Tag Archives: Italian lessons

Italian Lessons

Gianna, Ellie and Mary with a waffleMy daughter, Angela, and her husband, Peter, are home schooling their three daughters, although so far it’s mostly the five year old, Gianna, who is their main focus. Angela has a master’s degree in education;  she knows what she is about.  When Rita and I attempted to home school Angela and her younger sister, Meg, many years ago, far fewer resources and a much smaller support group of like minded parents were available.

Angela belongs to a co-op group of home schoolers which meets weekly; parents take turns putting together classes on reading, writing and ‘rithmetic, as well as science, history and other topics scaled for the younger kids.  Gianna and Ellie (Elena) also are participating in Italian lessons, taught by our mutual friend, Francesca, who is another home schooling mother of three.  Angela studied four years of Italian and visited Italy extensively while studying abroad, so can reinforce the lessons at home.

Francesca taught Italian at the university level and holds advanced degrees in art history from Columbia and Yale.  She is fluent in Italian, the daughter of first generation Italian immigrants and grew up in Queens.  In manner and spirit, Francesca is quintessentially Italian.  We have greatly benefitted from some of her recipes; her cooking is locally legendary.  Once when Rita was unwell, Fran sent over a meal.  With most, a meal sent over to help a sick friend would be a casserole; with Fran, her husband Matthew delivered a five course meal which filled up the back of his station wagon.  She included extra prepped vegetables and a recipe to turn the leftover chicken into a delicious soup.

Gianna came home from her early lessons with perfectly pronounced Italian renditions of her favorite colors.  For me, a Rosetta Stone Italian failure, it was most impressive.  No surprise, a recent lesson turned to food.  The kids glued samples of various pasta varieties to a poster board and learned not just their Italian names, but their descriptive origin and translation.  Vivid pasta names reveal an amusing look into Italy and her people, an earthy candor – a natural humor.

  • Penne — quill or pen.
  • Spaghetti – twine or string.
  • Linguine – little tongues.
  • Vermicelli – worms.
  • Farfalle – butterflies.
  • Occhi di lupo – ribbed wolf eyes.
  • Fusilli – little screws.
  • Orecchiette – little ears.
  • Capellini – thin hair.

Americans may be prickly about tucking into a heaping plate of ears, little tongues, thin hair, worms, butterflies, screws or string, but to the Italian comfortable with coarse reality, such a feast poses no difficulties.  Americans will stick with the mellifluous and mysterious, thanks.  Spoken Italian makes the commonplace sing.

“Italians know about human nature – they understand human nature perhaps better than anyone else does.  They know that people are weak and greedy and lazy and dishonest and they just try to make the best of it; to work around it.” Donna Leon (author of the acclaimed Commissario Guido Brunetti crime novels)

For those who grew up with little exposure to Italians, what comes easily to mind is at best Rocky Balboa, Mussolini’s punctual trains or unstable governments that dissolve every few months and at worst Goodfellows and Don Vito Corleone.  I grew up among a large Italian community replete with barbers, grocers, dentists, doctors and contractors (and married a half Italian beauty).  What comes to mind is effortless laughter and love, quick wit, flashing eyes, effusive, loud communications, food, food, food and warmth – always warmth.   The many Italians I came to know did not suffer fools patiently and gifted their loyalty carefully, but once gifted would sacrifice life, limb, treasure and sweat – unabashed and all-in.

Italian lessons are lasting: Rome, Latin based languages, Leonardo, Dante, Michelangelo, Florence, Venice, the vineyards of Tuscany, Pompeii – surely more than a lifetime of lessons. A personal beloved for me is Italian opera: Puccini, Rossini, Donizetti, and the incomparable Giuseppe Verdi.  Just as “capellini” converts “thin hair” into delectable, so does “Si: corre voce che l’etiope ardisca sfidarci ancora, e del Nilo la valle” transform “Yes, there are rumors that Ethiopia dares to continue to defy our power in the valley of the Nile” into delightful (Verdi’s Aida, first act).

You may prefer “E lucevan le stelle ed olezzava la terra, stridea l’uscio dell’orto e un passo sfiorava la rena” to “The stars were shining, And the earth was scented. The gate of the garden creaked and a footstep grazed the sand.”  From Puccini’s “Tosca” as sung by Luciano Pavarotti.

Italian opera is hyperbole, drama, red emotion, and its American counterpart morphed into both the musical and the soap opera, but there is no inclusive analog.  My favorites are the duets, trios and quartets with the interplay of beautiful voices.  Listen to Joan Sutherland and Pavarotti singing the star crossed, impossible beginning of the love of Alfred for Violetta in Verdi’s “La Traviata” (“The Lost”) (Plot summary here) in “Un di felice” and the inevitable tragic end in  “Parigi o cara”.  If you have little familiarity with Verdi, close your eyes, shut down preconceptions and just listen.

La TraviataAlfredo: Un dì, felice, eterea, Mi balenaste innante, E da quel dì tremante Vissi d’ignoto amor. Di quell’amor ch’è palpito Dell’universo, Dell’universo intero, Misterioso, altero, Croce e delizia cor. Misterioso, Misterioso altero, Croce e delizia al cor.

Alfredo: One day, you, happy, ethereal, appeared in front of me, and ever since,trembling, I lived from unknowed love. That love that’s the pulse of the universe, of the whole universe, Mysterious, proud, torture and delight to the heart. Mysterious, mysterious and proud, torture and delight to the heart.

Violetta: Ah, se ciò è ver, fuggitemi, Solo amistade io v’offro: Amar non so, nè soffro Un così eroico amor. Io sono franca, ingenua; Altra cercar dovete; Non arduo troverete Dimenticarmi allor.

Violetta: Love, I fear, can never be, Friendship is all I can offer. Since love is pain and torment, I avoid that strange emotion. Pleasure is all I ask of life, Freedom and joy forever! So you must soon forget me And find another love.  


Alfredo:  Parigi, o cara, noi lasceremo, la vita uniti trascorreremo. De’ corsi affanni compenso avrai, la tua salute rifiorirà. Sospiro e luce tu mi sarai, tutto il futuro ne arriderà.

Alfredo:  We’ll leave Paris, my dearest, Together we’ll go through life. In reward for your past sorrows, You’ll bloom into health again. Breath of life, sunshine you’ll be to me, All the years to come will smile on us.

Violetta:  Parigi, o caro, noi lasceremo, la vita uniti trascorreremo. De’ corsi affanni compenso avrai, la mia salute rifiorirà. Sospiro e luce tu mi sarai, tutto il futuro ne arriderà.

Violetta: We’ll leave Paris, my dearest, Together we’ll go through life. In reward for your past sorrows, I’ll bloom into health again. Breath of life, sunshine you’ll be to me, All the years to come will smile on us.

Can longing, loss and love be better expressed?

The gift of human voice, music and the creative soul are most profoundly conveyed in these works:  gratuitous beauty fashioned out of our genes, our talents, our dedication and commitment for no other reason than we humans are capable of it.    To this simple soul, such expression of human goodness rivals the genius of St. Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica for sublime proof of the existence of a loving Creator.

“Italians come to ruin most generally in three ways, women, gambling and farming.  My family chose the slowest one.”  Pope John XXIII (Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli), soon to be St. John in April)


Filed under Personal and family life