Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Open at my own risk

I just received the most precious of packages: a box full of my stories, letters and diaries dating back to my first year in Italy at the age of sixteen. I hadn’t even realized they’d been lovingly kept all these years in our family basement in D.C. While most people’s first instinct about finding the melodramatic diaries of their adolescence would be to burn them all in a giant bonfire, my instinct is just the opposite: let’s write a book.

To those of you who say, “Oh no, not another memoir! How many memoirs can one person write? Do you really think your life is that fascinating?” I say that I myself would read nothing but other people’s memoirs and listen to their life stories all day long if I could. Perhaps I should have become a therapist.

Although it’s clear from the dates that the very first chronological diary is missing, these two surviving ones on the desk before me may contain most of the material I need to write my second book, a memoir about how a young American exchange student thrown into a depressed Southern Italian town finds her life prospective transformed by meeting her host mom whom everyone lovingly calls “Mamma Rita”. Chills run down my spine as I run my fingers over the musty covers of my diaries. I haven’t read any of them, not one single page, since I was sixteen years old.

So stay with me for a moment (drum roll, please) as I take a deep breath and open a few pages at random to see what’s inside. Opening haphazardly like this, without any discrimination or any editing whatsoever, is quite risky. Some of the thoughts and observations found inside might be embarrassing at best, if not pathetic and obsessive. You, dear reader, might lose any respect you might have had for me. But hopefully there will also be some insights and stories in there to help me reconstruct that period of my life. So here it goes.

Diary #1 – random page: …Franco boasted to me how absolutely beautiful his nephew was and actually took me to the hotel where his sister and her two children were staying (theirs was one of the houses left dangerously uninhabitable after a big rain before Christmas, mud came flowing from the mountains into the houses [doors were jammed closed it was so deep]) just for me to see his nephew and to see how kind his sister was. There were all sitting around the TV on the hotel bed. His sister took my hands, and, explaining how cold I was, turned on the little stove. She offered me salami and mineral water, indeed very sweet. The little boy was sleeping, looking quite angelic. Franco was right. He walked over to the bed and kissed him. Franco later told me that he was worried for them because the father was dead. I asked how.

“Non lo so. Nessun motivo. Sai quando il Signore all’improvviso così si prende qualcuno.” [Translation from the Italian: “I don’t know. No reason. You know, when God suddenly decides to take someone, just like that.”]

Diary #1 – random page:Now we’re back in C/mare. Today I must go to pranzo [lunch] at Rita’s mother’s house. I suppose I should go but I hate eating there. They all say through i piatti [the separate courses] “Mangia! Mangia! Assaggia pure questo!” [Eat! Eat! Try this too!] I can’t take it, my stomach can’t take it and I hate ruining the joy of eating good food. They’ve all spoiled it for me. Overeating is the most disgusting feeling and unfortunately it happens all the time.

Kelly [the German shepherd] is snorting. I think she’ll die soon she’s so old and sick…

Diary #2 – random page:Gino sits at the kitchen table, full of proverbs that make me laugh. “Alle donne strane, piace il salame.” (Strange women like salami.) The smoke of his cigar clouds his face, only lined with the light of the early spring evening. He talks about balance as the way to resolve everything. Rita says he is maybe the only faithful man she knows. He has abandoned the good red wine in the lip-touched glasses; it’s spilled on the table, the bottle is still a quarter full. The light falls down on his bubbly hands, shadows his cigar. He wears a cream cap like an Englishman, a crawling blonde beard, an olive green coat. The people call him "l’americano" because he is so fair. And there he sits next to Rita and I, full of philosophies to share and proverbs. The Neapolitan dialect seems to have been made for him. “How I like this American girl!” he exclaims and kisses me. He’s full of good intentions. “If a person is really intelligent, he cannot have love for only one person. I love the whole world. I’m not saying this to say I’m intelligent, on the contrary, but a full person, made by God, is made to spread his love a bit around for everything…[…]…Un po’ per ognuno non fa male a nessuno. A bit for everyone does harm to no one...”

Diary #2 – random page:He drives the car up the winding mountain roads where the air is crisp and you can see all the stars and, as if a reflection in the water, the twinkling city lights below. They really do twinkle, like everyone says, and the stars do too and I sit on the cold seat watching them. He drives. I see his cheekbone shining with the streetlights. His whole face is shiny and feminine and he has a high-pitched voice but broad shoulder pads. He is the cousin of Frankie D. who has escaped for a moment from his sad flaming city. I am warm enough but if I move, my warmth escapes out into the wintery air which brushes our cheeks.

We climb out, me following the cousins, and stand over the cliff. There’s our city, all of that traffic, the smell of rotting fish, the people’s cologne, the crying, barking, laughing of our city is concentrated into one silent square of lights in the dark, indecipherable from all the others. Where is that line I thought there was between towns? I can make out our port. Somewhere down there are people whose cheeks I’ve kissed and now they are invisible and silent but present at the bottom of my throne.

I can see now that I’ve left out a few adjectives to describe my adolescent writing: pretentious, ungrateful, self-indulgent, wordy and…surprisingly awesome. Second book, here we come!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Who are you?

Now and then I check the statistics page of my blog. OK, nearly every day. Some days I get just a few hits: I’m sure this can be blamed somehow on the weather. Other days, my blog registers frequent hits from all over the world: mostly New Zealand and the U.S., but also a surprising number from countries like Turkey, Brazil, Germany, Malaysia, Russia.

I know I have a few faithful followers – thanks, Mom – but who are all the others who sporadically read my tragicomic blog? Yes, you – who are you? On this point, the statistics are mute. However, it is possible to at least find out how some people – whether they become regular readers or not – may have stumbled upon my blog, by taking a look at the Google or Yahoo search words they used to get there.

Because of my freelance proofreading work, I’m also guilty of searching the web for some very odd phrases. Yesterday, for example, I googled the phrase “three mace of cinnabar” and found not one but two sites with these exact words. But I’d like to meet the person who happed upon my blog last week by typing in the search words “Now I’m toothless”. I think we might have a lot in common. But whoever it was who googled “picture of old toothless and glasses” surely wouldn’t have found my blog picture suitable to their cut-and-paste needs. I don’t wear glasses.

It’s no surprise that in the last couple weeks my blog has received hits through searches for literary agent “Michael Harriot”. Since last year's blog post about querying him with my memoir, I’ve had 56 hits from aspiring writers seeking his contact details. I wonder if any of them has had luck with him. The closer I’ve come to agent Michael Harriot is cozying up next to him on the Google search page. Sorry, Michael, that I appear before you do. I’m confident that when you bag your thirteenth New York Times bestseller, you’ll move up to the first slot.

Who is that linguistic soulmate of mine who typed in “Beautiful Italian words”? I hope you weren't disappointed that I wrote about ugly Italian words instead. I’m curious about the reasons someone had for looking up the “know my chicken phrase”: do you too have an Italian friend who literally translates conosco i miei polli into English, thinking it makes sense? Thank you to whomever drifted to my blog by means of the search words “How did I learned Italian”. You might also like my blog post called “How did I learn English?” OK, for this scathing punch line, I deserve your wrath and now fear you. But not nearly as much as I fear the individual who was looking last week for “John ghotti nieces”. I don’t know anything. I have no idea who you’re talking about.

I’m dying of curiosity to know who found me last week by searching for “Flip flop girl chapters 10 –14” and “can i try a puff”. Apologies to the not one but two fishermen who accidentally reached my blog while looking for information about “drop shot pesca”.

To those of you this week searching for “Phrases to compliment someone casually”, “Cool phrases to say casually” and “Cool new phrases”, I say, Just be yourself.

Even if you’ve just stumbled across this blog today, incredibly you’ve read this far. That makes you privy to my innermost thoughts as I write tonight in my pyjamas from snow-powdered New Zealand. So, if I can ask for a moment more of your time and you don’t mind leaving a comment: who are you? And also to those who I did not beg to join my blog in order to boost my number of followers, to those of you who are not my sister-in-law or my husband but still enjoy reading my blog now and then from all over the globe, I ask: who are you?

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The perfectly honest query letter

Dear Not Really the Agent of My Dreams

If I’m to be perfectly honest, you’re the fifty-third agent I’ve contacted. Fifty-three is not exactly my lucky number but I do like how your last name rhymes with “civil”. I hope this means you’ll get another cup of coffee and bear with me while I pitch you my manuscript.

Are you sick and tired of reading stereotypical memoirs about middle-aged American women who go to romantic Rome or Tuscany, with an Italian phrasebook in their pocket, to find themselves again thanks to bowlfuls of ravioli and tall, dark and handsome lovers whom they thankfully can’t communicate with? If so, then you might like my memoir about a much younger American student living in the dredges of a rat-infested ghetto in the economically depressed and corrupt Naples who escapes after undergoing earthquakes, nightmares about an impending volcanic eruption, and a week in the surgery ward where her depressed Italian lover ends up with a hole in his chest.

I’d rather not put you off so early in our relationship by telling you how many words my manuscript is. Suffice to say that it’s a love story, which is actually just an excuse to launch into self-indulgent descriptions of my adopted city, Naples. There are no explicit sex scenes but I’d be happy to add them in. I’d also be prepared to take out a few of the ‘characters’, such as Carmine the bleach seller. But not the homeless priest with no legs or the pot-smoking Sicilian.

I’d love to tell you how special you are as an agent and why I ‘handpicked’ you, but I simply wasn’t able to get enough information about you on the Internet. From your website it does look like you’ve published a few cheesy titles, but I’m willing to overlook this if you’re interested in representing me.

I’m a teacher, translator, proofreader and mother of one. My list of publications includes two scathing book reviews for The Dunedin Star. That’s pretty much it.

Please find attached the first chapter of my manuscript. Don’t worry about the short length: there are sixty-four more of them, should you wish to read on.

I appreciate your time in considering my submission.

Sincerely,

Heddi Rebecca Goodrich

P.S. Please take note of my auspicious surname. Some day my memoir will be a bestseller and earn some lucky agent a wad of cash. I hope you won’t be like all the others and set yourself up for a lifetime of regret.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Children’s books translated for your convenience (Italian-English)

Ci sono momenti in cui sento di essere una mamma scadente – come quando faccio vedere al pupo troppi cartoni animati per poter scappare a scrostare i piatti della sera prima, o quando mi ritrovo a contare i minuti finché possiamo lasciare il parco giochi semplicemente perché ci sono, come dire, troppi bambini.

There are moments when I feel like a second-rate mom – like when I let the little man watch too many cartoons so that I can run off and scour last night’s dishes, or when I find myself counting the minutes till we can leave the playground simply because there are, how to put it, too many children.

In quei momenti, per ricompensare, faccio una di queste due cose: 1) faccio il pane fatto in casa con cannella e uva passa, oppure; 2) faccio la traduzione in rima di un libro per bambini dall’inglese all’italiano. In tutti e due i casi, bisogna aspettare fino a sera per godersi i risultati finali.

In those moment, to make up for it, I do one of two things : 1) I bake homemade cinnamon raisin bread or; 2) I translate a children’s book from English into Italian so that it still rhymes. In both cases, you have to wait until the evening to enjoy the final results.

Con la pagnotta fumante appena sfornata e la cucina infarinata fin dentro le assi del pavimento, come minimo mi sento più domestica. Poi a chi non piace il pane? Invece la traduzione di un libricino – che non verrà mai goduta da più di uno, massimo due, “lettori” – diciamoci la verita, è un’attività solitaria e un po’ da secchioni. È uno sforzo a stento domestico che può dare soddisfazione solo a mamme fissate come me col bilinguismo dei propri figli. A mamme col chiodo fisso per il metodo “un genitore, una lingua” e che perfino rendono la parola “French toast” con “pane fritto". A mamme con poche risorse nella seconda lingua perché vivono a 18,000 chilometri dall’Italia. A mamme esauste che alle otto di sera non trovano più neanche l’energia per lavarsi i denti tanto meno per fare la traduzione simultanea di una filastrocca e per farla rimare.

With that steaming loaf straight out of the oven and the kitchen covered in floor down to the cracks between the floorboards, at the very least I feel I bit more domestic. And anyway who doesn’t like bread? On the other hand, translating a little book – which will never be enjoyed by more than one, at the most two, “readers” – let’s be honest here, is a solitary and slightly nerdy activity. It’s a scarcely domestic effort that can only satisfy moms like me who are obsessed with their children’s bilingualism. Moms who are so manic about the “one parent, one language” method that they even translate “French toast” as “pane fritto” (Italian for “fried bread”). Moms with few resources in the second language because they live 18,000 kilometers from Italy? Exhausted moms who, at eight o’clock at night, can’t even find the energy to brush their teeth, let alone do a simultaneous translation of a nursery rhyme in rhyme.

Vi risparmio la fatica. Se stai insegnando l’italiano al tuo bambino, basta trovare una copia di questo noto libro e copiare e incollare il testo seguente accanto all’originale. Ora va a giocare col pupo.

I’ll save you the effort. If you’re teaching your child Italian, simply find a copy of this popular book, and copy and paste the following text beside the original. Now go off and play with the little guy.

 How do dinosaurs eat their food? by Jane Yolen and Mark Teague

Come fa un dinosauro la colazione? Fa rutti, chiasso e una grossa eruzione?

How does a dinosaur eat all his food? Does he burp, does he belch, or make noises quite rude?

Getta i cereali per aria, fa un enorme salto nella speranza che sistemi tutto un’altro?

Does he pick at his cereal, throw down his cup, hoping to make someone else pick it up?

Si lamenta, si agita e si contorce senza posa? Lancia la pasta in aria se non gli piace qualcosa?

Does he fuss, does he fidget, or squirm in his chair? Does he flip his spaghetti high into the air?

È rispetto al cuoco generalmente SCONTROSO?

DOES A DINOSAUR GLARE?

Come mangia un dinosauro la cenetta? Sputa via i broccoli in furia e in fretta?

How does a dinosaur eat all his food? Does he spit out his broccoli partially chewed?

Fa le bollicine nel latte? Inserisce fagiolini nel naso? Con le dita del piede spreme arance, per caso?

Does he bubble his milk? Stick beans up his nose? Does he squeeze juicy oranges with his big toes?

Ma no… Dice “Per favore” e “Grazie.” Si siede con finezza. Pulisce il suo piatto con sorrisi e gentilezza.

No…He says, “Please” and “Thank you.” He sits very still. He eats all before him with smiles and goodwill.

Prova cibi nuovi, almeno un assaggio. Non è rumoroso; è premuroso e saggio.

He tries every new thing, at least one small bite. He makes no loud noises – that isn’t polite.

Non butta mai niente, né mai e né mo’. E dopo che ha finito, ne chiede un’altro po’.

He never drops anything onto the floor. And after he’s finished, he asks for some more.

Mangia. Mangia, piccolo dinosauro.

Eat up. Eat up, little dinosaur.