A former student of Italia 500, Chris Harrison, has written a wonderful book, full of humour and poignant insights into Italy, called Head Over Heel (available here), about his experience of falling in love with an Italian woman from Puglia - the heel of the boot. Here is a synopsis:
A whitewashed fishing village, a shapely signorina, and an infatuated Aussie – head over heels on the heel of the boot. Head Over Heel is the autobiographical account of the fortunes, comic and shambolic, which befall an unlikely Australian resident in an eccentric Mediterranean outpost, whose love affair with a southern Italian provides a window on her world. Where olive groves slope to the coast and the aromas of cooking wander cobblestone lanes, Sydneysider Chris Harrison encounters a cast of curious characters who show him generosity, friendship, affection, but above all, the real Italy. There’s a policeman who rearranges crimes to suit the necessary forms, a driving instructor who sits exams for his pupils, a Fascist vet whose practice is a shrine to Mussolini, a doctor who prescribes patients his homemade lemon liqueur…
During his whimsical journey from tongue-tied outsider to local villager, Il Canguro – as Chris becomes known – abandons his country, language and culture, his comfortable modern life, to live amongst people of ancient traditions. But perhaps his biggest challenge is his lover’s squat Sicilian mother, determined to convert him to the Catholic faith, to supervise his choice of underwear, and build a second storey on her stucco home where the precarious couple might live happily ever after. Can their relationship possibly survive or will the sweet life turn sour?
And here is a very funny excerpt from Head Over Heel in which Chris talks about the Italian language (our very own Giacomo is mentioned!):
A contestant on an Italian quiz show is stuck on a multiple choice question regarding marble. He has narrowed down the answer to either marmo bianco - white marble, or marmo nero - black marble, but is undecided between the two. Giving him a clue, the host asks which one sounds better and encourages the contestant to articulate both. He complies, slowly, unearthing the music in mundane words. 'Marmo bianco, marmo nero. Marmo bianco, marmo nero.' The man's eyes light up. 'Marmo bianco sounds better,' he replies confidently.
'Is that your final answer?' asks the host. 'Si.'
The Italian rule of thumb is: if it sounds good, stick to it. Bear that in mind if you're ever learning the language. Italian grammar adheres to complex principles, until those principles make a phrase discordant and can be swept aside in the name of beauty. At my Italian course in Sydney, Giacomo had dismissed questions regarding grammar rules with an answer I found unsatisfactory at the time - 'Because it sounds better, basta.' Several years on, I realise there is no better explanation.
Italian is widely considered the most melodic of the Romance languages. King Charles V of Spain said:
When I'm talking to my horse I speak German,
When I'm talking to diplomats I speak French,
When I'm talking to God I speak Spanish,
But when I'm talking to women I speak Italian.
If you want to upset an Italian ear, subject it to the angular tongue of the Germans or the cold, efficient, sterile talk of the Swiss. To an Italian, rhythm and melody are far more important than efficiency, precision and perhaps even meaning. Italians enjoy speaking their language and view it as a pastime rather than a means to an end. In their eyes, or mouths rather, it's a dynamic organism, an instrument with which to make music, a brush with which to paint.
Energised and harmonised by vowels and double consonants, Italian words massage the mouth of the speaker and tickle the ear of the listener. Saying the word stuzzicadenti (toothpick), for example, will do more for your mouth than actually using one. Likewise, 'taste buds' in English sounds somewhat bland, while pupille gustative goes close to satisfying them.
Italian sentences are like symphonies, composed with the onomatopoeia in words like zanzara (mosquito). There is harmony in humdrum words like pipistrello (bat), schizzinoso (fussy), malavventurato (unlucky), like pipistrello (bat), or inoperosamente (idly). Even place names are fun to say, like Squinzano, Poggibonsi, Domodossola, or people's names, like Baldo Bologna and Marco Magnifico. Bob Matthews in English equates to Roberto di Matteo in Italian. And Joe Green is Giuseppe Verdi. Who would you rather be?
There is, unfortunately, an ugly side to this beautiful banter. Speaking Italian is addictive and most Italians would prefer to talk to themselves rather than stop. But verbosity inhibits clarity, with frustrating results. Ask a German where the bank is and they'll either tell you or say they don't know. Ask an Italian and they'll tell you regardless of whether they know or not. Their tongues are far too hyperactive for terse replies like 'I don't know'.
The other downside is that Italians dislike listening almost as much as they love speaking. Community service announcements on Italian TV don't aim to stop people smoking, littering or drink-driving, instead they try to stop them babbling. 'Chi ascolta cresce' is their catchphrase-'Whoever listens, learns'. Errico the bank manager told me that if you don't shout in Italy you won't be heard, something conversations with Francesco duly confirmed. Raising one's voice to speak Italian is a form of social Darwinism, a fight for survival in a conversation. As a result, learning Italian also means learning how to interrupt, to bellow, to dismiss and to shout down.
For the newcomer, there is a danger that the enthusiasm required to converse in Italian can influence the composure with which they speak their native tongue. After a short time in Italy, the undesirable habits that came with Italian had crept into my English, alienating friends and family who mistook passion for aggression. Cut off the Italians mid-sentence, swat your hand at them, call them fools; they'll still be your friends and will have done worse to you. Do it in Australia and you'll be drinking on your own.
Unaware of the pitfalls, I fell in love with Italian and began talking so much I almost got stretch marks on my tongue. Giacomo knew his language was addictive when he planned his course. By first teaching us colourful expressions, he ensured I became so excited by what Italian did to my mouth that I was prepared to tolerate what its intricate grammar did to my head. My first French lesson at university was grammar based, meaning I could take or leave my second. But after Giacomo's first lesson I had the audacious ability to ask a woman to my bed, ensuring my attendance at lesson two on the off-chance she accepted.
If you would like to find out more about the book, and Chris himself, visit Chris' website at www.chrisharrisonwriting.com. Click here to read a very very funny article by Chris about la Puglia in general and about eating horse meat in Puglia! Below, we've posted Tony Tardio's excellent interview with Chris which was broadcast on Rete Italia in December, 2008. Buon ascolto!
At Italia 500 we've been offering Italian courses, in Sydney, since 1995 and one of the most beautiful aspects of learning Italian is that it opens the door to a culture of unrivalled richness and diversity. In this blog we'll be sharing some of our favourite books, movies, places in Italy to visit, music, links to podcasts, information about local and international Italian themed events, and the odd "personal" view, in the hope that it will encourage you to delve further into a culture which continues to inspire us and millions of people all over the world.