- Historic Sites
“certain … Complications”
April 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 3
And then there was the cryptic slang. “So’s your old man’” said the girls derisively. Why my father? The whole thing was disconcerting and frightening. Would I ever be able to recognize, separate, and interpret all these languages? Would I ever be able to emit imitation American sounds good enough to be understood? In the beginning, I remember I would diligently compose a simple sentence in my mind, asking for information or directions, pronounce it as clearly as possible, and wait. If the answer was plain yes or no, I was safe. More often it was a smile accompanied by a rush of gurgling, rumbling sounds. What had the person said? Not always daring to ask for an encore, I meekly thanked him or her, and sadly went away unenlightened. How often in lunch rooms I ate not what I wanted but, resignedly, whatever repellent dish the waitress decided I had asked for! Frequently, too, my requests met with insolent and obstinate incomprehension. “What the hell do you want?” a shop clerk would say impatiently and turn to another customer. For some reason Americans (the inhabitants of the country peopled by a steady flow of the foreign tempest-tossed) did not seem w’illing to make the charitable effort necessary to understand a poor foreigner’s slightly distorted pronunciation. They were too easily defeated by a mere displaced accent in an otherwise perfect word. This puzzled me. In Italy, of course, people have patiently been listening without surprise for centuries to Goths, Visigoths, Longobards, Germans, Saracens, Englishmen, Frenchmen, Americans, Turks, and Italians from other provinces murdering their native vernacular, and almost always managed to interpret what the barbarians were trying to say. I supposed the Americans’ pretended incapacity was due to their national impatience or repugnance for the irregular and unfamiliar. It was also probably connected with the hostility older immigrants always felt for the more recent ones. “What the hell do you want?” said the Indians to the Pilgrims, the English to the Scotch-Irish, the English and Scotch-Irish to the Germans, Irish, Jews, Italians, Greeks, Armenians, and all other newly arrived foreigners. And I patently was newly arrived.
Another pitfall to avoid was the wrong use of an English word which, while almost identical to an Italian word, had a different meaning. There are many: “to support” does not mean “ sopportare ,” “inclined” does not mean “ inclinato ,” “fastidious” does not mean “ fasticioso ,” “ruffian” is not “ ruffiano ,” “to annoy” is not the same as “ annoiare ,” “to demand” does not mean “ domandare ,” et cetera. The confusion could occasionally be embarrassing. One night the tenor Beniamino Gigli and I happened to sit in a gilded box at the Metropolitan Opera, surrounded by dignified matrons covered with brocade and diamonds, his devoted admirers. He was in evening clothes because he was not singing but had come to watch the performance. One of the ladies tapped his arm with her fan and asked graciously: “How do you feel tonight, Signor Gigli?” ( Signor , incidentally, was the wrong title. It should have been Commendatore .) He cleared his throat and said: “Not very well. I am a little constipated.” The ladies looked at him and at each other with astonished horror. I hurried to explain that by “constipated” he did not mean what they thought but only that he had a slight cold.