Thursday, December 24, 2015

How I Got Into Italiano

Inspired by Jhumpa Lahiri’s recent essay “Teach Yourself Italian,” I’ve decided to share a memory from way back how I got into Italian. Our paths couldn’t be more different. Whereas Jhumpa’s was a full-on Neptune-plunge immersion into the briny sea of that rich lingua, mine is more of a wading, or, more to the point, a toe dip.

In my freshman year of high school, I studied at Xavier in Manhattan. Prior to that, I had been tethered to the comfy confines of my childhood neighborhood, Forest Hills. I was both ecstatic and petrified about moving beyond that secure boundary. Besides having to commute to school by subway, I had to embark on the unbidden imposition of finding new friends. There was also the task of learning a new language. Nowadays kids start tinkering with a new tongue by the time they enter daycare.

I remember the surprise I had when I first grabbed my schedule and noticed that my 3rd period class had mistakenly listed Italian 101 instead of Intro to Spanish. I broached the subject with Brother Ciprian in the main office, but he explained in his avuncular yet stolid voice (as Jesuits often do) that there was no mistake and that I’d better dash or I’d earn my first tardy for my Italian class. I wasn’t miffed by the encounter so much as I was curious as what to expect in class. I really didn’t know anybody who spoke Italian, and everybody who I’d met, who studied another tongue in school either took Spanish or French or Japanese on the weekend. I knew that Latin was a choice and so was German, but since my Kantian predilection hadn’t been born at this callow time, I didn’t even give German a shot.

My teacher turned out to be a Dublin-born musician with a brogue thicker than her Irish-knit. She was very smiley and bubbling with ideas she’d been brewing since she’d just hatched from grad school. It was her first day too, and Ms. O’Shea wanted to make amici with her gli studenti. We were soon baptized with Italian names: Joe Simmons became Giuseppe, Lou Harris became Luigi, and, of course, I became Giovanni Gorman.

We went around the room and shared a bit of ourselves. After that, Ms. O’Shea decided to play some music for us. She fished a Maxell tape from her bag and slipped it into her tape deck. In case you were wondering, a tape deck is this thing that played music before CD players and after phonographs. You could consider it the great granddaddy of the iPod. The song she played was a catchy tune called “Lasciatemi Cantare” by one Toto Cutugno. It was nothing like the Louis Prima or Rosemary Clooney stuff I’d heard my parents or friends of my parents play. It was charmingly corny. “Lasciatemi Cantare” was pop music. Imagine Erasure or The Petshop Boys singing Italian. Okay, maybe I’m reaching, but it piqued my curiosity. Ms. O’Shea sang with a lot of feeling and most of us tried to match her musto. Warbling was about all we could offer.

Toward the end of the first week, on a Thursday afternoon, Ms. O’Shea arranged for us to go to a café. Our procession of navy blazers headed to Union Square. I was still getting used to the snug cut of my blazer, and the bunching up at the elbows. Maybe you didn’t have to suffer such an indignity back in your formative years. It’s no easy fete getting a teenage boy to wear one, but having been uniform-groomed, for eight glorious years, it didn’t take long to make the transition. Plus, I was only too happy to shed my gray slacks and clip-on green ties from my old school.

On the way to the café, I chatted with Paolo Bronsky who told me he was considering going out for the part of Maestro Borov in the school's Fall Production of Bye Bye Birdie. I told Paolo that I didn’t think that part was going to be available since we were supposedly putting together a show based on the original Broadway script, and the Maestro part was a Hollywood add-on. “Why not go out for the Mayor of Sweet Apple or Mr. Johnson if you want to land a shoe-in?” Paolo seemed to like the idea, and to be a good sport, he encouraged me to give Conrad a crack.

It was nice to chat with somebody who a penchant for theatre (music theatre anyway). Paolo also was in his elementary school production of “Hello Dolly”, and I must say he sure looked like a Barnaby. We were bragging about who had more Playbills between us when Ms. O’Shea interrupted, asking if we preferred to grab our coffees outside rather than inside. Her attempt at rapport-building was not unwelcome, but a foursome grabbing the last outdoor spot nixed our al fresco experience.

It was better inside. I told Miss O’Shea so and we ordered a round of cappuccinos. There were a few espressos too, and a couple of Coca-Cola-quaffers. We waited for Ms. O’Shea to go teacherly on us, but she ended up letting her hair down (even more so). Literally too, right out of her ponytail band. She passed out loose pictures of her trips to Italia. The architecture, sculptures, and piazza pictures were gorgeous, but she treated us to what really was more of the everyday experience. None of that postcard crap. So many faces, everyday Italians: kneading bread, selling fruit, bicycling, fishmongers hawking fresh catch, grannies wringing wet laundry. She had what seemed like a zillion pictures of food and people swooning over their food, gelato, salumi, wine. I’d already grown smitten with the land, the people.

Ms. O’Shea only lasted a few months. She got a big break, a singing gig in Toronto. A Jesuit Brother took her place. We missed her terribly. I played sick for a couple of days, but I couldn’t duck out forever. I wished, the lame-brained wish she’d come back, but it wasn’t right for me to quash her buona fortuna. The think is, she really lit a spark for Italia in me, and when I think about it especially when I’m swigging a Docletto or slugging back my espresso, I’m so glad somebody in that office goofed and signed me up for her class, even though, more often than not, I still butcher my sentences.

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