In honor of Camille, a fellow expat who’s been frustrated by language lately, I post an excerpt from my book about the magic of language.
Every Wednesday is Lavinio’s market day. Several streets are blocked off to allow for a long line of vendors selling everything you could ever want, in no particularly organized fashion – kitchen utensils, jeans, fruit, vegetables, lingerie, down comforters, shoes, meat, clock radios, cheese, flowers, CDs, purses in haphazard piles.
Every Tuesday night I would sit down with my translation dictionary and make a list of the things I needed, in case I needed to talk about them when I got there. But for the most part, the good thing about shopping this way was that I did not have to speak too often. I would gather up my purchases, show them to the vendor, and pay without saying more than buon giorno or grazie. I did not want to be outed as The American. I desperately wanted to fit in, which unfortunately often robbed me of the ability to speak at all.
But my deep and abiding love for all things dairy finally forced me to reveal my gulping, stuttering self to the Cheese Lady.
She was probably about 50; she was built like a Parma ham and had hands like baseball mitts. Her warm, genuine smile and the intoxicating smells from her stall targeted her as My First Italian.
Oh, how I studied the night before. I wanted to make sure I got the softest, stinkiest, yummiest cheeses she had.
That morning, I approached the stall and patiently waited for pretty much every customer in town to leave. I did not want witnesses to the butchering I was about to do to their language. Finally, it was my turn.
I quietly launched into my prepared speech about wanting cheese, which was probably the most formal declaration of love she had ever heard in her life. I must have said the right thing, because before I knew it she had come around the counter and was force-feeding me small pieces of about 114 different kinds of cheese.
“Si,” I’d say with a smile; or sometimes, with the most apologetic face I could muster, “Non mi piace.” After she had wrapped up my selections and I paid her, I turned to leave and she waved and said, “Ciao, bella.”
Now, this was a perfectly normal thing for her to say. She had probably said it 20 times that day. Everyone in Italy says it all the time, coming and going. I am sure she forgot about me four seconds after I left.
But even writing this now, three languages and five years later, it makes me teary. It was the first time an Italian had said it to me. Even though I was obviously not Italian, and had probably sounded like an injured seal, she said, “Ciao, bella” to me.
She was My First Italian, and I will never forget her.