My father came from Northern Italy, as I understand it, he spent much of his time in Viterbo and in Verona. I do not know the details, as he died when I was very young, however, I do remember both Verona and Viterbo from my childhood.
I spent three weeks (I believe, it may have been three months) in Italy when I was nine. I spent time in Verona and in Viterbo and also somewhere else, the details of which elude my memory.
In Veterbo, I stayed with my father’s sister Franca, and remember a little farm filled with Franca’s friends cats- I think there were about 37 at the time. I played with one of the kittens, but earned deep cuts on my hands for my trouble. I also remember swimming a great deal (I must have tried Franca’s patience since I loved to swim so much). I remember swimming in a fountain at one point pretending to be a mermaid, and I know my mother told me later that Viterbo is the ‘City of Fountains’, and is quite famous for them.
In Verona, I stayed with a friend of the family- Marina, who visited us in Pennsylvania each summer throughout my childhood. I am sure she didn’t realize what she was getting into having me stay with her so long. I remember watching Disney movies in Italian, and to this day ‘Robin Hood’ in English is a deeply disappointing let-down to me. I spent my teenage years looking everywhere for an Italian translation- at one point I could recite the entire movie in Italian. I don’t remember much of the city itself from that time, but I did visit again earlier this year, and many of the places I walked seemed distinctly familiar.
I came home from that trip speaking Italian nearly fluently, and my Canadian Uncle used to enjoy telling the story of one time he took me with him to his Italian barber, and I spent three hours chatting happily with this man in Italian. Apparently, every time thereafter that my uncle went to the barber, he would ask after me. Sadly I have lost the language due to dis-use, but it has crept into my everyday speech in its own ways.
When I say good night, or thank you, it is most frequently in Italian. “Buona Notte,’ ‘Grazie,’ ‘Prego,’ and ‘Del tuo grazie e mine frego’ (Good night, thank you, you’re welcome, it’s nothing) Apparently, that last is a dialect-thing, something my father used to say when he was trying to be funny- it translates directly to ‘your thanks means nothing to me.’
Just like French is the language for me of the months of the year, and for ‘what time is it’, as Spanish is the language for numbers and for the song of spring, so Italian is the language which smooths over my ears and invites me to puzzle out meaning more than any other. Every time I hear it I think about what my father must have been like, and what kind of person I might have been, how different my life’s story would be if he had lived longer. Italy is all of that for me, and more. When I was young I dreamed of living there to more thoroughly enjoy the flavours and textures of the culture, to immerse myself in the history of a place which is so complex and so unchanging over the centuries, yet entirely different every time you turn a corner. The variety is staggering, and the old streets and buildings can surprise you no matter how many times you’ve walked one route. I admit the smell of Verona is not for the delicate of stomach, but the beauty and architecture is worth every extra load of laundry you’ll have to do when you go back home, no matter how many trips you might make.