A Happy Accident of Writing – Sto Imparando L’Italiano

This week the Debs are writing about hobbies, trips or other types of activities that tie into our books or our writing.

When I met my husband 16 years ago, I got lucky. Upon entering into his life I also had the great fortune to get to know his mother, Rosie, who is second generation Italian. She speaks the dialect of her parents, who were from a little hill town in Perugia, on the heel of Italy. I loved hearing her speak and all the little funny phrases and idioms. Italian was so different and yet similar to the French that in which I received a minor in college.

A few years after I met my husband, I stumbled on the story of Apicius (that’s another long story that I describe here) and I began my research on ancient Rome. I also began planning my first trip to Italy.

I don’t like being an ignorant traveler, so I decided that I would tackle Italian, which would help me on the trip, but would also be a nice way to connect with Rosie. Learning Italian was hard, it turns out, at least it was in the beginning for me. The French that I hadn’t spoken in twenty years would come flooding back as a response to something I wanted to say in Italian. I had a hard time (and still do in many ways) with some of the verb tenses which depend on time and familiarity and don’t correspond easily to what I know in English. I took a few classes to start, then began meeting with a tutor once a week and have continued to do so for the last few years. I listen to Pimsleur, try to read books in Italian (installing an Italian dictionary in Kindle makes it much easier), read online magazines in Italian, videos on Yabla, and News in Slow Italian in my car. I wrote a blog post on my personal site about other tools that I use to learn the language if you want to check that out.

As I got deeper and deeper into the writing of FEAST OF SORROW and my Italian slowly improved, I realized how much learning the language changed my book. It gave me insights into the culture, connections to the Latin roots (which I never had an opportunity to learn when I was young…it wasn’t offered in schools where I grew up), and most importantly, it gave me access to research I wouldn’t have been able to do in English.

It’s a bit better now but when I first visited Italy, many of the museums didn’t have signs in English. Everything was in Italian. But that was ok. I could understand what I was reading.  I ended up on a couple tours that were only in Italian and that was fine–I could get the gist of what I was looking at. I also found that there are a few books, particularly about the Renaissance which is where my second book is set, that are not yet translated into English. That means I have no choice but to translate. For example, one of the most important texts about Bartolomeo Scappi is a book called Il Cuoco Segreto Dei Papi, which means “the secret chef of the Pope.”  It is only in Italian. It contains Scappi’s will and all sorts of important research that I would not be able to access at all if I didn’t speak and read Italian.

[tweet_box design=”box_15_at” float=”none” author=”@crystallyn” pic_url=”http://www.thedebutanteball.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/crystal16color.jpg”]Federico Fellini once said, “A different language is a different vision of life.” He’s so right.[/tweet_box]

Learning Italian has given me a better experience when I am in Italy. I get great service in restaurants and museums. I can express my questions to tour guides who may not always speak the best English, and receive a more comprehensive answer. It makes all the difference in the type of treatment I receive overall. Unlike the French, who hate it when people “butcher” their fine language, the Italians realize that if someone truly takes time to learn Italian, that they are doing it for a love of the country, of the people and of the culture. It takes me out of the realm of a fly-by-night tourist.

I still don’t understand my mother-in-law’s dialect, however! There are dozens upon dozens of versions of Italian and some of them are very hard to understand if you aren’t from that region. But she understands me, for the most part, when I’m saying simple things.

I have a long way to go toward being fluent, and I’m not sure I will ever quite get there but I want to try. It could take a move like Jhumpa Lahiri’s to truly make the shift, but I think she’s bolder and better resourced than I might ever be. For now, I feel pretty accomplished in that when I’m in Italy, I can have a conversation with someone and they don’t shake their head and switch to English. Whew!

Author: Crystal King

Crystal King is a writer, culinary enthusiast and social media expert. Her writing is fueled by a love of history and an obsession with the food, language and culture of Italy. She has taught writing, creativity and social media at Grub Street and several universities including Harvard Extension School and Boston University. Crystal received her masters in critical and creative thinking from University of Massachusetts Boston. She lives with her husband and their two cats in the Boston area.