Friday, May 20, 2011

Now and then (Italian-English)

Ogni tanto io e il mio figlioletto giochiamo al dottore. "Dottoressa," mi ordina, "ancora medicina!" Il tono sarà fuori luogo, ma il titolo è azzeccato: infatti sono 'dottoressa' da anni, dal momento in cui Professor Bonfantini - con la mia tesi sotto braccio - mi strinse la mano troppo forte nella chiesa sconsacrata di fronte alla sede principale dell'Istituto Universitario Orientale di Napoli. Ci fu l'applauso di sconosciuti e i flash di macchine fotografiche. Quelle grosse e pesanti con la messa a fuoco manuale. Era il 1996.

Now and then my young son and I play doctor. "Doctor," he orders, "more medicine!" His tone might be inappropriate but the title is on the mark: in fact for years I've been a doctor (in the Italian sense of 'graduate'), from the moment Professor Bonfantini - with my thesis under his arm - shook my hand too hard in the deconsecrated church opposite the main building of the Oriental Institute of Naples. There was the applause of strangers and the flashes of cameras. The big heavy kind with manual focus. It was 1996.

"Auguri, dottoressa," mi disse attraverso il microfono, gli occhi a palla esageratamente grandi dietro le lenti a fondo di bottiglia. Essendo del cosiddetto vecchio ordinamento, la mia laurea era l'equipollente di un masters in America. Fuori alla chiesa, Bonfantini non mi offrì un caffè, bensì un dottorato all'Università di Bari. Feci un gesto di cacciare una mosca.

"Congratulations, doctor," he said through the microphone, his bulging eyes exaggeratedly big behind his bottle-bottom lenses. Being of the so-called 'old system', my degree was the equivalent of a masters in America. Outside the church, Bonfantini didn't offer me a coffee but rather a doctorate at the University of Bari. I swatted at a fly.

In questi giorni ho ritrovato quella tesi - rilegata, con copertina blu e il titolo stampato in oro. Apro a casaccio, a pagina 40, e leggo: "Le abitudini linguistiche che si cristallizzano in noi sin dal nostro ingresso nella sfera sociale determinano le nostre categorie mentali, il nostro modo di strutturare la percezione del mondo."

Recently I found my old thesis - bound, with a blue cover and the title in gold lettering. I open randomly to page 40 and read: "The linguistic habits that crystallize themselves inside us from our very first entrance in the social sphere determine our mental categories, our way of structuring our perception of the world."

Caspita, mica male. Deglutisco. Quel mio brano mi mette soggezione. Non fa altro che rafforzare la mia ipotesi - formulata qualche anno dopo che ho lasciato Napoli - che il mio italiano è oramai scadente. Forse anche scaduto.

Wow, not too bad. I gulp. My own passage intimidates me. It does nothing but confirm my theory - since a few years after leaving Naples - that my Italian has become second-rate. Or maybe even past its use-by date.

Ma era veramente tanto superiore il mio italiano di allora?

But was my Italian back then actually that much better?

All'epoca ero - credo - l'unica studentessa straniera in tutta l'università. Parlavo italiano tutto il giorno: l'inglese era un ricordo lontano. Portavo una giacca verde scamosciata di seconda mano. Uno zaino sbiadito pieno di libri. Prendevo un cappuccio e un cornetto all'albicocca al bar prima di andare al cinema, dove si tenevano le lezioni di glottologia di Silvestri. Usavo la terminologia specialistica del mio campo: genitivo, interpretazione, struttura semantica. Vivevo in una casa seicentesca con le macchie di umidità sulle pareti. D'inverno facevo la doccia per riscaldarmi. Ero abbronzata da aprile in poi. Con i miei amici, bevevo la Peroni e mangiavo la pizza bianca con salsiccia e friarelli. Facevo le notti in bianco a discutere di filosofia. Citavo i grandi: Wittgenstein, Bachtin, de Saussure. Bestemmiavo rispettosamente in dialetto. Mi raccoglievo i capelli scompigliati in uno chignon.

At the time I was - I believe - the only foreign student in the whole university. I spoke Italian all day: English was a distant memory. I used to wear a second-hand green suede jacket. A faded backpack full of books. I'd have a cappuccino and an apricot croissant in a café before heading to the movie theater where Silvestri's linguistics lectures were held. I used specialist terminology from my field: genitive, interpretation, semantic structure. I lived in a 17th-century apartment with damp stains on the wall. In the winter I'd take a shower to warm up. I had a tan from April onwards. With my friends I drank Peroni beer and ate white pizza with sausages and rape. I would spend sleepless nights talking philosophy. I could quote the greats: Wittgenstein, Bachtin, de Saussure. I respectfully cursed in dialect. I'd put my messy hair up in a bun.

E adesso? Parlo l'italiano tutto il giorno, con mio figlio. Mi risponde o in italiano con flessione a volte meridionale a volte settentrionale, oppure in inglese con accento decisamente tedesco. (Mah!) Porto pantaloni con mille tasche e uno zaino pieno di salviettine umidificate, mele, acqua. Uso la terminologia specialistica del mio campo: passeggino, bua, crisi di nervi. Sono esperta in diminutivi: salamino, scimmietta, bacetto. Cammino nel bosco in cerca di un bastone a forma di martello. Scandisco, cercando di far capire al piccolo la differenza tra martello e mirtillo, tra cane e carne. Cito i grandi: Tigro, Pimpa, Paperino. Faccio ancora le notti in bianco. Imploro dio molto più spesso. Mi raccolgo i capelli scompigliati in uno chignon.

What about now? I speak Italian all day with my son. He answers back either in Italian with a sometimes southern and other times northern accent, or in English with a decidedly German accent. (Beats me!) I wear pants with thousands of pockets and a backpack full of wet wipes, apples, water. I use specialist terminology from my field: stroller, boo-boo, nervous breakdown. I'm an expert in diminutives: an itty-bitty piece of salami, little monkey, kissy-poo. I walk through the forest looking for a stick shaped like a hammer. I annunciate, trying to teach the little guy the difference between a hammer and ham, dog and dug. I can quote the greats: Tigger, Pimpa, Donald Duck. I still spend sleepless nights. I implore God a lot more. I put my messy hair up in a bun.

Ci ho messo più di sei mesi per scrivere la mia tesi. Ma ho scritto questo articolo nel giro di un micropisolino del pupo. E penso tra me e me, "Mica male."

It took me over six months to write my thesis. But I just wrote this article in the time it took for my little man to have a power nap. And I think to myself, "Not too bad."

Friday, May 13, 2011

Thank goodness

Thank goodness for parents. While you're off finding yourself and sipping apple tea in Turkey, they store all your crap. They even store crap you didn't ask them to, like your diaries from seventh grade that you would have burned if you'd known they still existed. Thank goodness you weren't allowed within reach of matches back then. Because if you just wait long enough, you see those old writings in a new light and, just like the Eighties, they may even become cool again.

Thank goodness I came home to Washington with a relatively empty suitcase, because I'll be dragging it back to Auckland bursting with such old writing. There are some gems, let me tell you: a detailed description of my Neapolitan host mom as seen through my sixteen-year-old eyes, a copy of a letter sent back home to the first boy I kissed, a short story about my first heartbreak by a teenage mafioso with sampaku eyes.

But it ain't all pretty. There's the dorky poem titled "Washington Roebling and the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge". There's the dialogue-rich story about two washerwomen speaking in what appears to be a Cockney accent. The short story called "Blue (like water)" which begins "There was once a girl with golden hair that lived alone on the beach in a thatch hut that smelled of salt." Stuff I would still burn in the fireplace today if it weren't for the fact that it's far too warm here for a fire.

Besides, it would take all afternoon to incinerate possibly the worst offender, an untitled novella beginning with the ill-boding words "Part I, Chapter I, New York, March 1936". I have no recollection of writing these 145 pages, but judging from the well-linked cursive in blue and black ink (with surprisingly very little crossing out for a first draft), I estimate I was twelve or thirteen when I wrote it. The remarkable thing is that even back then I set the scene, developed the main character (Scarlett Brandon) and used dialogue to drive the plot and build suspense. But it would be dishonest to say that the novel itself is anywhere near good. I will spare you from having to read it all but, somewhat sadistically, I can't help but show you a few passages (with original spelling and punctuation):

p. 1 It was beginning to rain and droplets of water formed on the window, sliding down with ease.

p. 3 [Scarlett's] eyes were large and secret; nobody could see through them, past the adventorous, daring outside into the divine realms of her imagination. Even Taylor didn't understand her when she became moody or pensive, which was not too often.

p. 7 "Just where are we going?" she added after a moment of silence.

"Dinner, my dear," [Taylor] answered.

She stood up straight. "Food? I'll be fat."

p. 36 A few minutes later they were half way through their drink when Scarlett asked to see the entire gardens. [Chase] went up to the waiter. "We'll take this in a doggie bag," he said referring to the drinks.

p. 52 Soon after everyone had left Scarlett and Chase were cleaning up his kitchen. She lifted up a pot and wiped it with a towel and Chase said, "You make great lasagna."

p. 91 Scarlett lay there in her bed, her stomach empty, and being in such an odd mood for an hour she then called Chase but the phone was busy so she sat with the busy signal until Valentino came to the hotel door, looking tall, dark and handsome.

p. 121 Sometimes it was almost too much to bare being with two men, each knowing nothing of one another.

p. 130 She made him feel happy and as he looked into those striking violet eyes that were dimmed so in the soft candlelight, [Valentino] knew that if she didn't decide to stay with him in Italy for a "deeper" affair he'd surely become angry.

p. 142 Glancing over at the fireplace, she saw two tall, silver candlesticks shimming in the moonlight. She shook her head but then smiling reached for one of the heavy candlesticks. With her thin, frail arms she lifted it and struck it down hard on his head. [Valentino] fell lifelessly onto the floor and when she looked back at him, rose colored blood flowed from his head and his staring eyes began to roll up into his head.

Oh, thank goodness that was all just fiction. And I think everyone around me can be grateful I don't write fiction anymore.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Redefining the word 'victim'

Victim (noun): target of an attack, or one harmed by a crime, tort, unfairness, or other wrong

You may know that I've suffered a root canal, but you may not be aware that I'm also the victim of a crime. Yes, a crime! A couple years ago in a Washington, D.C. park, a man exposed himself before me, my one-year-old and my young nephew. "Poor idiot," was my first thought before I informed a nearby cop, who promptly arrested the man and took my statement. Then sleep deprivation was kind enough to (temporarily) wipe my memory clean, so much so that when - a year later - my mom said a lawyer was trying to contact me back in New Zealand in connection with the July incident in a D.C. park, I said, "You the mean the fireworks?"

The lawyer said the D.C. government would pay to fly me back to testify against the silly man, who turned out to be an excellent candidate for the next episode of America's Most Wanted. Victim Support took my passport details and preferred flight itinerary, profusely apologizing for the traumatic experience I'd suffered while visiting the capital city.

"Oh no, you see, I'm from D.C.," I said. "I'm used to it."

But please don't feel sorry for me, neither for having grown up in the D.C. area, nor for being the victim of seeing something I really would have preferred not to see (or for the misfortune of having regained an overly graphic memory of it). Because the real tragedy here is what happened just as my toddler and I were departing for Washington from Auckland International Airport.

First, I'd like to say in my defense, that I had very very little time to pack. But I'd be lying under oath if I said that I hadn't realized, moments before passing through security, that a pair of tweezers was indeed in my make-up bag in the red backpack. However, because they were quite dull and therefore not an ideal weapon with which to hijack a plane, I thought I'd take my chances. And, I thought, if the worst came to the worst and a security officer took my tweezers off me (the best pair I've ever owned, with superb grip), would it really matter if I went a bit Greek for a few days before I could make it to a drugstore? Would the jury even notice?

My fears came true as I was putting my shoes back on and a security officer asked me to step aside, holding my red backpack. Oh God, they'd spotted my tweezers. Guilt shot through my veins faster and stronger than a double espresso.

Shielded from prying eyes by a Plexiglas screen, the officer threw the bag on the table before me, signalling me to open it. "You have a knife."

"A knife? No." I didn't think the tweezers were that sharp. Then I preceded to play dumb by looking vacantly into the innocent part of the backpack storing sesame crackers, the Pip the Penguin book, night diapers and a pair of Spiderman underwear. "Nothing here," I said, trying to appear confused. Then I mustered an expression like a lightbulb had just gone on. "Oh, could it be something in here?" I unzipped the front pocket and then my make-up bag. "You don't think it could be something like this?" I had pulled out a dangerous-looking metal eyeliner sharpener.

"You have a knife," the security officer said with just about as much animation as a busy signal.

It was over, I knew it. I pulled out my tweezers. "Do you mean these?" I said as innocently as I could, but I was already handing them over.

To my astonishment, he repeated, "You have a knife."

That's when my knees went weak, but the adrenalin kept my hands steady. A vague memory flashed before me as I unzipped the inner front pocket. Oh my God, a knife! Damn backpacks and all their little pockets. It was the pocket knife we'd taken with us camping two months ago, probably still sticky with pear juice. But like any good weapon, it was shiny, cold and heavy.

"It's a knife!" I think I cried out, glancing at the blade engraved with the word 'Excalibur'. "Looks kind of dangerous, doesn't it?"

"It's got a switch blade too," said the officer in a rare moment of personalization.

Oh, this was infinitely worse than being a victim: I was a criminal. No, worse: I was the victim of being thought of as a criminal. Me, a mom with avocado smeared on my shirt! But I was too afraid to be indignant. What was the officer going to do next? Call over his colleagues? Interrogate me in a windowless room? Take away my passport, in which I looked coincidentally like a terrorist? How would we catch our flight now? And how would my toddler cope without a mid-afternoon snack?

But in the end, nothing happened. The security officer took the knife and left. Now having been robbed of my victim status and lost my husband's camping knife, I did what any self-respecting woman would do: apologize. "Honey, I'm sorry," I said through the cell phone to my husband waiting outside. "I lost your Excalibur!"

Victim (noun): someone who is wrongly accused of planning a crime, and undergoes the unfairness and embarrassment of having goods confiscated, while just trying to do the right thing, but gets to keep her tweezers as compensation