Monday, October 24, 2005
8. Don’t know how to speak the language? Don’t worry.
Unlike the stereotype about the French and their attitude towards foreigners who mangle the French language, the Italians, or at least the Florentines whom I have encountered, find it merely amusing when I go into a hardware store for an electricity converter and ask for a casaba melon. They correct me the way you correct a small dog who continues to sit when you’ve told him for the thousandth time to rollover: firmly, emphatically, but with a touch of pity for the dumb creature, me.
Here’s the trick: when you don’t know the word for something, like “electricity converter”, make it up. Pantomime the action of plugging something into something else while saying “casaba melon” applying what you think sounds like the fakest most exaggerated Italian accent possible. Really lay it on. The faker that you sound to yourself, the better. Think Chico Marx. I guarantee that the hardware store man will produce an electricity converter for you immediately or misinterpret the plugging-in pantomime and ask you to have sex.
“The best way to learn Italian,” my American friend told me, “is to watch as much Italian T.V. as you possibly can. My kid learned Italian in three months by watching T.V.”
This is a common myth and I can only assume that this kid has since come up with a new theory of relativity because it would take a genius to learn Italian that way. This might have been possible for me when I was a kid. They say that kids learn languages faster than adults, but more importantly, let’s face it, television ain’t what it was.
When I was a kid they’d show a box of Wheaties, they’d show a champion athlete doing something amazing like throwing a box of Wheaties for a touchdown, they’d show him pouring Wheaties out of the box of Wheaties and eating a bowl of Wheaties, then, in case you missed it, they’d show the box of Wheaties again, all the time repeating the word, “Wheaties,” “Wheaties,” “Wheaties!”. Even a three year-old could tell that what they were selling. A duh! Obviously it was an ad for a washed up former champion athlete trying to buff up his so-called career.
These days, though, advertising has become so cool, so detached that to even hint at the product’s name is to be considered crude. How are you supposed to learn a language that way? The other day on Italian T.V. I saw four ads in the same hour of programming featuring couples on the beach. Since they did not show any logos or boxes of Wheaties I had to really guess what they were selling. I suspect that one of them was for a car, ‘cause there was a car on the beach with the couple. The second, I guess, was about pet food, ‘cause there was a dog on the beach with the couple. The third may have been for either diapers or Planned Parenthood, ‘cause there was a baby on the beach with the couple. God only knows what the fourth ad was for, but there appeared to be a small nuclear reactor strolling down the beach with the couple.
O.K., skip T.V. Maybe if I could go to a movie where I knew the story I could pick up a little Italian.
“The Merchant of Venice” starring Al Pacino was playing at the open-air theater down the block. I thought that I kinda knew the plot of “The Merchant of Venice”. I guess not. Even the big “pound of flesh” scene was a mystery to me. I swear that Shylock said that he would lend him the dough for a pound of casaba melon. The dubbing didn’t help at all. I have to admit that they got Al Pacino to sound like Al Pacino talking Italian, but everybody else sounded like Al Pacino, too…and they all looked like Al Pacino, except the girl, who was a lot prettier than Al Pacino, but when she opened her mouth: Alice Pacino.
By the way, the open-air theater is very cool. Just imagine a movie theatre with no roof, a fully stocked bar, and half of the audience smoking and drinking non-stop through the entire film. They even insert a forced intermission mid-soliloquy so that you can get more drinks and buy more cigarettes. Fortunately it began to rain so we got a rain check to come back another night.
We waited until a film was playing that I felt confident that my wife, daughter and I could follow without a problem: “Batman Begins”. Do I need to tell you that I understood this less than “Merchant of Venice”…and I had just seen “Batman Begins” three weeks earlier at my local theater back home in English! My daughter, Nora, kept elbowing me in the ribs asking me to explain what was going on. I simply shrugged and whispered, “It’s ‘Batman Begins’, it’s ‘Batman Begins’”. As though, by repeating the title, the mists of confusion would vanish and all the plot points would be laid bare. I don’t think that the rest of the audience got much out of it either even though the actors spoke Italian. By the end of the picture most of the audience was at the bar drinking and smoking glumly. Several looked up at us as we walked by with expressions that asked, “You’re Americans. Maybe you can tell us what the hell that was all about.”