stefania. In front, our classmates Lies from Holland and Lourdes from Mexico.
Cultural exchange: At an Irish pub in Florence, fellow student Attilio Favorini (a Pitt professor) maintained religious rites.
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Since retiring two years ago, I've been taking some good Italian courses through Pitt's adult education program, but I wasn't getting to converse much, except with my cat, who understands Italian quite well but refuses to speak it. So when my brother-in-law, Dick Napoli, called from Brooklyn last winter to invite me on an Italian adventure, that was all the push I needed. All Italian all the time for a month at a language school in Tuscany.
Why Italian? Because Mia Mamma was Italian. Her biggest challenge as a child a century ago in New Jersey was learning English over the objections of her Italian-born parents. In her drive to become an American, she made a point of losing her Italian. I wanted to pick up where she left off. Dick had much the same motivation, also being half Italian and -- Italian inside joke ahead -- half Sicilian.
First, some overall impressions of Italy based on, granted, only four weeks: You wouldn't believe the size of the Italian community there. I'm told it's the biggest outside of South Oakland, circa 1955.
Also, while they are warm people at the dinner table and in TV commercials, Italians can be ruthless on the streets. Italian driving? Picture Manhattan without the civilizing influence of cabbies having to pass a driver's test in Bangladesh. The name of the game is to come as close as possible to a maiming or minor fatality without making contact. And that's just the women. Worse is the lack of any human reaction, even a hand gesture. Same thing with pedestrians: Just go for the open hole with all the illegal contact you want, and no words need be exchanged, which was tough on us since we were dying (pun possibly intended) to use Italian.
Dick had attended the school, Il Sillabo, twice before. Our fellow traveler was Attilio "Buck" Favorini, distinguished University of Pittsburgh theater expert and above-average poker player, who perhaps for the first time since baptism insisted on "Attilio" over "Buck." Thanks to Attilio, we were known at school as "I Tre Moschettieri" (The Three Musketeers) for our raffish but unwarranted confidence in hijacking classes and organizing Happy Hours.
The school is in San Giovanni Valdarno (pop: 17,000), 25 miles southeast of Florence. SGV is known as "The Small City That Never Sleeps Except Between 1 and 4 p.m." That is to say, most commercial outlets shut down for an extended lunch break, including places that serve lunch. We had class from 9 to 1, getting out just in time to find everything closed. But at least the streets were safe.
The school made learning Italian fun, but this was no laugher for idle pensioners. The teachers were excellent, the curriculum well thought out and demanding. It was November, so we had classes of only five or six, with a rotating band of extras -- a 28-year-old Taiwanese banker crazy for Italian food, a gutsy Mexican woman just out of college, an equally young Dutch woman who had an Italian boyfriend and a funny Aussie of a certain age who lost her passport and made the rounds at various consulates for help, only to discover that night that it had slipped down her tights during a morning visit to the toilette at the Florence train station.
There were other high points, all the more hilarious because we, of course, had to speak Italian only.
One day we were assigned a crime and had to argue our way into heaven before St. Peter (the teacher). I was a career thief from Paris. When I sensed that my original argument (Is it really that bad to steal from the French?) was going nowhere, I switch to the more acceptable steal-from-the rich-to-help-the-poor approach and cunningly asked St. Peter if she knew of Robin Hood. Why, yes, she said; in fact, he's up here. With that, I quickly rested my case, and got sentenced to a lifetime of heavenly bliss.
Attilio deftly argued his way through the pearly gates, beating the rap on smuggling illegal immigrants. Only Dick was sent south, although his challenge was more formidable: He murdered a mouthy opposition fan in soccer-crazed Milan. I was surprised at the verdict. In Pittsburgh he would have gotten off, with a medal of commendation.
Another time, we had to invent and write up a crime story. I did it in the style of Raymond Chandler, approximating one of his more famous lines. But there were problems. You try saying, "She had a face that would make a bishop kick out a stained glass window" in Italian. Apparently something got lost in translation, because the teacher quite reasonably asked if it was a good thing or not.
Dick was our leader, mainly because he knows the essence of speaking Italian: gesturing. The guy can pound a table in Italian! I got down on myself for my halting conversational style. But Dick was an inspiration, filling in those frightening pauses with decisive gestures, repeated as necessary.
We weren't off Italian-duty in the evening either. We lived with a wonderful couple in their early 50s, and there was much we did not understand. Two years ago, for example, after Dick's previous stay at this very same home, he reported that Alberta was a widow who had tragically lost her husband and that Roberto was her brother-in-law. This time it turned out that they were married and had been for 30 years. I'm with Dick on this: Who can figure these Italians?
Did I ever learn to think in Italian? Of course not. But there were moments when I could think in English, not always a good thing.
At graduation, the class took our terrific head teacher Stefania out to dinner. She brought along her German boyfriend. When I asked what he did, he said (true story) he was a stand-up comedian. ("Anybody from Naples? Naples?") Ignoring 42 inner warnings, I then made an ill-conceived effort to connect, by relaying the classic stand-up comedian's recovery line for dealing with a stone-faced audience: "What am I looking at, an oil painting?"
Of course, I had to set it up first. So I vigorously exploited my 72-word Italian vocabulary to review the history of Jewish humor, the Borscht Belt and the Catskills. If only I had had the poise to gesture confidently like Dick, maybe even pound something. Anyway, as the entire table looked longingly for the waiter or even a diverting earthquake, I eventually got to the point.
Now, translating "What am I looking at, an oil painting?" might be a challenge even for a skilled Italian comic like Silvio Berlusconi. Unfortunately, in Peter Leo Italian, this came out something like: "What do I regard at this moment, a painting of olive oil?"
Ironically, this line produced -- follow me here -- the exact situation I was speaking of: an unresponsive audience! (I also blew the gender of "painting," which every Italian schoolchild knows is masculine, not feminine.) And so I silently retreated into several shots of grappa.
Some cultural notes: Attilio and I twice visited Florence to watch the Steelers. I know what you're thinking: You were in Florence, one of the world's great repositories of culture, and you watched the Steelers? Yes, it sounds dumb but we can explain: This was before the Steelers' crack-up. Of course, we visited the Duomo and the Uffizi Gallery, where I ran some terrible routes, managing to get both feet down in the Caravaggio room with only minutes before closing time. But since we were in Florence, well, why not go to one of its many Steelers bars, some dating back to the Renaissance (and sadly, unlike Pittsburgh, Florence had only one Renaissance).
The first time, we walked into a bar near the Bargello -- if memory serves, the birthplace of Italo-Steeler great Franco Harris. Before we got to ask about the game, we saw a young guy working the TV, wearing a Troy Polamalu jersey. This was Sergio, a Florentine who has been to Heinz Field twice because he had a Steelerite girlfriend from Fox Chapel. The girlfriend is history, but Sergio held onto his core values through the breakup and is a Steelers lifer.
We had a good time mixing it up in a winning cause with some dour Minnesota Vikings fans. No such luck the second time, when we saw the Steelers lose to the Bengals, even though Attilio -- and this could ruin his reputation as an intellectual -- brought his Terrible Towel.
We also went on fabulous side trips to Assisi, Siena, Perugia and Pisa. We visited many old churches, savored the beautiful Tuscan countryside, ate well, tasted much wine, learned more Italian than we think and saw dozens of paintings of the Magi, all three of them not to be confused with the Tre Moschettieri.
Cost: About $70 a day not counting Happy Hour.
Tuition at Il Sillabo: Four weeks (80 hours of instruction), $800. Beginners welcome.
Accommodations: Private room, including breakfast and dinner, with a family for four weeks, $1,150; a one-person apartment ranges from $1,300 to $2,400.
Extras: Classes in cooking, wine tasting, Italian literature, history of art, archaeology and drawing.
Dates: Throughout 2010, starting Feb. 8, for one-, two-, three- and four-week stays.
More info: www.sillabo.it
• Hold the three-shot venti soy vanilla cinnamon white mocha with extra white mocha. Don't plan on carrying around a take-out coffee. Why? Because you likely won't find one. Italians drink coffee the way alcoholics drink whiskey: They stand at the bar and down a "shot" of heavy-duty espresso in 3.5 seconds and go about their day.
• Fashion tip. You must wear a scarf. Doesn't matter what time of year, or if the temperature is in the 70s. This goes for women, too. Want to know how to tie it? Check out Andrea Bocelli for starters.
• It's different in New Jersey. You'll be hard-pressed to find fat Italian women, even men. We saw only two in four weeks in Tuscany. In Pittsburgh, we rarely have to leave the house to find someone overweight. How do they do it with all that pasta and bread? No idea. Possibly, because they avoid junk food, walk and ride bikes and drink wine, not beer.
• Here we go, Florence, here we go. We watched Fiorentina (Florence) play soccer on big-screen TV at a club that had all the amenities of an abandoned Moose Lodge. It did have a bar. But there was little drinking, no women and little boisterousness, even in a big win. Of course, it's probably way different at the opera.
• 40 and out. Italian cemeteries are models of efficient land use. At the one we visited, after 40 years, a body is removed from a spacious, prominent location and the bones are put in a small box, stored locker-style, in a less traveled area, freeing up the prime space for younger dead people.
First Published January 3, 2010 12:00 am