So I'm back home and almost over jet lag (although I'm still waking at 3:30 in the morning, giving up the possibility of sleep by 4:30, and pulling myself out of bed at 5, then falling back in, too tired to read, by 9 p.m.), and I've a few books to tell you about.
Continuing with my Italy kick, I followed Virginia Baily's novel Early One Morning with a memoir by Paul Paolicelli, Dances with Luigi. The memoir's subtitle explains what the book is about: A Grandson's Search for his Italian Roots. Paolicelli was raised in the States and although his upbringing was shaped and coloured by elements of the Italian culture (food, closeness and exuberance of extended family life), he himself had little knowledge of, or even feeling for, the country or the language. Yet gaps in the family's collective memory puzzled and intrigued him, and he regretted having failed to ask questions before beloved elders died. Having spent much of his youth wondering why others emphasised the "Italian" part of "Italian-American" while he felt only American, the onset of middle age had him yearning to learn more about his Italian heritage.
Let me say, first of all, that while I enjoyed Paolicelli's memoir, I qualified what I learned from it not only because his experience of, and writing about, Italy and the Italians is over 15 years old (the book was published in 2001, the three years Paolicelli spent on his research obviously preceded that). I also find some of his observations so clearly anecdotal and subjective as to limit the credibility of generalisations he tries to make. His cultural and linguistic guide throughout his time in Italy, for example, is constructed as an older man, a neighbour, slightly curmudgeonly, suspicious, although eventually a solid supporter of Paolicelli's quest for records tracing his grandparents' path through the tiny rural villages of his ancestry. But as the author notes in his introduction, Luigi is actually a composite figure, a fictional device in a supposedly non-fiction work. Paolicelli uses him to make some claims about the Italian character in general, and I decided to enjoy the role he plays but to take him with a big grain of salt (Italian sea salt, yes, of course!)
Still, as I said, I enjoyed the memoir, quite keen to follow TV journalist Paolicelli's attempts to track down family records through various bureaucracies. (I was similarly engaged a couple of years ago by Carolyn Abraham's The Juggler's Children, a more complicated genealogical quest involving DNA, colonialism, slavery, racial/racist secrecy and denial). But what I was more interested in, of course, were glimpses of Italian culture, and perhaps even more, any references to the challenge of learning another language. So far, I've only played at using my second language, French; we've had stints of a month or more traveling in France, but I've not yet had the opportunity I dream of, to live in an immersion situation for an extended period, at the very least, three months. Thus I've long been drawn to accounts of others who submitted to that challenge (A favourite is the eponymous essay in David Sedaris' Me Talk Pretty One Day.)
When I look back through the book, then, to what I've highlighted, I see I paused at Paolicelli's frustration with trying to get his car's power windows repaired at the local VW dealership. Having suffered "repeated lessons with Luigi to get down the correct pronunciation for tergicristalli, [he] had to learn the ever-popular Italian phrase 'squeaking speedometer.'" As he notes, he's now moving in "the real world of the Italian language, not the sort of things we were learning in our lessons. Half of this communication was done in pantomime." And when he adds, "I was, I'm sure, the crank customer the mechanics told their wives about at night," Paolicelli taps into that fear we language-learners share, of exposing ourselves to ridicule, of giving up the mastery and competence we've learned to count on in our mother tongue.
I've a few more notable passages I'd like to share from Dances with Luigi, and perhaps I should wait to post this until I've added them. But given how quickly those last two weeks slipped by me, I think I'm going to press "Publish" sticking to my resolution to post on a more casual, even conversational basis. I'll be back soon, I hope, with those highlighted passages and with a few photos of Where I Read This Book. Oh, the excitement. . . .