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Language is a barrier but also a gateway
“Lila shook her head skeptically. She was trying to understand, we were both trying to understand, and understanding was something that we loved to do.”
― Elena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend
Every Sunday morning I throw a sweater on over my pajamas, grab my coffee, and sit down to Skype with my friend Lidia who lives in Lecco, Italy. She is my smart, kind, funny Italian friend. I am her less-than-brilliant American friend. We “met” a few years ago on Tandem/Exchange a site that matches people who want to practice another language. For a half-hour, we chat in Italian then we switch to English so she can practice too. Her English is better than my Italian but we don’t keep score.
Has my Italian improved? Yes and no. I’ve learned some important words, like “vampate di colore” or hot flashes. On the other hand, every time I acquire something new I realize how much I don’t know. Mastering the language is a journey will take the rest of my life and I know if I try to utter my dying words in Italian, I’ll use the wrong tense or put the pronoun in the wrong place. My tongue will freeze mid-roll when I tackle the “r’s” in “arrivederci.”
But my Sunday mornings with Lidia are why I keep studying and practicing a little bit each day. We didn’t know each other two years ago. Now I find myself telling her the kinds of things one tells a friend, especially one who lives far away and doesn’t know anyone I’m talking about. She does the same with me. We laugh. A lot. It’s exciting to share secrets with my Italian friend.
But why Italian? And why now, at this point in my life when time already feels dangerously short and I want to finish a few more novels before I die? Well, I do love Italy. My husband is Italian American, together we have shared some of the most precious memories of our time together in Italy. His relatives there are beautiful, kind people and I want to be able to communicate whenever we see them again even if it is just on a computer screen. I’ve also read that learning a language may help ward off dementia.
These are all good reasons but the more honest answer is that I just don’t know. There is nothing rational about it, no easy way to explain my attraction to Italian instead of, say, the French I studied in high school and college with much self-consciousness and frustration. Maybe that’s the difference. Somewhere along the line, the urge to communicate overcame my shyness about looking stupid. And now my world feels larger, less confining. No small thing when one is living in quarantine conditions which Lidia has been doing now for months and I have been doing for weeks.
There have been some marvelous surprises. Not long ago I wrote a short story in Italian and sent it to Lidia. It is a simple story about a female police inspector and a woman whose husband was so irritatingly perfect, she beat him with an iron skillet pan (una padella) and turned herself in. There is a surprise at the end, a few smiles along the way. It is not a story I ever would have written in English and may not even have read. I wrote it to make Lidia laugh and it did. Yes, she had to make a few — okay, many — corrections in my text but that came later, when I asked her for them. Still, I couldn’t have imagined trying such a thing just a few years ago. And I loved making Lidia laugh. I also loved the freedom I felt to just play. I don’t have the same expectations of myself when I write in Italian; I am free to fail in a way I never feel when I write in English.
When I communicate successfully in Italian I feel a wall yield before me. My world feels larger, less restrictive. It makes me want to keep struggling on the way I do with my novel-in-progress. I don’t know where any of it will lead me and I know I’m going to swear in frustration and want to give up. I hope I don’t. I know now what I’ll miss if I do.
Books Can Take You There
Thanks to the virus, the only way to travel now to Italy is by book. Here are a few very different writers who have guided me.
If you are an artist, a writer, or just a curious human, read In Other Words (In Altre Parole) the wonderful, small book by the Pulitzer Prize winner Jhumpa Lahiri who fell in love with the language, moved to Rome, and dedicated herself to learning and writing in Italian.
This book is written in parallel - each page is written in both English and Italian. You can read in either one, or both. It doesn’t matter if you’ve never once thought about learning a language; the book is the story of a journey of a life chosen, not inherited.
For those who want to travel around Italy via the written word and love crime or suspense with a dose of humor, absorb Venice (pre-Covid-19) through the eyes of author Donna Leone’s protagonist Commissario Guido Brunetti. Leone is an American expat only writes her books in English. She prefers to remain anonymous in her adopted city.
Or spend time Sicily with Andrea Cammillieri’s Commissario Salvo Montalbano. He’s smart, he’s funny, and the landscape will draw you in as much as the characters.
And then there is the quartet of novels by Elena Ferrante that begins with My Brilliant Friend which should be read all together in sequence because they really make up one rich unforgettable novel. The story of the relationship of Lila and Lenu becomes the story of a time, a place, a class, of entrapment and escape that begins in post-war Naples and ends in the mid-2000s. These women are inextricably linked even when separated by decades and many miles. Rarely have novelists explored a relationship between two women with such compelling results. If you haven’t already, you can check out HBO series based on Ferrante’s novels. Two seasons in, it is very good but nothing on screen can match the richness of these novels.
Okay, leaving Italy. Heading for Ireland for just a minute.
One of the most common topics that comes up during social FaceTime visits lately are: what are you watching? The other day my cousin (who lives only a few miles away but that’s how things are these days, right?) told me about this wonderful offering from Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, “Dear Ireland.” It’s a series of short dramas/stories written by Irish playwrights, each one a slice of life in the time of coronavirus. Only one actor performs each piece which run about ten minutes each. Watching the first one, “Katty Barry’s,” I laughed, I cried, I realized all over again how this virus reveals the ways we are all connected.
A Way to Help Keep Bookstores Alive and Help Literacy Programs
Finally, if you’ve clicked on any of the links for books in this edition of Spark, you’ll notice they take you to Bookshop (bookshop.org) instead of Amazon. That’s because a portion of every sale on bookshop.org goes to support independent bookstores.
The website also allows affiliates to create booklists and earn 10% of the sale from each book sold. All of the links provided here, for example, come from the affiliate page I set up:
I would like to generate enough income to donate to organizations that support literacy and reading. Here’s where you come in. I’d like you to help me spread the word, and when you buy your next book, please consider using the above link. You’ll be able to search for the book you want from there. I’ve also been working on lists of books mentioned in this newsletter. Feel free to suggest more!
Please send me the names and links of literacy programs or any program that supports getting books into the hands of those who need them. I’ll keep a list. Every time we reach $100 you can vote on where to donate that money. And while we are doing this, independent bookstores are getting our support.
Signing off. Please write and tell me how you are or leave a note in the comments below. How are you coping? What are you reading? What can I do for you in my next newsletter?
Ciao and love for now,
P.S. Here’s your moment of Zen … No translation required
Calling for Your Contribution to “Moment of Zen”
What is YOUR moment of Zen? Send me your photos, a video, a drawing, a song, a poem, or anything with a visual that moved you, thrilled you, calmed you. Or just cracked you up. This feature is wide open for your own personal interpretation.
Come on, go through your photos, your memories or just keep your eyes and ears to the ground and then share. Send your photos/links, etc. to me by replying to this email or simply by sending to: email@example.com. The main guidelines are probably already obvious: don’t hurt anyone -- don’t send anything that violates the privacy of someone you love or even someone you hate, don’t send anything divisive, or aimed at disparaging others. Our Zen moments are to help us connect, to bond, to learn, to wonder, to share -- to escape the world for a little bit and return refreshed.
I can’t wait to see what you send!
(And if you’ve gotten here, liked something, and still haven’t hit the heart below, now’s your chance! )