SPEAKING ITALIAN WILL BRING YOU GRANDE GIOIA
When I set out to learn the Italian language, it never occurred to me that actually speaking the language, especially given how pathetic my Italian language skills were, would bring about joy, even great joy. But, that happened over and over again, as the following little story, which occurred fifteen years ago, illustrates.
For years, in Lucca, Donald and I began our mornings eating an Italian style breakfast at Pasticceria Pasquinelli (sadly now closed). At first I’d point to one of the delicious looking dolce, some sort of croissant, in the glass-enclosed sweets cabinet and then, once handed the dolce, I’d fearfully ask, “American Coffee?” – a year would pass before I would learn to ask for un caffè americano e un cornetto vuoto, in short, the Italian version (cornetto) of a croissant and vuoto meaning unfilled, literally empty. Donald didn’t have that problem.
Donald spoke passable Italian, though to my untrained ear the musical language seemed to flow from his lips. When it came to speaking Italian, any foreign language, I completely lacked confidence. Mostly, I was afraid that, at best I’d make an embarrassing mistake and at worst, a complete fool out of myself, so when Italians spoke to me I just smiled and pointed to what I wanted or asked Donald to speak for me. But being so passive wasn’t in my nature and I longed to communicate with the locals. So I set a small goal: to say hello and introduce myself.
Saying hello or ciao was easy, but it took me a couple of more days to find the courage to introduce myself. “I’m Bob,” I said to the woman behind the counter at the pasticceria. “Chi?” the woman responded. “Bob,” I repeated.
Again, she said, “Chi?” She pronounced it the same way an American would say “key.” I didn’t think her name was Chi, so even though I didn’t know exactly what she meant, I was quite sure she hadn’t understood my name.
“Bob,” I said a bit more emphatically, trying to communicate for the third time. “Boob,” she said as she stretched the vowel, apparently making it sound more Italian and then she added something I didn’t understand. But I thought I had heard the word “Monica.”
“Monica?” “Si, Monica,” she confirmed.
I had made my very first Italian acquaintance. And I learned that chi means who.
Before long the pasticceria began to feel like home. I made friends with another of the owners, Patrizia, and several of the staff, Roberta, Paola, and Simona. The “regulars” – the other customers – seemed to accept Donald and me as part of their extended morning family and both Donald and I began our mornings feeling joyous and welcomed. But Eugenio, the only male owner, and a rather imposing figure, who at 6 foot 2 inches, seldom cracked a smile, let along said ciao, was another story.
“Maybe he just doesn’t like us,” I said to Donald. “Maybe he’s homophobic,” I added. “Maybe he’s…”
“Basta” Donald interrupted, which meant enough.
For several years the scenario was always the same – yummy dolce, great coffee, friendly customers, wonderful service – ah, except for Eugenio. He wasn’t rude exactly; he just seemed to ignore us.
On our fifth trip to Lucca and our last day at Pasquinelli when we finished eating and drinking, I went to pay the bill, but Monica, vigorously wagged her forefinger at me. Food and drink, it turned out, were on the house. I was surprised and thrilled.
Monica then stepped from behind the counter and gave me a big hug. I felt her warm cheek against mine, as she whispered into my ear, “Mi mancherai.” She would miss me.
It was the first time an Italian had so warmly embraced me. Monica then stepped aside to hug Donald. As she did, Patrizia stepped forward and hugged me. She gave me a kiss on each cheek, laughed and said, “All’anno prossimo” or to next year. Then Paola came forward. She squeezed me tightly, as did Roberta who followed her and laughed as she said in English, “Take me with you.” When she stepped away to hug Donald I noticed Eugenio. Eugenio, who in five years had barely managed to smile at us, let alone give us a big, fat hug, stepped forward and splayed out his arms and grabbed me as if he were welcoming home a long lost friend, his strong arms pulling me close to his chest, as he bellowed out “Torna presto” (Hurry back). Eugenio then gave me a baci on each cheek and as quickly as he had pulled me to him, he let go, saying Buon viaggio before turning to Donald.
They each had embraced us with such affection that the moment I stepped outside I burst into tears. I couldn’t stop blubbering. Donald took my hand and asked, “What’s wrong?” I struggled to reply and for the next few minutes I just stood there, holding onto Donald’s hand. It had never occurred to me that my efforts to speak Italian would bring me such joy, would make me feel so deeply connected to people that I really didn’t know very well. Finally I said, “I am just so happy.” Donald wrapped his arms around me and we stood there, under the blue Tuscan sky, for who knows how long.
It was an experience that would be repeated many times, in many shops over the next many years. I came to realize that Eugenio hadn’t been unfriendly – he had never been rude – he simply hadn’t expected ever to see us again. And, when he realized that Donald and I would return over and over again, he, embraced us with open arms.
Experiences like this occurred, over the years, countless times and on each occasion I was left feeling surprised and full of joy, determined to carryon with my quest to learn the blessed language.
Fino alla prossima settimana,