The evolution of language

I am following a very interesting conversation about bilingual children on the Facebook page of Expactclic (a wonderful resource for all expat women and, possibly, men too!) and, as it often happens, it made me realise how much my perspective has changed over the years.

The discussion was started by an italian mother living abroad and wondering (and worrying a bit also) about how her daughter’s italian language and culture will develop and grow.

I remember all too well how I used to be concerned about the exact same issues and went from feelings of helplessness, about not being able to do anything about it, to guilt, for not trying to do something about it.

I knew that, inevitably, my girls were going to be Australian and english was going to be their primary language and I tried to accept this. At the same time I saw parents (with better parenting skills then mine, obviously!)who spent time after school doing italian grammar and I couldn’t help feeling inadequate and a touch guilty.

Nevertheless I did nothing about it. My girls kept talking to me in italian but I never sat down with them trying to teach them the beauty of the subjunctive or the meaning of adverbs and other little grammatical treasures.

I thought of them growing up without knowing the existence of Dante and Manzoni but never mentioned to them the existence of the Divina Commedia and I Promessi Sposi.

I guess I just wanted them the same experiences I had growing up but obviously wasn’t prepared to bring Dante back into my life and sharing it with them!

Was it laziness or was it simply not important enough for me? I imagine it was a bit of both and ultimately they grew up very well and they are caring and intelligent human beings. They can talk to their family and friends in Italy and everyone is thrilled with how they have  mastered the language. They talk in Italian to me and I love that we have this “special” language that is just ours.

I guess I’ve just stopped worrying. I am not sure when this happened exactly, when I left behind helplessness and guilt and started to see my daughters for what they are, individuals with their own experiences and stories.

They didn’t grow up in Italy in the ’70’s and therefore they did not have to sit to analyse sentences and learn poems by heart. But I’ve managed to pass on what is important to me, a sense of belonging to a small town on the other side of the world and the ability to communicate in my mother tongue.

The other day we were in the car chatting and Sofia told me: “E’ ficcato dentro properly? Puoi check?” (Is it in properly, can you check?). I promptly “checked” without thinking twice to what she had just said but I was surprised to hear Julia laugh. All of a sudden the weirdness of the sentence dawned on Sof and I and we all started laughing.

Speaking two languages we always tend to choose what it’s easier, I am aware of doing the same with the girls and with my italian friends, and such mixed sentences are all too common. In this case I think that “ficcato” could be seen as a bit of a slang word, a word that only someone who has grown up speaking italian would use and together with properly conjugated verbs and english words it made for a very complex sentence 😉

Julia wrote it down and I had to share it with you, now it will become immortal!

Dante is possibly turning in his grave but this is a different era and a different country after all!

 

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Reflections on “home”

A most appropriate sign: Vallecrosia the town of the family!

A most appropriate sign: Vallecrosia the town of the family!

My first thought on writing this post has been about what language to use. How can I better reflect on my last trip to Italy? What language can better express what I feel? And ultimately, which is the language I feel more comfortable with when I think of “home”? But where is “home”? One of the most cliche question us expat get asked and one that, admittedly, I never really bothered to find an answer to. When I get asked I am usually vague, not because I am uncomfortable with the question, but because the meaning of “home” has been quite elusive and I have, possibly, avoided dwelling too much on it. I am a firm believer that we should be in the present, in space and time and I guess is because of this belief that I have lately started to feel that “home” is, simply, where I am. It does sound kind of lonely and sad. What happens to “home is where the heart is”? Where do family and friends come into this very self centred view? I am blessed with a beautiful family and some very special friends but most of them have never lived where I live. Although when I left Vallecrosia I left family and friends behind, I could not wait to run away and for years I struggled with my life in Melbourne, even after my daughters were born. Neither places felt like home, no matter how many people I loved lived there. How are things different this time? Or has this feeling of belonging and content being developing for a while? How could I have had such a blissful time in Vallecrosia and still be absolutely comfortable coming back to Melbourne? In Vallecrosia not only can everyone spell my surname but they know it before I even say it! I can go to the post office and stand in line for an hour to get one stamp. In that time I hear a very personal story about the horrible man behind the counter, I make a new friend and find myself involved in a group discussion about the economic crisis. Unfortunately the queue doesn’t really move forward and I leave without the stamp, feeling nevertheless very satisfied about my morning! On my way to the market I can bump into at least five relatives and a few family friends, they all tell me I haven’t changed a bit. I am totally confident they are telling the truth as they have known me all my life and they should know! But it’s time to leave and, although I could happily stay a bit longer, I am ready to go.

My beautiful mountains

My beautiful mountains

Kissing everyone goodbye it’s sad but we have all done it many times before and we have mastered the art of staying close when we are far. Nigel and Julia are waiting at the airport and it feels good to be together again. I haven’t been away from Julia for such a long period before and, o f course, I was separated from Sofia for an even longer time. I am learning to let them go, in fact we have all cooped pretty well with these separations. This realisation brings me comfort.

Sunset and the end of another journey

I get up in Melbourne after a sleepless night. But somehow even the dreaded jet leg doesn’t feel so bad this time. It’s Christmas’ eve and I walk out into the sunshine. On the way to the shops I meet a neighbour who fills me in with her renovation and further down I have a chat with the man from the video shop walking his dogs. Christmas wishes and welcome back hug from one of my fellow aqua aerobic really makes me feel like…I am home!

Going back to my initial thought, I ended up writing in English and, of course, I have to ask myself why. Has English taken over? After spending some time pondering on this I come to the conclusion that English is the language I am better at being an adult and “reflection” is a very adult concept. It comes more natural to me to reflect in English but this exercise is not over yet and I am determined to do some reflecting in Italian. Stay tuned italians followers!

A lot more then grief – losing someone special when you are far

A year ago we were getting ready to go home for Christmas and plans for lunch, dinner and other celebrations were well on their way. I spent hours discussing menus and logistic with my mum and my auntie Anna and I enjoyed the dynamics and little squabbles between the two of them. This is certainly one of the best aspects of living on the other side of the world, things that would be annoying if you were there all the time, become quite endearing!

My Auntie Anna is my dad younger sister and she was only 18 when I was born, the first baby in the family. I immediately became her little doll. We have always had a special bond, she lived very close to us and I spent a lot of time with her while I was growing up. When I was six my cousin was born and perhaps I was a little bit jealous of his intrusion, but she had a lot of love to give and she never made me feel like I was missing out. In fact I embraced my new role as the older cousin and, consequently, Luca and I are incredibly close.

My mum is an only child and my auntie became the sister she never had. Although incredibly different, they shared everything and helped and supported each others throughout the years.

We were due to fly on the 28th of November and I was excited.

On the morning of the 26th I woke up early and I felt uneasy. I am always nervous before a flight and I can’t help becoming extremely tragic minded! I looked at my phone and saw a message from my mum. I couldn’t read properly and I searched around for my glasses but I knew something was wrong. My mum does not send me messages at night, she has mastered the time difference beautifully! It only took a second to get my glasses but I had already started to shake and Nigel woke up to my sobs. My auntie had had a stroke and died.

Ever since I moved here I have been waiting for that call. In my dark moments I picture different scenarios and circumstances. What would I do? How would I feel? It was 6 am on the 26th of November and it was happening. I had lost one of the most important persons in my life and I was on the other side of the world.

It took me only a few minutes to accept that it was real and that I had to act quickly. I called home and someone, I only realise now that I don’t even know who I spoke to, told me that she went for her evening walk and died, looking at the sunset, without even noticing. She just kneeled down and she was gone. She was 67 years old.

I knew I had to be there for the funeral, to say goodbye, and my family knew it too. Although in Italy funerals are often held the day after the death, they promised me they would wait for me. I changed my flight and Sofia told me she had to come with me. I will always be grateful to her for being with me all the way. We flew in the evening and we arrived the morning of the funeral.

In all my conjectures I had never envisioned that there could be something positive coming out of the tragedy. Although I still feel her loss, what happened in the days that followed my auntie sudden departure has left me with a lot more then just grief.

It took only moments for Nigel to step into action and call the airlines to change our tickets, I felt confident he was in control and I did not need to worry about anything. The flight was easy and I cherished the time spent with Sofia. I am not sure why I was surprised that she chose to come with me, I’ve always known how much she loved her Zia Anna but at the time it felt like the biggest present she could give me. When we arrived my brother and my cousin’s son, Lorenzo, where waiting for us at the airport. I had never felt happier to be home, even though it was for such a sad occasion. We all felt the same, we were sharing the same pain and it made me feel lighter.

I had told Sofia about italian funerals, how, unlike in Australia, we go and see the person to say goodbye and it was probably going to be very heavy, dark, sad and emotional. I was quite worried myself. But as soon as I got to the hospital all my worries disappeared. It was sad and emotional but there was no heaviness or darkness. There were hugs and tears, kisses and smiles. The sun was shining and I felt like everyone one there was somehow part of our lives. And there was my beautiful zia Anna sleeping serene, surrounded by love, lots and lots of love. Sofia arrived soon after with Lorenzo and it looked like she belonged there. She was completely at ease, with death, with love, with family.

A year has past and I am about to fly home again. I will be there for a special anniversary, to spend some time with friends and family, to pick up Sofia and possibly to visit some museums and churches! Of course I am still worried about getting that call or that text but I am also confident that I am not alone and I will be there when I need to be there.

Link alla versione italiana Perdere una persona cara quando si e’ lontani 

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Celebriamo!

Ho finito le scuole superiori nel 1984, effettivamente e’ passato un po’ di tempo e forse la mia memoria vascilla, ma non ricordo nessun festeggiamento particolare, nessuna cerimonia per segnare questo traguardo. Quello che ricordo invece e’ la scena finale del film Grease e la felicita’ dei protagonisti nel celebrare la fine del loro percorso scolastico.

Julia ha finito la scuola  e la scorsa settimana e’ stata una serie di festeggiamenti, con pic nic nel parco e balli sui banchi (quasi come in Grease, mi piace pensare!), e si e’ conclusa venerdi sera con la cerimonia formale della “graduation”. Mi lamento spesso della mancanza di tradizioni in Australia ma questa abitudine di onorare la fine di un periodo significativo nella vita di ogni ragazzo mi ha piacevolmente sorpreso e riempito il cuore.

La cerimonia si e’ svolta nel comune di Melbourne e il luogo stesso gia’ conferiva una certa solennita’ ed importanza. Non sapevo assolutamente cosa aspettarmi e l’unica indicazione ricevuta da Julia era di prepararmi ad una serata noiosissima. La premessa non era dunque delle migliori!

Devo ammettere che negli ultimi giorni (o forse settimane!) mi sono ritrovata spesso sulla soglia delle lacrime e ho faticato a non abbandonarmi alla nostalgia. Ma sono arrivata a destinazione convinta di poter affrontare la situazione al meglio! La serata e’ cominciata con qualche chiacchiera tra genitori e ho subito notato, con sollievo, che non ero l’unica con gli occhi lucidi. Le mamme di lacrima facile esistono anche in Australia!

Melbourne Town Hall

Melbourne Town Hall

Musica, discorsi, premi vari, il riconoscimento degli sforzi degli studenti, in tutti i campi, dall’accademico, allo sport, al coinvolgimento sociale e, infine, la consegna a tutti i 250 ragazzi di un certificato. Effettivamente, guardando l’interminabile lista di nomi sul programma, l’idea di farmi un pisolino mi era passata per la mente! Invece mi sono persa ad osservare e apprezzare questi splendidi ragazzi, salire sul palco, sicuri, felici, pronti ad affrontare il mondo. La cosa che mi ha colpito di piu’ e’ stata la loro individualita’. Si parla spesso di come gli adolescenti tendano all’assimilazione, seguendo le mode del momento e cercando il piu’ possibile di essere parte del gruppo. Ma quello che mi e’ passato davanti, sul palco del Melbourne Town Hall, era una celebrazione della diversita’!

48 etnie differenti, i nomi nella lista facevano pensare a paesi esotici e lontani…Afendulis, Paraskevas, Khalil-Salib… e l’insegnante che li leggeva aveva un talento particolare per le lingue, la sua pronuncia a me e’ parsa impeccabile! Ma cio’ che mi ha colpito di piu’ e’ stato lo stile individuale di ogniuno dei ragazzi, dai tacchi a spillo, alle scarpe da ginnastica, dai vestiti lunghi, ai pantaloncini corti! Tutti perfettamente a loro agio, tutti assolutamente parte del gruppo.

E tutto questo celebrare si svolge prima degli esami, prima dei risultati finali, prima di aver raggiunto il traguardo! Ne parlavo con la mia amica Annamaria, anche lei reduce di una settimana di festeggiamenti della figlia, e ci chiedevamo il significato di questo “celebrare” prima della fine. Quasi come mettere il carro davanti ai buoi! La risposta mi e’ stata data dal capitano della scuola, una ragazzo molto eloquente e simpaticamente “nerd”, nel suo discorso finale. Anche lui, come noi, si era posto la stessa domanda ed era giunto alla conclusione che l’importante e’ il viaggio, non l’arrivo alla meta!

 

My journey through school – high school

We made it to High School!

We made it to High School!

Last monday Julia had her last school concert. “Come and say farewell to our year 12 students” said the school’s newsletter. I have read this so many times during the years. The last senior concert, a big milestone, I am always moved to see how mature and grown up the kids look, standing on stage, confident and proud. And all of a sudden Julia was one of them. Since then it has been a succession of “last times” and here we are, tomorrow will be her last day of school!

Although it feels all a bit sudden, it has been a six years journey. We started by looking at the most suitable school for her. In Victoria students, generally, have to attend the school closer to their residence address. It is however possible to apply to go to a different school on the basis of curriculum grounds.  Because of her interest in music and playing the cello she was able to find a place in a local school with an excellent music program and a good all round reputation and so, in 2010, she started at Northcote High.

Just like with primary school, I had to get used to a whole new system. The first three years all students learn the same basic subjects. Depending on what the school offers, they can choose different languages and from year 8 also a number of electives subjects. Julia had the opportunity to try woodwork and textiles, cooking and Chinese. In year 10  they are able to choose which direction they want to take and decide what subjects to study. It is in year 11 and 12 that they start working exclusively on the subjects they will take to their VCE exams, at the end of year 12.

Northcote High is a very big school for italian standards but this time, unlike in primary school, the classrooms had desks and chairs, a white board and we had to buy books. Not many…but at least some! Students have to wear a uniform. I dreaded the idea at first but I soon got used to it and so did Julia. In the self conscious years of adolescence it was a relief for her not to have to think of what to wear to fit in. They do have “free dress” days every term and occasionally even “themed” days, when kids can display their uniqueness and wear what they like best.

China orchestra tour

China orchestra tour

The music program has certainly been one of the highlight of the past 6 years and it’s one of the aspect of school in Australia that I like the most. The fact that it offers students the opportunity to play an instrument and perform without the need to attend a specific music school. Julia played in the orchestra and the strings ensemble from the beginning of high school. She went on interstate and overseas tours, established long lasting friendships and developed self discipline and confidence that will no doubt accompany her into adulthood. Plus she has tons of memories and a great musical repertoire!

Of course I have had my reservations. Unlike in Italy there is very little homework and studying done at home, the bulk of the work is completed during school hours. There are no random testing, no scary interrogazioni when the teacher picks a student and asks questions about a particular topic, giving marks according to the replys. Exams only start in year 10 and, in my opinion, are not taken too seriously until they get to year 12.

And there are hardly any consequences if a student is not performing well. No failing or have to repeat the year, just encouragement to try and do better next time. Although in principle this approach sounds very nurturing, I am still to be convinced of its potential success.

Home from the second last day, with a signed uniform!

Home from the second last day, with a signed uniform!

Julia has never worked very hard and has always done well but there has been a change in the past two years. She is still doing well but, finally, she is working hard! Her attitude has made me reconsider my doubts as I see her studying with great dedication and interest. Exams will start on the 29th october. She is going through this last stretch in a calm and relaxed way, taking one step at the time, spending time with her friends and playing her cello in between writing essays and reading Wuthering Hights and the Odyssey.

It has being a fabulous journey and, as after all the best journeys, I will be sad and relieved when it’s over.

 

The language of others

For years I struggled with my accent and the fact that I would never, really, linguistically belong here. If I had to make a formal phone call I would practice what I had to say, worried that the person on the other end might not understand my accent or that I would make a mistake. When I met someone new I always felt a little bit of apprehension about the way I talked, nervous about not being clear enough or sounding a bit “funny”.

Finally I accepted that my accent was here to stay and told myself that I never have a problem when people speak italian with a foreign accent. On the contrary, I love the fact that they made an effort to learn and often the accent makes them sound a lot more interesting. I told myself that if I felt this way possibly some people would feel the same about my accent and I stopped worrying.

Nevertheless there are still a lot of occasions in which this language tricks me and I find myself wondering if I will always completely master some of its subtleties and stop sounding weird, funny, cute or simply incompetent!

One of my biggest problem has been mastering the dreaded “H” at the beginning of words. In italian we don’t have words starting with “H” and when we do, it is silent. It sounds strange but generally I don’t actually hear the “H” at the beginning of a word. To me “armless” sounds just the same as “harmless” and this is why, when my dear friend Christian pointed out that I wrote in one of my posts about my “armless friend” it took me a while to understand what his problem was! Then I had to laugh, particularly when I realised that I never new “harmless” had an “H” and, being a word I use regularly, I wonder what people have made about all my “armless” statements over the years!

ghostbuster-logoBesides the pronunciation problems I often bump into other small obstacles. They are often in the form of “misunderstood words or sayings”. I hear them, I like them and I make them mine. The problem is that what I hear is sometimes not what has been said. Only recently, chatting with Julia in the car, I used what I always thought was a great word “the booze buster”. In my mind this has always been the police bus that checks if you have been drinking. I imagined it had something to do with the Ghost Busters and loved the humour in it. Police busting those drink drivers! Obviously I have managed to hide my mistake for years and was only when Julia started laughing at something that I thought wasn’t at all funny I had to come to terms with the fact that…there are no “booze busters” but only very boring “booze buses”.

There are many of these incidents but for now I just want to share the joy I felt a few weeks ago when, during an aqua aerobics class, jumping at the sound of Abba in the pool, I heard the lovely Martine behind me singing “wanna do”. A kindred soul who, like me before her, had no idea that the song was actually “Waterloo”!

I guess my family and friends have stopped correcting me (but not laughing at me!), and they just accept that this is the way I speak so the fact that I am now writing this blog in english hopefully will help me modify some of these awkward slip-ups!

I have thought about having someone else proof-reading my posts and editing when necessary, as very tactfully suggested by Christian, but I came to the conclusion that what I write here is who I am and, although I will try not to make too many grammatical mistakes, I will have to accept that this blog has an accent and a lot of “misunderstood” words. However please feel free to come forward and let me know if anything I wrote sounded funny or out of context, it was possibly one of those “Hs” gone missing! 

Old stones and new perspectives

Old, dark and beautiful

Old stones, in Italy

I love old stones. I love the history in old stones. I love the smell and the feel of old stones. When I go back to Italy I walk in the old, narrow streets and try to soak in all that oldness, an overdose of history!

I forgot when this love started but I do tend to believe that it must have something to do with my moving to a country where everything is new.

Little by little those stones that had appeared simply “old” when I lived there, acquired a new charm, became the staff of dreams! I dreamed of an old house built of old stones, dark and possibly damp! I felt that I needed a place where I could escape all this light, this clean and modern environment where I ended up living. I pined for oldness. It became one of those many things I simply couldn’t live without and I added it to my list of regrets and reasons to be unhappy.

Years later it came to me that I needed to look at what I had, not what I had left behind. This is not to say that I had to forget what I had left behind but simply accept that, for the moment, I had to be happy without old stones!

Old furnitures and things

Old furnitures and things

With my new found attitude I looked around me and realised that there is history, oldness and plenty of dampness in Australia. On a sunny autumn day we went for a drive in the country and arrived in Maldon, not exactly a medieval village, but a lovely gold rush town, founded in 1854. As old as it gets in these parts of the world.

Maldon looks a bit like a town in a Western movie, big open roads opposed to the narrow streets of my dreams but I love the fact that time seems to have stopped here. There are lots or tiny miners cottages and even some beautiful mansions but none of them have big extensions and big glass windows.

So now I have my beautiful piece of history. Our little miner’s cottage was built in 1867, in timber not in stone but there are stories in its walls and I believe the people who lived here over the years have left something of themselves. Everything in the cottage is second hand, either donated by generous friends or brought at local and city op shops. Objects and furnitures that bring more stories to our little home.

Old keys, collected by my mum

Old keys, collected by my mum

Our cottage is a mixture of us and all the people who lived here before us. Often, when friends come to stay, they bring old things they found in their back shed or even in their parent’s. Everything finds the right place and it immediately belongs. Or I like to think it does! My mum, in Italy, is always on the lookout for little treasures, like old keys (easy to post in the mail!), and I love the fact that I have my grandfather camera hanging on the wall, next to a globe bought at the Salvation Army down the road. This cottage is becoming full of our stories too. I had to compromise a bit and swap timber for stones but I am getting used to the smell of it, the feel of it, to its warmth. It won’t replace the old stones, but it doesn’t need to. Next time I’m in Europe I know where to go to get my regular refill!