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Non Parlo Italiano: Part 2

Non Parlo Italiano: Part 2

Mary Saracino (May 26, 2008)

Part 2 of a four part essay entitled, "Non Parlo Italiano."



Non Parlo Italiano: Part 2
                                                      by Mary Saracino
Italian is my mother’s original language, the primary tongue spoken inside her family’s American home. By the time she was born in 1926, her family’s de-culturation was well underway. Her parents, Francesco and Fiora, had lived in America for thirteen years by then and while it was not long enough to have expunged the Tuscan dialect from their intimate, familial conversations, it was long enough for their children to have gained fluency over their adopted tongue. 
As children do, my mother’s seven brothers and sisters learned to fluidly traverse the borders of their bi-lingual future. As the youngest sibling, my mother was by default, the most Americanized. A peasant song, or two, and a handful of Tuscan idioms are all that she transmitted to her own children.
English is my only language. My parents made sure of that, relying on American as the language of love, of commerce, of fighting, of making up. They reserved their native Italian for intimate conversations between their siblings, their parents, a family friend or two. The occasional Italian that crossed their lips accompanied a flurry of desperation—“Deo mio! Santa Maria!” or served to secret their thoughts and feelings from us children as they talked with our aunts and uncles and grandparents.   English, with its river of hard consonants and blunt vowels, became the mighty Mississippi, carrying us to the altar of the American gods of assimilation. We would fit in. We would be of this world—not that other place, not the old country. We would be American. Not Italian. 
The pressure to blend into the American melting pot wasn’t always subtle. My parents were in their twenties during the 1940s, when World War II raged in Europe and in Japan, when being Italian or German or Japanese was suspect. Japanese nationals were interned in camps throughout the United States. Many Italian and German nationals were put on house arrest, even as their sons wore American army, navy or air force uniforms. At the Seneca Army base outside of Seneca Falls, Italian prisoners of war were held in camps. Signs posted throughout the nation castigated, Speak American. Not the language of the enemy!
Consciously or not, my parents acquiesced, shedding the Italian of their youth to save their children from the horror of being branded an alien enemy, to protect us from the stain of not belonging, the shame of stigma: dago, wop, guinea.  In doing so they robbed me of my linguistic birthright. 
            When you lose your language, you lose your culture. 
My first visit to Italy came in the winter of my forty-fourth year. In January 1999, accompanied by my partner Jane, I crossed several time zones, miles of Atlantic waters, and man-made borderlines to reach the place that felt as close to an ancestral home as I would ever know. Italia. 
Traveling in the comfort of a pressurized airplane cabin, I slipped through currents of air 35,000 feet above the ocean, basking in the luxury of business-class seats; an indulgence made possible by having saved years of frequent flyer miles. The wine flowed as I dined on a sumptuous three-course meal, served by smiling blond-haired, blue-eyed flight attendants. My every whim was accommodated. An extra blanket if I felt chilled, warm socks for my feet, a toiletry kit stocked with toothpaste, a toothbrush, and hand lotion. A reclining seat with lumbar support as cozy as a LaZBoy®. 
In contrast, more than 80 years before, my grandparents had ridden in the belly of a sea-going vessel, cramped and crowded in steerage, as days turned into weeks and waves rocked the human cargo, craving a better way of life. 
My grandparents were poor. And hopeful. Hunger and the promise of employment drove them from their native soil. Hunger and adventure drove me back. I had to see where the people of my bloodlines had lived, had to see what they’d relinquished. I had to taste the cheese, sip the wine, eat the bread, inhale the air, wallow in the Mediterranean sun, sing to the hills that sung back to their hearts.
I wasn’t prepared for the emotions that would howl through my bones. StrangeraPaesana. Both stranger and countrywoman, I stood in Da Vinci airport, the wayward Italiana Americana returning to excavate the memory of her grandparents, who by then had all been buried in the hallowed, yet foreign, ground of western New York State. Concrete and tarmac, armed guards with drug-sniffing German shepherds, petulant teenagers puffing cigarettes, men and women rushing by in a frenzy; these were the first images my travel-bleary eyes beheld of my grandparents’ cherished “old country.” Alitalia lost my luggage. I had a connecting flight to Florence to make. Forty others with absent baggage crowded the claim attendant’s receiving area. Italian ricocheted through my head, foreign and unintelligible to my Americani ears. I panicked, flipping through my “Italian For Travelers” book, searching for the phrases I’d need to convey my urgency to a man with whom I had nothing in common other than the fact that our grandparents had been Italian. In the pit of my stomach I glimpsed what it might have felt like for Immacolata and Pietro, for Francesco and Fiora disembarking on Ellis Island in the early years of the Twentieth Century. Surrounded by an avalanche of English, their Italian became a weapon used against them. Their questions went unanswered and they were treated as inferior when English didn’t tumble from their mouths when spoken to.
At the lost baggage counter in Da Vinci airport, my inadequate Italian charged back at me with the same ferocity. I was revealed as the outsider that I was; Italian DNA wasn’t enough to shield me from the harsh reality. I was an imposter. My mask of ethnicity was torn asunder. I gave up, boarded the next plane to Florence, without luggage, and relinquished my romanticized notions of coming “home” to reclaim my roots. In Florence, Jane and I were met by my brother, his wife and his son—all of whom had been living near Siena for six months. My ten-year-old Italian Irish American nephew had been immersed in a local Italian school soon after their arrival and, by trial and fire, had become proficient at conversing with native-born speakers. At the baggage claim in Florence, he rescued me from my woeful linguistic inadequacy. He explained my predicament to a Florentine woman who nodded in understanding, even as her incredulous eyes darted back and forth trying to comprehend how this American youngster, speaking Italian with ease and confidence, could be in the company of such inept foreigners.
---To be continued----

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