The Streets of Old Naples by Gyöngyi EsseFor a decade I lived, studied and worked in Naples, Italy. Of course, when I first arrived at the beansprout age of sixteen, my first task was to learn the language. So how did I learn Italian? Easy: I talked to the dog, read Hemingway and got a mafioso boyfriend.
One rainy day Mamma Rita, my soon-to-be host mom, came to a local train station in the province of Naples to meet me for the first time. I turned up pitifully soaked like a wet cat and armed with a book called something like “1001 Conjugations of Italian Verbs” as well as a brand-new diary which, if I wrote small enough, might last me the year. I think I mumbled something along the lines of “Encantada”, Spanish for “pleased to meet you”.
Mamma Rita’s home came complete with two grown-up sons, an old German shepherd named Kelly and cracks radiating across the walls like spiderwebs. She probably even told me then that the cracks had already been there for nine years, since the 1980 earthquake, but I’m sure I just nodded and said “grazie mille”.
Kelly had sagging hind legs and long toenails that clicked down the tiled hallway, which was twice-daily mopped with pink rubbing alcohol. She and I shared the same spare room, which benefited me greatly because I got to practice my pronunciation of new words and verb conjugations on her. Never once did she laugh at me. Not even the time when I came into the spare room wiping my dish hands to check the dictionary meaning of olio di gomito just after Mamma Rita’s eldest had advised me, fighting a smile, to purchase this wondrous detergent at the pharmacy to help scrub the bottom of the saucepan I’d been struggling with. Olio di gomito means elbow grease.
I went to a local school, a liceo classico that taught highly practical subjects such as philosophy, Latin and Greek. My conjugation book offered little enlightenment. I often sat in class just furrowing my brow and I’m convinced that the subtle wrinkle that now dissects my forehead started from way back then. I could only hope the professori were never actually planning on interrogating (in exam form) that poor ignorant American who couldn’t speak a word of Latin.
So I took to reading during classtime, in particular the Italian translations of Hemingway that I’d found in my host family’s house. Hemingway’s writing is as lean in Italian as it is in English, and did in fact vastly improve my Italian. One day, the philosophy professor stopped mid-lesson to ask me what I was reading. I started as if I’d just been caught smoking a spinello by a cop. “Emingwei,” I managed to say in my clearest pronunciation. Compassionately, the professor suggested I read Italian authors instead. What a genius idea. So I did.
Eventually my Italian became good enough to get a small-town boyfriend who didn’t speak much Italian at all. Franco spoke a provincial form of the Neapolitan dialect, with the guttural twist distinctive of his Camorra-riddled ghetto, and he was, refreshingly, quite in awe of my proper speech, especially when I inappropriately used words like sgarbato, a highbrow version of the word “impolite”. (Over twenty years later, I still haven’t quite been able to kick the old sgarbato habit.)
It’s difficult to enumerate the benefits of being the girlfriend of a Camorrista: free iced teas in the cafés, numerous loan cars, obsequious tipping of hats. At least among this crowd as an American I was treated with respect. (Never mind that this was because they thought I was John Gotti’s niece from New York.) Plus, all these experiences were excellent fodder for my diary, which was by this point half penned in Italian and racing towards its final pages with detailed descriptions of holding onto Franco’s waist as we swerved on a Vespa through his dilapidated neighborhood, his mom wailing with legs so swollen they looked like tree trunks, Franco weeping in my arms over a friend who’d just been kneecapped. Those were some good times.
But the linguistic benefits of the experience are easier to list. Besides allowing me to let my guard down and enriching my vocabulary with the overdramatic pledges that ill-matched teenage lovers whisper to each other in passionate moments of despair, it also helped me learn some dialect and to understand that there is truly no such thing as one single Italian language. Apart from the fact that there are nearly as many dialects as there are towns, there are also many levels of Italian itself: formal, informal, spoken, written, business, academic, street slang, etc. What I’d learned in my first year was only the tip of the iceberg, the bare essentials with which to order a meter of pizza in six different toppings, swap scrambled philosophy notes in the hallway, whisper sweet nothings on a seaside park bench, and discuss the meaning of life with a baker’s apprentice.
So was it easy to learn Italian? I’ll let you know. I’m still working on it.