Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Italian Roots

Uh-oh! I can see I'm in danger of falling into my old ways, given that it's been over two weeks since I last posted here. I think I can allow myself some leeway as I've been travelling, but I do want to keep this blog's entries more regular in 2016 (It's February already?!)

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. . . .


  1. Did you know that David Sedaris is coming to Vancouver? It is really awful to be so tired at 9:00 that you can't read. That's why I've started to listen to podcasts in the evening. Isn't interesting how cultural roots become important to us as we get older? I just lost my mastery of Spanish today after a red-eye to Mexico City, a 7 hour wait in the airport and upon arrival finding that the landlady had mistakenly rented my room yesterday. I am spending the night in a very small room in an unexpected situation. But Spanish!
    Thank goodness, her daughter spoke English and gave up her room to me! I think that I'll be doing a lot of reading tonight as the wifi isn't very strong.

  2. I just saw that about Sedaris coming. My daughter and a friend heard him at the Chan Centre a few years ago. Not sure I will try to get tix or not.
    So glad to hear that you've arrived safely -- thanks for taking the time to comment. Too bad that your room situation was messed-up, but at least a temporary solution was found. Not surprising that your Spanish deserted you temporarily!

  3. Frances,I'm so sorry about your insomnia and hope that in a couple of days you'll be as new. Dances with Luigi sounds very interesting and amusing (as well as places where you've read it,I'm sure)... and Sedaris,brand new to many books to read,so little time...what girl's gotta do?
    Madame,I hope everything ends well. I would forget Croatian(my native language)
    in a situation like this! Enjoy your Mexico,it must be wonderful!
    I finished Fifteen Dogs, in London,(tres extraordinaire,I like it),am finishing my "Crazy-doctor...."(yes,you are right,it is very difficult to be world-known when one writes in "small" languages),and thanks to Bungalow Hostess comment and Lisa's blog (I apologize to Lisa because she also recommended Being Mortal!) I discovered Louise Penny and Inspector Gamache. I have read The Trick of Light and love it!
    Now I am reading Agatha Christie's Come,Tell Me How You Live about her travels with archaelogist husband (recomendation from Lady Sarah). I really enjoy.

  4. Thanks Dottoressa, I think the insomnia is losing its grip.
    It's true what you say -- So many books, so little time!! One must be selective, and it really helps to have this little community to give thumbs up or down.
    So glad you enjoyed Fifteen Dogs. I've still got to write a bit about it here. It's one I will happily recommend to others. Did you ever read Eve Hornung's Dog Boy? Quite marvelous and moving and sad and political in the best way, and if you're drawn to thinking about the relationship between humans and other animals, particularly dogs, it's quite brilliant.
    I admire those writers who persevere in keeping our "smaller" languages vital -- are their translations of your "crazy-doctor," do you know? (I apologise if I've asked this before and you've answered in an earlier comment.
    I'm betting Agatha Christie's memoir would be fascinating. I read everything else she's written through my teens and twenties, addictively.

  5. I'll bookmark Eve Hornung,thank you.
    Agatha Christie was reading of my youth,too,I read even her Autobiography(but this rwo books about Syria I missed-no Google then, to be smart!) and she was,as a sort of my "comfort read",trigger to start reading in English.
    No,Crazy-doctor is not translated,(it is very interesting in some parts-verbatim theatre,healing of all sorts of pain through communication,palliative care,state of mind during the creation of art-his daughter is an actress-....
    I'l try to find some more books translated from croatian,for the beginning what I have found on Amazon:
    Ivo Andric-Croat,Yougoslav author,diplomat and Nobel prize winner: The Bridge on the Drina,about Turkish occupation of Bosnia,not a light read,something similar to
    Orhan Pamuk (I have read it long time ago and prefer some of his other books,but this is his most famous-and cruel- book)
    Than there is August Senoa's The Goldsmith's Treasure,set in 16th century Zagreb,little oldfashioned book
    I found also Miro Gavran,contemporary author,but I have to read something in translation first to recommend you (I saw all of his plays in theatre,light and amusing-his wife and son are actors and they have The Gavran Theatre and Gavranfest in Krakow,Polland,as the only living european author who has his festival where only his plays are played

  6. This is great, Dottoressa. Not that I'm likely to start reading all of these, given all the lists and lists, but it's wonderful to have the resource here when I'm ready -- and I'd imagine that other readers here might find these names and titles useful as well. I'm going to get to Croatia one of these days . . .

  7. Yes,you have to :-) I'll be so happy to meet you! It is just a little flight from Rome