A while back I asked my father what is your favourite language. He didn’t hesitate, ‘Italian’ he said, ‘because it is romantic’. He speaks many languages. It is strange for me to be unable to speak this beautiful language; but to know it and feel it. For it to be part of who I am. I know how to sing in Italian and the song I know, it is a love song. And the words, they sound rhythmic; and they lap at the edge of my soul. And when I sing it I am transported to another time.
My father’s name is Alfredo Antonio, he was born in 1946 in Alexandria Egypt. He takes his name from his Italian uncle who had died in a knife fight some months before his birth. Not an illustrious beginning. His parents, my grandparents were born in other European countries. This was common in the port city of Alexandria and led to many people being polyglots.
My father spoke six languages as a young man and today he speaks four. They are being lost in time as he is now the last remaining from his childhood family. And I worry, will I forget the little that I know, will that be lost too. Such sweet memories.
1975 Papa (grandfather) and me
I feel his big hands around my rib cage as he carries me over to the swing. He holds me away from his body like I am a plastic doll and my legs just hang as if that were so. It would be quite mechanical were it not for our faces looking at one another. His face looks earnest and even a little worried. I never wiggle like my sister and cousin because then he becomes stressed and this little nerve on his temple twitches. He didn’t have daughters and even the smallest of whimpers renders him useless as he ponders if he has injured one of us. He places me carefully on the swing. And then he sings, and I sing and we sing together. I am supposed to get off when the song ends and give someone else a turn but that rarely happens. They don’t like the swing as much as I do. It is predictable and peaceful. And on a summers day we stay out there until we hear the words ‘vieni e mangia’(come and eat). And then we go inside for dinner.
During my early childhood I would often have a sleep over on Saturday night and then my parents would come for Sunday lunch and pick me up. I remember my grandparents telling me not to talk any Italian at home because I could get in trouble and so would they. I did talk and I remember there being ‘words’. My mother doesn’t speak Italian. The next thing I knew my grandparents had enrolled in english classes. They were an abject failure, not my grandparents, the english classes. And for me, Italian became something that lay dormant within.
I became a teenager and I didn’t need a babysitter anymore and I didn’t go on the swing. We still had Sunday lunch at their house each week and I would sit in the fig tree by the window so that I could eaves drop on the adults. But from then on I became a listener and not a participant. Sometimes they would change language mid conversation. They also spoke Greek and French. And it stayed with me this love of Italian but it is not an easy thing. It gives me moments that are both exhilarating and frightening.
2013 Memories of Milan
“I am tired when I disembark an overnight train from Paris to Milan. I am with my sixteen year old daughter. We get in a cab to go to the hotel and I am chatting with the driver. We are speaking in Italian. I feel very relaxed. But then I look at my daughter and she has a confused expression ‘I didn’t know you knew how to speak Italian’. ‘I don’t’ I say. And then this spell; it has been broken. And I can’t understand the driver anymore and I feel overwhelmed and he is annoyed.”
And whilst this was a simple exchange it reminds me that this language lives inside of me. But I don’t know how to bring it back. And then I dream. I dream in Italian but I have never remembered a dream. I only know this because my love tells me I sleep talk in Italian. He says I sound happy.
This song, this love song I sing. I wonder about it. What do all the words mean? I understand little pieces. I sit in the garden with my father and I ask him what is the meaning of this song. And he tells me it is a prophecy. It speaks of the future and it tells the story of a young woman who goes out into the country side searching for the love who is fair and good. And I know in that moment that my destiny was written when I was a small child.
I ask him to read me something in Italian. And when I listen it is like a rainbow on a summers day, it has no beginning or conclusion. And the treasure at the end of this rainbow, it is hidden in my mind. Perhaps it is destined to be trapped in my childhood forever. This perfect sound that reminds me of love and security and romance.