Getting closer, when you are far

When I first left home and Italy I was 20 years old. A friend and I decided to go and spend some time in Paris. My mum was supportive of my decision but, like me, I don’t think she realised I would never come back to live home again. I think she thought I was going on an extended holiday, a little bit of adventure before settling down. In those first few years of my living abroad we didn’t speak or see each other much. I called her regularly but our lives were so different if was very hard to find something to say.

My mum at her happiest, in her garden, with her precious nipotine

My mum at her happiest, in her garden, with her precious nipotine

My mum hates to travel, she loves her home, her garden and her cooking. It must have been very hard for her to accept that her only daughter had no intention of settling down. On the contrary I kept travelling from place to place, living in grotty flats, doing all sort of casual jobs and having absolutely no plans for her future.

When I introduced her to Nigel she had been so worried that I was never going to find anyone who would marry me, that she loved him at first sight! Even if he was a tall, Jewish, Australian boy, wearing thai farmers’ pants and did not speak a word of Italian! I guess she knew by then that I would never go back to live in Italy and the idea that at least I would not move around so much appealed to her. Even if I was going to live in Australia.

Although she does not like to travel she has come to Melbourne many times over the years. She complains about the long trip (but who doesn’t!) and the life style here but she has made the effort and I do appreciate it as it hasn’t been easy for her.

We have had our ups and downs and she wasn’t always accepting of my decision to move and, for years, she found ways of making me feel guilty about having “abandoned” her and I resented her for doing that.

But at the moment our relationship is flourishing and I am thanking Skype for that! It took a while to convince my parents that there was a way to talk and see each other on the computer. They don’t like changes and technology scares them. But once they understood how Skype worked they never looked back.

Selfie!

Selfie con mamma!

My mum and I speak at least twice a week. Often it’s just a quick exchange, a little bit of gossip that she knows I would like to hear or something about the girls. She shows me the beautiful mushrooms she picked in the woods and I show her my bread just out of the oven. Skype has brought a new dimension to our conversations, now is almost like a “dropping in”. I can see what she is wearing and understand immediately how the weather is in Vallecrosia. She can see my new haircut and notice if I have a new top. She can comment on the girls too long hair and too short skirts and, although she is on the other side of the world, they can still experience this delightful aspect of an italian nonna!

I know it won’t always be this easy, my parents are still young and at the moment chatting on Skype is a wonderful way to feel part of their life but once their health will start to deteriorate it will not be enough. For now though, I enjoy this new found closeness with my mum, our laughs and our gossiping on line have become a pleasant part of our week and I am sure we are both cherishing our time together. I often wonder if we could have been this close if I lived next door to her but this, I guess, I will never know!

 

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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! 

The nurturing of language

From the moment Julia was born it was apparent that I could never speak to her in English. I always knew that I wanted my children to be bilingual but I never really stopped to think how I would achieve this. As soon as Julia was in my arms I knew that our relationship would always be in Italian and it has been, from that very first moment.

People often tell me I have been so good to “teach” my girls Italian but I have simply spoken to my children in the language I am most comfortable with and I find more natural. That was the easy bit! The fact that they accepted that Italian was “our” chosen language is more of a mystery to me. I hear so many stories of children who stop speaking the minority language and I can’t help wondering how this never happened to us. Could it have been just luck?

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Pesciolino Arcobaleno/ Gruppo giochi italiano

There was certainly a luck element. I was lucky to be able to stay at home with the girls in the pre school years. The girls went to kindergarden a couple of days a week but the rest of the time they were with me in a full immersion italian environment! We talked italian, read italian books, sang italian songs and watched italian videos. We also had italian friends to play with. We had a lovely italian playgroup where the girls learned to relate to other children in italian. With so much italian everywhere how could they possibly escape?

But when we did get out of our italian bubble what I found was a lot of support. Everyone around us has always been very encouraging and often people in the street would stop to tell us how wonderful it was to hear the girls speaking italian. When the girls had little playmates coming to our house I would often speak italian to them as well. Of course it was nothing too deep and meaningful but they always understood when it was time for afternoon tea!

In those pre school years the girls always spoke in italian to each other and english was spoken only in the evening, when Nigel was home. He became the language minority in his own country!

They were always very clear what language to speak with who and never warmed to people who were trying to speak the “wrong” language! If an english speaking person would say something in italian they would look perplexed and not really sure how to reply. The same happened in Italy when people tried to speak to them in english.

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At school in Pieve San Paolo

When they started school it didn’t took long for them to start talking and playing in english. The same happened with their italian friends from playgroup. But they never spoke english to me. In fact it took them a while to understand that on some occasion we had to speak english to be polite with people who could not understand.

We travelled to Italy often and that was always a boost to their language. When they were still in primary school we spent six months there and they had the opportunity of going to school. It was a fabulous experience for them both, but they kept talking english amongst themselves!

Julia took italian as a VCE (final exams) subject last year. It was always going to be easy for her and I would have liked her to study more. Still she managed to do very well. After her oral exam I received a phone call from a friend, an italian teacher. She told me that her friend was one of the examiner and she told her about this girl with and italian mother and australian father who spoke so well she could not believe she wasn’t italian. She told her that she was hoping her daughter would grow up to speak just like her. My friend asked a few clarifying questions and she understood that it was Julia she was talking about. It wasn’t too ethical but she couldn’t help telling me. It was one of my proudest moment!

I have to admit that I often thought of what I would do if they stopped talking to me in italian, beside being broken hearted! But now I am confident it will never happen, our relationship is strong and it can only be in italian, my own language, the language I love.