Just before the millennium, Donald and I moved from San Francisco to the little wine country town of Sonoma. It reminded us of Tuscany. In Sonoma we were delighted and surprised to discover that the small town was full of Lucchesi – between 1876 and 1930 over five million Italians had immigrated into the United States, most of those from Lucca had settled into the Bay Area and the surrounding wine growing regions. “Maybe we’ll find a good Italian class,” I told Donald.
We discovered Vintage House, the local community center, which offered a number of foreign language classes, including Italian. Donald was still miles ahead of me – that boy sure liked to study. Given how I spoke Italian, I wondered if I would be admitted into the only Italian class offered, Intermedio Italiano.
On Monday morning as I stood in the doorway to the classroom, I experienced the first sign of envy: Would Donald’s ability to speak Italian make me look bad? My nerves were increasing the longer we stood waiting for the professor to acknowledge us. Inside the classroom were a dozen or so seniors. Their eyes seemed to fixate on us as we waited to be acknowledged by the professor. After a few minutes, Dr. Vittorio Valenza turned toward us and gave us what we would soon learn was “the look.” Finally he said, “Come in.” I was surprised he hadn’t spoken in Italian.
Dr. Valenza was a big man, tall, with silver hair and a definite swagger. Like so many Italian men he exuded a level of confidence that seemed to border on boastfulness. He was in excellent shape and, as we would soon learn, he was very bright. Vittorio or Vic, as many of his students called him, had been born in Sicily. He had come to the States as a teenager. At the time, he had spoken only Italian and Latin. In no time, according to the Professore, he had learned to speak English, Spanish and French. He also earned a PhD in languages. He went on to teach the five languages he spoke in the California Junior College System. In his early ‘70s, Dr. Vaenza looked very young.
“Dr. Valenza’s youthfulness is the result of speaking multiple languages,” I told Donald, further convincing myself that learning Italian, no matter how difficult, would keep me “giovane” or young.
Most of the students, Chelsea, Bianca and Giovanni for example, were second generation Italian-Americans. As children, they had either learned to speak an Italian dialect or were not allowed to speak Italian at all. “Speak English; you’re American now,” their parents had insisted. Most had, at one time or another, lived in San Francisco, in North Beach, where the Italian population peaked between the two world wars. More than 60,000 North Beach residents had claimed Italian ancestry and five Italian language newspapers circulated the neighborhood. By the 1920s, North Beach was predominantly Italian and known as “Little Italy” – Joe DiMaggio was its most famous resident.
One day Giovanni described how his parents had come to learn English. “They spoke a kind of Pidgin English, which they called Northa Beecha Italian, a cross between Italian and English,” he said. That prompted Chelsea to say, “I remember my mother telling me, ‘Chelsina, doa nota jumpa la fensa.’ When I did it anyway, she said, ‘I tolda youa nota to jumpa la fensa, but doa youa listen? If youa do it again I’ll put youa in da basamento.’” Bianca jumped in, “I gotta to go to il storo su la corna,” as if she were back on Columbus Street in the heart of North Beach, which ironically had, over the years, become predominantly Chinese as the Italians scattered throughout the city, assimilating, as so many immigrants eventually tend to do, with other Americani.
The students regained their composure when Vittorio began to talk about how speaking Northa Beecha Italiano had been the immigrant’s way of staying connected to their heritage, as well as a way to adjust to a new language, even if they were being laughed at for speaking the unusual adaptation. Northa Beecha Italian made sense.
Northa Beecha Italian!
“It’s a bit like the way you speak Italian,” Donald said smiling.
“You betta watcha outta,” I teased him, wondering if there was any way Northa Beecha Italian would help me learn the language. It didn’t take long to find out. The answer was a big NO!