Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Mariana and her chalkboard

A single image shows much of what life has been like with my temporary Italian mom.

This chalkboard is in a corner of the kitchen, which is also the dining room, of Mariana’s apartment. Our conversations – most of them over morning coffee and cornetti – switch from English to Italian, both of us practicing a second language. A very old and worn Italian-English dictionary I brought from home now lives here and is in frequent use. Occasionally, Mariana learns a word or phrase she finds particularly useful or interesting, and writes it down on this chalkboard.

In terms of age, Mariana would actually be my sister, but she plays the role of Italian mom to the hilt regardless of age. Today, she hurried off to a job interview – the latest English phrase to be added to the chalkboard. Mariana has been unemployed for about a year, since the beauty school where she worked went out of business. In fact, the shop is still sitting there, locked up and empty, on Borgo San Frediamo.

When I arrived here last month, the theatre company warned me that Mariana did not speak any English. She actually speaks far more English than they realize – probably more than I speak Italian – but doesn’t feel comfortable enough to use it around them. English is not quite universal in Florence, but enough people speak it that it is very easy for a visitor to get by without speaking Italian. As it is, when I go into shops and other places, I default to Italian. More often than not, the Italians smile but if it’s a busy time they’ll respond in English. Gotta keep the customers moving. Sometimes I stop and say hello to a neighborhood wine merchant who loves to talk, directing his words to me in slow and clear Italian. Having been here a month now, I am not just a tourist to him anymore – but very much a straniero, and an actor no less! Still, I appreciate wine, and he has good wine on tap at a few euro for a bottle, filled and corked right in front of you.

When she returned this afternoon from her job interview, I asked Mariana how it went and she said, "Boh."  It was behind her now.  Now, she was preparing lunch for eight guests, who were already arriving.  Eight guests (including two ten year old children) at one little table, using every chair in the apartment, passing a hot and humid afternoon with pasta, pesto, panini, gelato, and wine. 

The boy who was visiting, Diego, has international parents: his dad is from Brazil and his mom from Mexico.  They have been living in Italy for a while but will soon be moving to Mexico.  Little Diego is learning four languages: Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, and English. I remarked on this and the parents simply smiled as if to say, "Of course!"

Of course.  This kid is off to a great start.

But he's going to need a big chalkboard.

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