April 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 3
In 1925, sixteen-year-old Luigi Barzini—who has since become a celebrated journalist—arrived in America aboard the Italian ship Duilio. For middle-class Italian immigrants like Barzini, the reality of America was not the shocking ghettos of the city—the image of the new country that usually greeted the poor—but rather the cultural shock of American ways. In the vignettes on these pages, excerpted from his new book, O America: When You and I Were Young , to be published this month by Harper & Row, we are treated to some of his affectionate backward glances at various perplexities that delighted and assailed him.
The first American girl I kissed was on board the Duilio —a charming blonde of my own age, sixteen, with an angelic face, thin arms, and a delicate bony bump on the back of her neck. Her name was Natalie. I considered myself an experienced roué at the time, having a few times illegally visited a pleasant family brothel (I was admitted because I looked older than, and was tall for, my age) in Milan. There I had been introduced to the mysteries of love by a motherly and compassionate woman with white silky skin. She was particularly devoted to the Holy Family and, over the double bed on which she entertained her visitors, had hung a very large lithograph of bearded Joseph, pink-cheeked Mary, the dimpled Holy Child, the Ass, and the Ox. It was embarrassing to undress and do the rest under their steady gaze. I had also spent a few feverish and sweaty nights in the room of a young maid of ours, that very summer while the rest of the family were at the sea, when I had been left alone with her for three or four days to prepare for an examination, which I naturally flunked.
Therefore I behaved like an experienced and responsible man of the world when one night Natalie suggested a walk to the upper deck to look at the full moon. I was no fool. I smiled, took her by the hand, and said, “ Andiamo pure . OK, let’s go.” I realized she was a flirt but also what was commonly known in Italy as una ragazza per bene , a nice family girl, therefore a dangerous girl, the American equivalent of the well-brought-up daughters of mother’s friends whom one avoided at all cost and did not risk fiddling with, for the fear of histoires , fuss, annoyances, family feuds, and possibly lifelong consequences. I knew how to keep them at arm’s length all right and to avoid danger. So I went confidently into the night, holding Natalie’s hand and humming a tune. What I did not know and was about to learn was that, with American girls, even the very young, a boy did not have to make up his mind which girl he liked best and exactly how far he would allow himself to go. It was all done for him.
Natalie led me to a dark corner behind a lifeboat, looked at the moon, sighed, quoted the lyrics of some contemporary song as if they were a poem by Shelley, clung close to me, then raised her white face with half-open lips, and shut her eyes. She smelled as good as a freshly baked cake and was as appetizingly tempting. Before I knew it I was kissing her. I kissed her once again, then a few more times, and held her as tight to me as the melted cheese on a cotoletta alia bolognese . I found this enchanting, infinitely better than wrestling with the maid. A few seconds later (or perhaps at the same time) I shivered in terror. What had I done, what insane passion had carried me away, why had I yielded to this adolescent bacchante, what would happen to me, to both of us, as a result of a brief moment of irresponsible forgetfulness? What would her mother say and do if she found out?
Her mother was definitely a lady, an imperious and awe-inspiring lady, all fluttering mauve and gray veils, white face-powder and rouge, jangling bracelets, dangling strings of pearls, and a long gold cigarette holder. She would surely discover everything. In a moment of weakness or pride, Natalie would tell her what I had done. The next day or two I waited for my fate with Spartan fortitude. Nothing happened. At all hours of the day and night, Natalie and I hid in unknown and deserted corners of the ship to kiss and cuddle. We danced with each other endlessly and exclusively every night. Her mother did nothing. She said nothing. She did not even seem alarmed. She apparently suspected nothing or, if she did, could not care less. She beamed benevolently on us. She even called me “Dear Luigi.” One morning, however, on the promenade deck, she waved to me and asked me to sit down on a chaise longue next to her. She said she wanted to talk to me. This naturally made me very nervous. I got even more nervous when she started, in a solemn and somewhat embarrassed voice, “There are a few things I must tell you, Luigi.”
Here we are, I thought, this is it, I called it down on myself by my demented behavior. Whatever she says, whatever she asks of me, she will be right, I thought. I have behaved like a mascalzone , violated a trust, compromised her pure, trusting innocent Natalie. God help me.
“Luigi,” her mother asked in a mellifluous voice, “you like Natalie?” I merely nodded enthusiastically but respectfully, as I could not speak. “Natalie likes you?” she went on. I modestly pulled an interrogative face and waited. “I hope you speak Italian with her sometimes. She must get some practice. Italian is very useful in New York, don’t you know, particularly with bootleggers and headwaiters in good restaurants. They give you a better table if you speak their language. They say that some people who know Italian can even understand the words of an opera and follow the plot, not that that makes much difference.” I found the strength to assure her I often spoke Italian with Natalie. I promised I would speak more, although it was more vital for me to fortify my English.
She continued: “I love your language. I don’t understand it, but it is so musical. It is the language of love. There’s nothing more charming than a shipboard flirtation like yours. You’re only young once, I always say. But there is one thing I must absolutely tell you. When we’re in New York, do not try to see Natalie again. She has plenty of beaux. You won’t like it. And my husband, her father, disapproves of Italians. He dislikes having them around the house. They make him nervous. Italians, he says, are all right in Italy but even there he thinks there are far too many of them. So promise me not to call or write. You understand, don’t you?”
I said I did, but, of course, I did not.
Soon enough, certain incomprehensible complications of American life caught up with us inside our jealously preserved Italian stronghold.
We had taken our old cook and maid from Italy. Decorously dressed like ladies, they had traveled second class on the Duilio , and visited us every day in the more expensive class. Each evening the maid Ida had laid out mother’s evening dress before dinner and tidied up our messy staterooms. The cook collected the recipes of some of the Duilio ’s tastier dishes. They loved us like their own family, loved mother almost more than her own children did. They had known us since our births. They always said they wanted to die in our house. Within a few weeks in the United States they had both disappeared.
The maid had met a portly Italo-American widower on the boat. He was bald and middle-aged, with a pasta-filled silhouette, and many rings on his fingers; he had a good business of sorts (probably a funeral parlor), owned a beautiful house with a garden somewhere in New Jersey, and a resplendent car. The temptation was too much for her. She was no longer young. She married him suddenly without warning us. She came to announce her new status, wept, begged to be forgiven, and kissed us all as if we or she were shortly to die. During the next few years we saw her once in a long while, mostly at Christmas time. She came in a funereal black, chauffeur-driven limousine, all dressed up with dowdy American clothes and wearing incredible hats precariously perched on her permanently waved hair. She sat with hands crossed over her belly, fingers spread out to show off her rings. She brought us little gifts and told us endless tales of life in darkest New Jersey in the midst of a complicated and emotional Italo-American family. She wept copiously.
The cook left us only a little later. She had been stalked and captured by a neighboring American lady, who had first seen her at the Italian grocery store. The American lady spoke a little Italian and was rich, perhaps not really rich but richer than we, anyway, which was not difficult. She had patiently cultivated Maria’s friendship, taken her to the movies on her days off and translated the subtitles, asked her to her home for tea, and finally made her an offer she could not refuse. The cook, too, wept copiously when she announced she was leaving, kissed all our cheeks, kissed mother’s hands, promised to be back as soon as she had saved a little money. We never saw her again. Probably an even richer American lady had taken her farther away.
Mother resolutely faced the domestic crisis. She remembered that her first cook, the one she had hired in Milan just after her marriage, a peasant woman named Palmira, had come to the United States with her husband and must live not far from us. She traced her. Palmira came, driving her own car. She was now a widow with two sons; she was much fatter than mother remembered her, and had smartly bobbed hair. She wore a dirty diamond ring. She told us she was doing well, making and selling bootleg wine, beginning to distill grappa and experimenting with whisky. She left her home, sons, vats, and customers for a few days, for old times’ sake, only to help mother in her emergency, but could not stay. Her affairs needed constant attention. She had to defend herself from competitors, pay bribes to policemen and prohibition agents, as well as protection money to her protectors. She had to produce and deliver cases and cases of her brew. (The wine was barely drinkable, the raw grappa not bad, the whisky poisonous.)
Then father did what he could. He knew the former head of the Italian squad in the New York Police Department, the legendary Michèle Fiaschetti, a herculean six-footer from Abruzzi, the terror of the Black Hand, who was now running a detective agency of his own. He was so strong he extracted confessions from suspected men by merely holding them out of the window with one hand while questioning them. Fiaschetti promised help. Within a few days he brought us a middle-aged Sicilian woman, Rosalia, who had to be hidden where nobody would find her because her husband had sworn to kill her. She was easy to hide, as she was as thin and small as a child. She had large frightened black eyes in a little wrinkled-apple face, never went out, kept all windows closed, the curtains drawn, and tremulously spied out the road through the side of the curtains. Her cooking was spicy and unfamiliar, her dialect, to us Milanesi, almost incomprehensible. She told us endless tales of her native village, most of which we did not follow clearly. Her husband had been her only love, she said. He had raped her against the cemetery wall when she was fourteen and she could never forget such a romantic proof of affection. Why he now wanted to kill her we could not fathom. She did not explain. It must have been for some complicated reason out of Pirandello. We could not believe it was to avenge the family’s honor, one of the imperative island reasons. I thought she was not young, fat, nor appetizing enough, too scrawny. But, then, I was not an old Sicilian peasant. Or maybe she had betrayed a secret, had unwittingly revealed something to Fiaschetti himself, who had to save her. When I was occasionally left alone with her, I made tours of the house clutching father’s automatic revolver from World War I in my pocket, feeling like Tom Mix or Nick Carter. I never saw anybody resembling a grim Sicilian killer or cornuto husband lurking in the placid suburban neighborhood.
Some weeks later Fiaschetti came to fetch her in his car. For equally mysterious reasons she could no longer stay with us. She disappeared. We learned later she had been killed. Why, by whom, we never found out. For a while we had to make our own beds and wash our own dishes.
I went to the local high school for a few months to practice my English and possibly learn something more about the United States than I could pick up at the movies, at the family dinner table, or by reading newspapers. I studied American history, among other things, wondering how these ingenious people, with then only a century and a half to go on, managed to fill books as thick, unreadable, and complicated, as rich with memorable dates, legendary events, and famous men, as the Italian textbooks, which dealt with thousands of years, the rise and fall of entire civilizations, invasions, and innumerable wars. “History is like a gas,” my Spanish brother-in-law says. “No matter how little there is, it fills the space available.” But the language was what interested me most. Learning it was a vital necessity. It had not seemed particularly difficult on paper, back in Milan. It was spelled in a demented and unpredictable way, to be sure, but it had the grammar of a lingua franca , that is practically no grammar at all, which was a great advantage. I managed to read it easily with only the occasional use of a dictionary. The real thing living people spoke was, I found out, something entirely different. The varieties of spoken American could not be cou n ted, and most of them were incomprehensible to me, used as I was to the clean-cut pronunciation of Italian. Words were usually ejected in lumps, at enormous speed, groups of them strung together like rushing railroad cars without perceptible separations. (The people surely did not speak as fast as I thought in those first few months. One always believes a foreigner speaks whatever his language is at vertiginous speed.) The enunciation seemed to me thick-tongued and gelatinous. Butter sounded to my ears something like “burrow,” Baltimore, Maryland, like “Balmer, Murlin.” Voices often emanated, like that of a ventriloquist, from unexpected parts of the anatomy, the nose, the depth of the throat, the belly, the top of the head, and, in the case of many middle-aged men, the side of the face from which a cigar did not protrude. These spoken languages changed from region to region (in New York from borough to borough), and from class to class. Sometimes, in the same person, the language changed according to the hour of the day, the circumstances, the interlocutors, and the amount of drink absorbed. (All these impressions changed as my ears became more attuned to the people’s speech.) I still do not understand every word pronounced by many provincial Americans, but generally in the East and among friends, any conversation sounds to me as clear as running water from a mountain brook.
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.