Saturday, January 29, 2011

12 reasons why I can’t sleep at night (Italian-English)

Da quando è nato mio figlio due anni e mezzo fa, sono perennemente assonnata. Ma ultimamente, appena infilatami nel letto al buio, ho difficoltà ad addormentarmi. Vi spiego perché:

Since my son was born two and half years ago, I’m perpetually sleepy. But lately, as soon as I get into bed in the dark, I have trouble falling asleep. I’ll explain why:

1. Le chiappe indolenzite. So benissimo che è sconsigliato fare attivatà fisica prima di andare a letto, ma durante il giorno ho così pochi minuti liberi da dedicare alla ciclette. Di sera, quei venti minuti in cui schiaccio il piede ferocemente sul pedale, sudo come un orso in una sauna e sbuffo soffocando un dolore da doglie a furia di pedalare tutto il tempo in salita – per non sprecare tempo prezioso – è l’unico momento di vera pace in tutta la mia giornata. Altroché bagno caldo con un libro!

1. My sore butt. I’m well aware that they advise against engaging in physical activity before going to bed, but during the day I have so very little free time to devote to the exercycle. In the evening, those twenty minutes when I ferociously pump the pedals, sweating like a bear in a sauna and panting as I stifle pain as bad as labor itself from pedalling the whole time uphill (to not waste precious time) – this is the only moment of true peace throughout my whole day. Who needs a hot bath and a book?

2. I rumori. Mio marito che russa. Il gatto che si spulcia. Mio figlio che ride nel sonno.

2. The noise. My husband snoring. The cat defleaing herself. My son laughing in his sleep.

3. Fantasia #1. Dicono che, per realizzare i tuoi sogni, devi farti un’immagine mentale di ciò che desideri ottenere nel futuro. Allora mi vedo seduta nell’ufficio del revisore della casa editrice che pubblicherà il mio libro. Ascolto e prendo appunti sui cambiamenti che vuole fare: cambiare il titolo e anche il nome del protagonista, tagliare cento pagine. Scrivo e accenno di sì col capo, tanto ad oppormi ci penso dopo che abbiamo firmato il contratto.

3. Fantasy #1. They say that to make your dreams come true, you should visualize what you want in the future. So I see myself seated in the office of the editor whose publishing house is going to publish my manuscript. I’m listening and taking notes on the changes she wants to make: change the title and the name of the main character too, cut out a hundred pages. I’m writing and nodding: there will be time to object once we’ve signed the contract.

4. La preoccupazione di aver lasciato aperto il finestrino della macchina. O lasciato spalancato il portellone posteriore.

4. Worrying about whether I’ve left a window open in the car. Or left the hatchback up.

5. Fantasia #2. Questa fantasia è inerente alla prima, ma non è per questo meno rilevante. Ha a che fare col mio aspetto fisico, nel suddetto ufficio. Sono sempre io, con tutte le mie ben meritate rughe, ma per carità almeno con qualche lentiggine in meno. Indosso il mio vestito nero di cotone – casual ma non troppo – quello con le tasche per nascondere fazzoletti e salatini di emergenza. Poi ho i capelli per una volta alla perfezione: lucenti, folti e pettinati come se avessi appena fatto la messa in piega. O messo una parrucca.

5. Fantasy #2. This fantasy is part of the first, but is no less important in itself. It has to do with my appearance in the aforementioned office. I still look like me, with all my well-deserved wrinkles, but for heaven’s sake please with a few less freckles. I’m wearing my black cotton dress – casual but not too casual – the one with the pockets to hide emergency tissues and crackers. My hair is for once perfect: shiny, thick and brushed as if I’d just been to the hairdressers’. Or put on a wig.

6. Il dubbio se il pannolino di mio figlio durerà fino al mattino.

6. Doubting whether my son’s diaper will make it through the night.

7. Fantasia #3. Sempre nel solito ufficio, con i capelli stupendi, sono incinta di quattro o cinque mesi. Tirato su dal pancione, il vestito nero svela un po’ troppa coscia, ma che me ne importa. Non si può criticare una donna incinta, tanto meno dirle di cestinare cento pagine del suo capolavoro.

7. Fantasy #3. Still in the same old office, with great hair, I’m pregnant by about four or five months. Pulled up by my belly, my black dress is showing a bit too much leg, but who cares. Nobody can criticize a pregnant lady, much less tell her to toss out a hundred pages of her masterpiece.

8. Un pizzico di fame.

8. Feeling a tad hungry.

9. La soddisfazione un po’ compiaciuta di aver letto diciasette pagine di un romanzo mentre sbuffavo sulla ciclette, per di più in italiano! (Cioè leggevo in italiano: sbuffavo in inglese.) E la gioia di aver imparato un termine nuovo, nappe. Utilissimo.

9. The somewhat smug satisfaction of having read seventeen pages of a novel while panting on the exercycle, what’s more in Italian! (That is, I was reading in Italian: the panting was in English.) And the joy of having learned a new word: "nappe" (tassels). Ever so useful.

10. Lo spazio sempre più ristretto nel letto. L’alluce di mio marito che mi fa la digitopressione sul polpaccio. Il gatto che mi ruba il cuscino. Mio figlio che stiracchia le gambe sulla mia pancia.

10. The ever-shrinking room in the bed. My husband’s big toe performing acupressure on my calf. The cat stealing my pillow. My son stretching his legs out onto my belly.

11. Un’idea geniale che mi balena in mente: quella di scrivere un articolo di blog in italiano! E perché no? Oltre ad essere un buon esercizio per me, ho anche alcuni lettori italiani, e poi tanti amici e parenti che stanno imparando l’italiano! Anche a questa tarda ora ho la pelle d’oca solo a pensare alle straordinarie potenzialità didattiche…sarà un difetto professionale.

11. A brilliant idea pops into my head: I should write a blog post in Italian! Besides being good practice for me, I also have some Italian readers and a whole bunch of friends and family members who are learning Italian! Even at this very late hour, I get goosebumps merely thinking about the extraordinary teaching potential…probably a professional deformity.

12. L’idea ancora più geniale di alzarmi a scrivere sul blog. In italiano. In pigiama. Alle undici di sera. Mangiando pasta avanzata. In bocca al lupo!

12. The even more brilliant idea to get up to write on my blog. In Italian. In my pyjamas. At eleven at night. Eating leftover pasta. Good luck!

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Words I wish we had in English

I love English, don’t you? Apart from being so gorgeously malleable, it also claims the richest vocabulary of all the world’s languages. However, there are a few tiny but rather painful gaps in the English language, which – in our humbly multilingual household – my husband and I choose to plaster up with a few borrowed words.

dimmi –Italian for, literally, “tell me”, but used more broadly to mean something like “I’m listening”, “I’m all ears” or “You have my attention, my dear, reveal to me your heart’s innermost desires.” After your daughter bowls into your study calling out, “Mom! Guess what?” you swivel away from the computer, look her lovingly in the eye and say, “Dimmi.” I’ve never found anything that even remotely resembles this delicate expression of love and attentiveness. Somehow “What?” doesn’t quite measure up.

fussel – German for an indeterminate bit of fluff hanging on one’s person (one’s clothes, hair or navel) and requiring immediately removal. A more comprehensive term than “fluff” itself, fussel can be, for example, a loose thread, a cat hair or even something organic like a burr. (And unlike fluff, fussel ceases to be such the very moment it is identified for what it really is.) The expression also differs from the Yiddish “schmutz” in that fussel is not inherently dirty; however, like with an unsightly schmutz, there is no peace for anyone in the room until it is safely removed and disposed of. Anthropologists speculate that fussel may have a significant social impact on human cultures: pointing out a person’s unnoticed fussel (“Ma’am, there’s a little something on your sleeve there…”) reinforces our sense of community and shared values.

mollica – Italian for the inner part of the bread. Italian tables become littered with cotton-wool-like mollica as the preferred hard crusts get consumed throughout the meal. Sometimes during the conversation, these gummy wads will end up rolled and moulded into little magic wands or perfect miniature globes. Needless to say, afterwards these off-white works of art are only good for feeding to the pigeons or soaking up the excess olive oil from your lips with a ladylike pat (works better than extra-absorbent paper towels). However, I can see why the word mollica may be a superfluous term for those of us who live in the Crustless Commonwealth of White Wonderbread, where bread is mollica.

scarpetta – Italian for the bread you use to clean your plate of its remaining sauce or juices. (Needless to say, the only part of the bread used for the scarpetta is the crust: eating the mollica as well would be far too fattening.) Performing the scarpetta is a compliment to Zia Mena that you loved her bolognese sauce too much to let a single drop go to waste. Not doing so is either a chilly insult or a clear sign that you are suffering from anorexia and will therefore need a double serving of sausages for your secondo.

whanau – Maori for extended family (note: the ‘wh’ is pronounced like an ‘f’). Don’t you feel that there’s something profoundly inadequate about starting a group email with “Dear family and friends”? Putting “family” first demeans some of our deepest and most fulfilling friendships. Furthermore, the word “friend” itself is used far too loosely these days, so that even the mechanic who cuts you a good deal on tires is “a friend of mine”. Whanau puts the dignity back in friendship by not distinguishing between family and close friends at all. In conversation with non-New Zealanders, however, I avoid using the term whanau for fear of being misunderstood. (“I thought you guys were best friends. What do you mean she’s your friend for now?”) Instead I revert to my pre-NZ term “my people”, despite the risk of being mistaken for a homeless Kurd.

earworm – the literal English translation of the German Ohrwurm, a piece of a song that gets stuck in your head and tortuously replays itself like a broken record. Studies have shown that people who suffer most from earworms are those prone to nervous tics and obsessive thoughts. Hence, earworms are so very very rare for me. If at the moment I’m singing the Oompa-Loompa song from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, it’s only because I really really like it. Oompa, Loompa, doom-pa-dee-da / If you’re not greedy, you will go far / You will live in happiness too / Like the Oompa Loompa doom-pa-dee do.

scugnizzo – Neapolitan for dirty, smart street kid, Napoli-style. This term may be used affectionately to describe your own kid on the days when he makes a getaway from you on your local beach only to strut back towards you a panicked minute later, prancing butt naked down a sidewalk lined with picnicking families, sporting a pigeon feather in his hair and a brushstroke of chocolate ice cream across his cheek. On closer inspection, you can see he has black (dog?) fur in one fist and a beer bottle cap in the other; his belly has three new mosquito bites and both knees are freshly grated. You look down at his blackened feet and scold him with relief, “You scugnizzo you!” Then, with a beguiling smile, he proceeds to pee on your foot. I assure you this has never happened to me.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

True or finto?

Image by Davide Ragusa
Here’s a good one.

Mamma Rita tells me that, towards the end of World War II, the people of her pasta-producing hometown of Gragnano saw a parade of American soldiers marching up the main street. Relieved, they cheered the men on from their balconies, which were draped with spaghetti like drying laundry. Then they realized they were the Germans.

That’s so good it should be in a book, don’t you think? Apparently it’s all true, down to the detail about the spaghetti over the railings, because that’s how the locals used to sun-dry their pastasciutta. And the world is positively overflowing with wonderful true stories like this – of misunderstandings, cataclysms, strokes of luck, inventions, love, deceit – infinitely more than there are sheets of paper to write them down on. Or gigabytes of cerebral memory to store them on. (In my case, I may be down to a mere nine or ten kilobytes.)

So why, with the staggering amount of stories available from all sorts of exotic settings, do writers need to write fiction at all? I won’t attempt to answer this many-tentacled giant-octopus of a question. But I will say that it’s a mystery to me how people write fiction in the first place. Think of all the plot intricacies and the weaving of themes, as well as the historical and scientific background research! Not to mention the development of the characters, which may require you to spend an entire day roleplaying your invented protagonist, saying the things they would say and even eating a restaurant meal that they might order.

I mean, where do these people find the energy? I have trouble rustling up the energy to get through my own day, let alone that of a fictitious character. (And that’s after two B-vitamin supplements and a double dose of caffeine.) But more importantly, why? Why go to all that trouble to shape a story and characters when you could just go to Texas to visit your Gramma Essie? All day long, in the screened-in porch over a glass of iced tea, she will tell you about her poor childhood in a one-room shack in Kansas and her doomed marriage to a grumpy ex-cowboy-turned-mailman, whose idea of physical affection was sticking the wet end of his cigar in your ear. What more do you need in a story? And you don’t even have to try to put yourself in your grandmother’s shoes in order to understand her character because, at the end of the day, you’ll be eating exactly what she’s eating for dinner: chicken-fried steak and limp green beans from a can, scientifically proven since the 1950s to be healthier than the fresh variety.

Beat that, fiction! Don’t get me wrong: novels have moved me deeply throughout my entire life. And I know it’s not about what you say, but how you say it. Yet still I can’t fight the nagging feeling that true stories, by their mere virtue of being real, are inherently superior to fictional stories. True stories actually happened to real people in the real world: how much more realistic can you get? How much more interesting can you get?

But people continue to write fiction. In every other aspect of life, if you make up stories and make them sound real, they call you a liar. And I don’t like to lie. I’m a terrible liar, predictably shifting my feet and evading eye contact even in the very kindest of white lies (“No, your new haircut brings out your eyes!”).

I didn’t think my two-year-old was worldly enough to lie until the toilet-training incident last week where he blamed the “big cacca” in his sandbox on a large red dog. Since then I feel the responsibility to pass on to my offspring the moral difference between what is true and what is not true. Besides, his handle on reality is tenuous enough as it is – isn’t it my job to show him the most basic realities of our world? Rain is wet. Monkeys eat bananas. Running naked down a concrete path may lead to more than a skinned knee.

I don’t want my son to think – as some of his children’s books might suggest – that ducks in real life wear gumboots or that an oven may eat the pizza you’ve just put inside it, if it gets too hungry. I don’t want him to think that mail trucks, miniature or otherwise, actually deliver raisins. I constantly find myself saying to him, “Not in real life,” “It’s just a game,” or even “It’s fake.” (“È finto.”) And if Italian had its own word for it – because I speak to my son only in Italian – I might even say, “It’s fiction.” Close enough: fiction and finto share the same Latin root (fingere – to shape, form, feign).

My son has enthusiastically embraced this habit of qualifying reality. Sometimes after jumping on my belly howling like an orangutan, he’ll look at me rather indulgently and explain (in Italian), “This – game,” or even “This – good game.” Once at the aquarium we passed by a display case of fake coral and algae. “Finto,” he pronounced.

Over Christmas, all this put me in a bind over Santa Claus. It wasn’t so hard when the greeting card arrived bearing a photo of his twin cousins sitting on Santa’s knee in the mall. “That’s not really Santa,” I said. “That’s a man dressed as Santa, with a really good fake beard – oh no, hold on, the beard is real!” But then when all he wanted to do was reread Twas the Night Before Christmas ten, eleven, twelve times, I began to fret. Should I tell him that reindeer can’t really pull a sleigh through the sky? That once you go down a chimney, it’s not that easy to get back up it again and to please not try this at home? That it’s not possible to visit all the world’s children in one night, especially those who live in chimney-free, snow-free indigent rural areas of Indonesia? I didn’t want to lie, but I didn’t want to spoil the magic either. Luckily, he didn’t ask.

Next Christmas, however, if my son asks whether Santa Claus is true or finto, I’ll be more prepared. “Honey,” I’ll say, “Santa Claus was in fact a real person, Nicholas of Myra, who lived in 4th-century Greece. He was such a generous man, leaving out surprise gifts for people: you know, like the way you leave little bread crusts in my shoes in the morning? And do you know why we hang a stocking from the fireplace? Well, that’s because once Saint Nicholas gave dowries to three poor sisters by secretly stuffing gold coins in the stockings they’d left out overnight to dry by the fire. Though some people say he threw a bag of gold through the chimney of their house – but I don’t know, that seems a bit unlikely if he could have just as easily thrown it through an open window. Anyway, because of Saint Nicholas, the girls didn’t have to become prostitutes. Gee, wasn’t that nice of him? If you want, the next time we travel to Italy I’ll take you to Bari to see his remains. You know, his skull and the rest of his bones. Would you like that, honey? Would you like to see the real Santa Claus?”