Saturday, November 27, 2010

Ugly Italian words

Let’s face it, Italian is not the world’s most useful language. It’s only spoken in Italy (and even then not by many grandmas or fishermen), San Marino and parts of Switzerland. Oh, and let’s not forget the 826 people who live in the Vatican City. And yet it seems that everyone wants to learn to speak Italian.

Why? Because it’s beautiful. Italian is the top model of languages, with its unblemished vowels, lean consonants and confident catwalk rhythm. Its sound is so intoxicating that once you become half fluent, you’ll want to make love to the Italian language all day long. You’ll want to let it roll off your tongue every waking hour. You’ll want to make a running commentary of your own life. To anyone who’ll listen, you’ll want to tell stories and jokes and comment on their cooking, speculate on their love lives, dole out unsolicited advice. You’ll be loving it so much that you won’t even notice when your front door closes behind you or the line goes dead.

I’m going to tell you something that you won’t find in any Italian phrasebook – there are two basic secrets to reproducing the typical Italian pronunciation that we find so delicious.

The first one is gymnastics of the mouth. I’ll explain. In order to faithfully reproduce Italian vowels – which are considered pure and unadulterated by diphthongs or weak sounds – you need to open your mouth wide. And when I say wide, I mean over-the-top wide. Like you’re trying to catch flies with your mouth. Or get the corners of your lips to reach your earlobes. Or huff and puff and blow the house down.

The second key to beautiful Italian pronunciation is constriction of the throat. It may seem paradoxical to do so when you’re trying to catch flies with your mouth. But it works for frogs, who after all croak. Tightening your throat is absolutely necessary if your consonants are to come out without any actual air. If you say “piece of paper” in English, a sheet of A4 in front of your lips will move with the air you exhale on each “p”. But if you say “passami i peperoni” (pass me the peppers), not a single hair would be put out of place even if you whispered this into your lover’s ear. As you do.

If you can achieve these two tasks at once, your Italian will likely sound as luscious as the Pope’s (oops, he’s German). However, it may surprise you to hear that not all Italian words are beautiful. I swear it’s true. I will give you some examples of ugly Italian words:

1. Sdrucciolevole (meaning “slippery”). There is a whole series of Italian words with, frankly, too many consonants in a row. Other words that fall into this category are sberleffo (sneer) and sfregare (rub). This is gymnastics of the tongue, not the mouth. It’s so preposterous that it’s quite nearly Germanic. When I try to pronounce sdrucciolevole, my tongue is literally sent into shock. Help, quick, inject me with a vowel or I’m dead!

2. Practically any word with two many combinations of “gli”. Somewhere between a “g” and a Spanish “ll”, this is perhaps the only truly difficult sound to pronounce in the Italian language. For example, the somewhat dialectal phrase Pigliagli l’aglio (Get him the garlic). Try saying this ten times fast and you’ll see what I mean.

3. Tuorlo (yolk) has that “uo” combination that is simply too much for my poor mouth, forced to stretch into an embarrassing yoga posture. Try tuorlo d’uovo (egg yolk) and you’re practically flashing your panties to the whole class. Same goes for baule (trunk), museruola (muzzle) and even uomini (men), saved only by its oh-so-cute “mini” ending.

4. Guardingo (wary). This just sounds silly.

So you can see that “ugly Italian” is no oxymoron. Even top models have a few moles. Perhaps they are the Italian language’s way of saying “Don’t love me just because I’m beautiful.”

Don’t worry, Italian, I understand. It’s something I struggle with too.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

I like this one best

Dear xxx

If one day you ever reach the heart of a labyrinth by the name of the Spanish Quarter, there you will find a beast. His black scarred body lies completely still on the pockmarked cobblestones. His eyes are soulless marbles. He breathes more like a racehorse than a dog, his nostrils inflating wildly with every breath and exhaling air as hot as the Saharan scirocco. He may be blind but he can smell you.

You shouldn’t be here. Somehow you’ve strayed from your path steaming with fried squid oil and hashish, chanting fishmongers and catcalling schoolgirls, housewives selling contraband cigarettes from their aprons and stray cats and goats wandering under a spiderweb of laundry. But now it’s just you and the beast. Where will you run to? There is nowhere to go, wedged as you are between crumbling towers and mountains of garbage bags popping with week-old secrets. Then, beside you a door opens: your savior? Again it closes, as if to tell you, “You think you’ve understood this place? In your dreams.”

Welcome to Naples, the place the guidebooks recommend you avoid at all costs. That impenetrable Italian city frozen in time by the Camorra and by life under the shadow of one of Earth’s most volatile volcanoes. And from inside Naples’ most cryptic ghetto, the Spanish Quarter, comes the moving real-life story of two university students from completely different worlds who fall in love and plan their escape. But until then, can Rebecca and Elio’s love survive in a world where washing machines are hurled festively over New Years’ balconies and gunshots are brushed off as backfiring Vespas? Can it survive earth tremors, family threats and a collapsed lung? Can it survive their American-Neapolitan cultural divide?

Only by journeying to the heart of the labyrinth can Rebecca find the answers to these questions. Interlaced with authentic emails translated from the Italian, my memoir Lost in the Spanish Quarter tells the story of a young woman’s heartbreak and her search to piece herself together again by journeying back to where it all began. It is a visceral portrait both of love and of an Italian city whose astonishing beauty has been kept secret from much of the world.

At the tender age of sixteen and three days, I left my native Washington D.C. on an exchange program to Naples. Soon Italian became more of a second nature than a second language. I stayed on to graduate from high school and eventually earn an honors degree in languages and literature from the Istituto Universitario Orientale di Napoli. Along with other poor and adventurous university students, I roomed in the Quartieri Spagnoli, the dark heart of Italy’s darkest and most enigmatic city. As Eat Pray Love readership shows, audiences want to go beyond outsiders’ romantic notions of an Italy which is all wining and dining under the Mediterranean sun. Instead, they are hungry for a genuine Italian experience that lays bare not only the true heart of Italy but also the heart of the writer.

I appreciate your time in considering my query. I especially appreciate the time all of you put into writing thoughtful feedback so that I could rewrite this query letter in the first place. If I nab an agent because of it, I’ll have you to blame.


Heddi Rebecca Goodrich

Monday, November 15, 2010

A book by any other name would smell as sweet

After our son was born, we didn’t name him straight away. Our family and friends found this outlandish. But they humoured us, preparing a banner for our homecoming from the hospital that read, “Welcome home, boy.” Two weeks later, however, this epithet had worn thin.

Why did we wait so long to name our baby? Well, my husband and I wanted to find out who he was. We wanted to make sure that the lifelong name we would brand him with would actually match his personality. To make this task a bit easier, I forbade any name listed in the top 100 most popular names for boys.

I like unique names. My own name is probably not even in the top 10,000 most popular names for girls. It’s unusual and – in many languages – as hard to pronounce as it is to spell. My own grandfather always insisted on spelling it H-E-D-Y, as in Hedy Lamarr (and if you know who this is, you were probably born around the time tin foil was invented). But, no, I wasn’t named after this gorgeous Austrian actress. Much more auspiciously, I was named after Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, the heroine who kills her lover and then herself. That’s always a good conversation starter.

The long-winded naming process for our son in no way resembles the process I followed for naming my memoir. For nine long, skin-stretching, hip-displacing months, I had no idea what kind of person my fetus was going to turn out to be – although the frequent judo kicks and double backflips should have been enough of a hint. But before my book was born, I labored on it in great detail. I read books on how to structure plot and flesh out characters. I took meticulous notes, drew diagrams. I twisted the truth just enough to make reality slot neatly into the framework of a classically-narrated novel. And even before I was out of the first trimester of writing, I had already named my book The Third Person.

But maybe I didn’t know my book as well as I thought I did because later I retracted its title. This despite the fact that according to an automated title-rater I found on the Internet, The Third Person is in fact much more likely to be a bestseller than the book under its current name, Lost in the Spanish Quarter. But I am not attached to this title either. I will bite anyone who tries to get me to remove a scene or a character from my manuscript, including Carminiello the dirty-talking redheaded Clorox seller who is just about as fundamental to the plot as pesto is to a ham sandwich. But the title? I can easily let it go.

I know I shouldn’t be so lackadaisical about naming my book because it could literally make or break the whole deal. Great book titles draw us in. Let’s be honest: who hasn’t at one point bought a book based on the title alone? Not all of us have time to leisurely read though The New York Review of Books for the latest recommended publications. Or to browse through Borders pouring through the book jackets. Or to read books.

What’s in a name? A name is a word, otherwise known as that highly-sophisticated metaphor that distinguishes us from the Neanderthals. The ability to name is the key to human supremacy on earth. A name does not just describe people, things and concepts: it allows us to shape our very reality. Without names, we are nothing but algae-feeding amoebas who float around aimlessly drinking water by osmosis and who don’t even know they’re called amoebas.

By extension, it’s clear that a great book – like a great kid – deserves a great name. A title with oomph. With intrigue. With originality. And yet a practical one which also gives the potential reader a clue about the plot or setting. In this sense, Super Sad True Love Story would suit my memoir quite nicely. But apparently this title has already been taken. Darnit.

Fortunately, I’ve come up with a few alternatives, which I think you’ll agree are serious contenders:

Disoriented in a Hispanic Neighborhood
See Naples and Cry
The Spanish Quarter: a mostly truthful account of an American living somewhere other than Tuscany or Rome
A Journey into the Ghetto of My Heart
She and He and His Mamma: an unforgettable love story
Now the Whole World Will Know What You Did to Me
Exodus Ex Labyrinth
Neapolitans are from Naples, Americans are from America
Napoli Ends With “I”
What Italian University Students Really Do In Their Spare Time
Epic Failures and Epicenters
A Sentimental Treatise on the Seismic and Subcultural Activity of The Italian Mezzogiorno
You Emailed Me, So Here’s My 467-Page Reply
Love Under the Shadow of a Big Fat Brooding Volcano
Of Hurled Washing Machines, Deflated Lungs and Stuffed Peppers
Is That An Earthquake Or Am I in Love?
Eat Love Pay Dearly
Vesuvian Rhapsody
A Manual of Love For People With a Long Attention Span
Fond Memories of Carminiello the Shopkeeper and a Few Other Minor Characters
The Mother-in-law: a historical study of a time-honored rite of passage
A Tale of One City
A Tale of Two People
I Can’t Believe He Left Me For a Toyota Corolla

Voting and submissions end at midnight on Sunday, November 21st.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Only a mother would understand that

One day well before I became someone’s mom, my best friend showed up at our door with her two-(and-a-bit)-year-old, fresh from the Museum of Transport and Technology. I kneeled down and asked the little guy what he’d seen at the museum: the trains, the planes, the earthquake simulator?

“Choo choo ni ni,” he replied forlornly.

At my perplexed look, my friend explained, “When we left the museum we had to say goodbye to the trains.” But I still must have looked about as cognisant as a grazing water buffalo because she then added, “You know, nighty-night to the choo choo train.”

“Oh sure, choo choo ni ni, of course!” I lied casually, thinking to myself, Only a mother would understand that.

But now that I’m a mother of a two-(and-a-bit)-year-old, I too have become adept at deciphering phrases that sound a bit like Archaic Sumerian and translating them back into one of the official living languages the rest of us speak. This decoding task alone is nearly a full-time job because, at two and a bit, we get lots of talking. Lots of babbling with Italian or English intonation, punctuated with real words and accompanied by a form of sign language that he may have picked up from that orangutan documentary. We also get lots of very drawn-out and meaningful ‘umm’s and ‘eeh’s. Lots of stories, appeals, confessions, imperial decrees. We get stream of consciousness, poetic license, divine inspiration.

Don’t get me wrong: we do get a fair share of easily understood phrases such as the ever useful “I wanna go down” or the even more useful “pompa di benzina” (gas station in Italian). But for the most part I’ve discovered that communication with a two-year-old involves a great deal of interpretation on the listener’s part.

This listener is usually the mom. It’s a good thing, too, because mothers are born interpreters, or perhaps it’s the intensive backbreaking military training (complete with sleep torture) that we’re put through at the start. In any case, after a while interpreting becomes less of an acquired skill and more of a sixth sense, of the variety moms all over the world use to diagnose a mild fever solely by caressing a foot (with the sock still on it). It’s the same awesome power of divination that tells you whether it is going to be a scrambled-egg morning or a blueberry-pancake morning. Or a please-just-eat-your-toast-in-the-carseat morning. The same uncanny insight that tells you whether that disturbingly long silence from the other room is due to your child’s absorption in a game or a diaper absorption test of mass proportions.

In my case, this daily interpreting job is complicated by the bilingual nature of my son’s speech. His own dad constantly has to yell out at me as he’s bathing him to ask things like, “What does bolle mean again?” (Bubbles.) And it’s almost heartbreaking the way our toddler tries to flirt with the girls in front of the zoo’s tiger enclosure by offering them some of his “acqua”. Someone ought to tell that boy that picking up girls by speaking Italian is only going to work much much later in life. And that it’s going to take a hell of a lot more than water.

Until then, at least his mother can understand him. And to prove to you just how good I’ve become at interpreting the most impenetrable of local dialects, here are a few recent examples of my toddler’s speech:

“Tango nam-nam palle” – this means, naturally, “The big monkey is eating blueberries.” Tango is from the Italian orango tango: if a smaller species is intended, my son employs the more common term monkey. Nam-nam is onomatopoeic, although most of us primates don’t really make this sound when eating. Blueberries indeed resemble little purple balls (palle, an indispensable word in Italy). I don’t think I’m being biased when I say that Tango nam-nam palle shows incredible wisdom: according to the Discovery Channel, orangutans do in fact subsist primarily on a diet of berries and other fruit.

“Abs cats” – you’re probably thinking this is the name of a feline weight-loss program. But, in actuality, abs is English for ‘rabbits’. Cats are ‘carrots’. I forgive you if you are less impressed by this much more common tidbit of knowledge about the diet of an ordinary pet.

“Kino nanna hia” – no, this is not Maori. The phrase means: “The rabbit is going to sleep here.” Kino is an idiosyncratic short form of coniglio, ‘rabbit’ (note the double vocabulary my son possesses here: see previous entry), and must be rigorously distinguished from kina (for cannella, ‘cinnamon’) and kima (camomilla). Italian nanna can be roughly translated as ‘beddy-byes’. Hia is my phonetic rendering of the worryingly thick Kiwi accent my toddler is developing, most notable in the word ‘here’.

“Ka-a picco bovo” – depending on the context, this could mean either “The little car has a boo-boo (injury)” or “The car has a little boo-boo.” (Ka-a = Kiwi for ‘car’; picco = piccolo, ‘small’; bovo = bua, ‘boo-boo’.)

“Cacca achoo” – a ‘cacca sneeze’ or, figuratively speaking, flatulence. If this term is not divine inspiration, I don’t know what is.

But nobody’s perfect. Sometimes if I don’t correctly guess what my son is trying to say, he looks embarrassed by his failure to communicate. This breaks my heart. But most of the time he just laughs and gives me a look that speaks a thousand words. Even then I am still able to work my interpretive magic because I’m pretty sure he’s trying to tell me: “Thanks for trying, Mamma, you’re a doll. But you sure are slow.”

Monday, November 1, 2010

Shameless request from a working mom

Forgive me for not posting this week. To my usual full-time job (motherhood) plus my part-time job (teaching), I have added another part-time job (proofreading a 243-page book), which means I’m busily rewriting sentences to sound like this: Ghosts used iron instruments to beat the man and force him to climb up the heated pillar with his bare hands and feet.

That sort of describes me at the moment, a poor soul well over her head in extra-full-time (or ‘plus-sized’) employment. So something has to give. That’s why this week I’m not making any homemade pumpkinseed rye bread from scratch. Or vacuuming behind the couch. Or marking my students’ exams. Or putting my clothes away. Or sleeping.

So instead of writing a blog entry this week, I’m going to put my hand up and ask for help. I’m going to shamelessly ask those of you who enjoy reading my blog to sign up to become followers. It takes only a minute (click on the ‘Follow’ button) and will not lead to any more junk mail in your inbox than you already have.

I’d like to be able to say that by signing up as a follower you’ll be feeding Serbian orphans or shrinking the hole in the ozone. But that’s not quite accurate. Your becoming a follower of my blog only benefits me. Me, me, me. My toddler’s favorite word, after his own name.

If you’re not sure how becoming a follower is going to help me get seven hours’ sleep or bake German bread, well, it won’t. But if you do kindly choose to follow my blog, others won’t write it off as quite so lame. Instead, they’ll be waiting in line to become followers too, to the point where the Internet will be on the verge of crashing. With billions of people following me, I will not only be able to publish my book but I’ll also rule the world.

Thanks. You’re the best.