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Corona Diaries: project number 47 – Italian lessons

May 12, 2020

I’m currently learning Italian. Not because we’re in lockdown and I’m running out of constructive things to do. Far from it. The list of tasks stretches long into the future. When I’ve finished, it will be time to revisit the first one. A bit like painting the Forth Bridge, you might say.

No, I’m learning Italian because it’s one of the most beautiful languages in the world. Not for nothing were Handel’s early operas in Italian, and the Imperial Court in Vienna was dominated by Italian composers until Mozart broke the mould by writing a German opera. Its long vowels are made for song. It’s a lover’s language. A language of light and shade, of passion and persuasion.

Actually, it’s perhaps fairer to say than I’m not so much learning it from scratch but revisiting it with intent. My first serious encounter was in 1969, when I travelled around Italy on my own. I didn’t have the funds, the courage nor the inclination to go backpacking to Kabul, Kathmandu and Calcutta. And besides, I’d just spent my school years studying Latin and Greek, so what better places to go before university than to Rome, Naples and Pompeii?

Since I was familiar with Latin, I didn’t think its successor would be too much of a problem. I got hold of an Italian grammar, learned some words and phrases, and away I went. Most of what I learned then I’ve forgotten, like much else besides. But a love of Italy and all things Italian has remained.

Since then I’ve visited many parts of the country. I’ve done business in Rome, Piedmont and Naples. And I’ve shown my family the wondrous ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Our last visit was to Puglia. The next will probably be to Sicily.

But despite our frequent forays into Italy, through fiction, history and music as well as physical travel, I’ve never dipped further beneath the surface of the language, despite appreciating its beauty.

Now is the time.

Actually to say I’m learning it is somewhat Trumpian, though he would no doubt say he’s fluent already, coming from New York. Perhaps it would be better to say that I’m absorbing it. I was always amazed to meet people in the Middle East and Asia who would say that they’ve learned their English through watching TV. That would also be a very Trumpian thing to do, though I doubt he has the capacity to remember anything that doesn’t relate to him for more than five minutes.

Be that as it may, TV is helping me. My beloved and I are both addicted to foreign language TV dramas. Not just the Scandi stuff, but Belgian, French, German and, of course, Italian. We’re great fans of the Sicilian detective, Inspector Montalbano, about whom I’ve written before. My wife loves Gomorrah, a  Camorra horror set in Naples. I don’t – too violent. Recently though, we’ve found a couple of series that we both enjoy.

The first is Non Uccidere (Thou Shalt Not Kill). It’s set in a gloomy, wintry Turin. The main character is the equally gloomy Valeria, a beautiful young police inspector who has good reason to be miserable. Her mum was jailed for killing her dad, who turns out not to have been her dad. After a decade in jail, mum is released, only to be murdered herself. Understandably, Valeria hits the Prozac.

The family saga runs through the series, though, being a brilliant detective, she still manages to solve a number of murders while struggling to keep herself together. The series is suffused with a melancholy that I don’t normally associate with Italy, but which surely chimes with feelings in the region at the moment, as it struggles with the coronavirus outbreak.

Then there’s a very different bowl of olives. Mafia Only Kills in Summer is a black comedy set in Palermo, close to Montalbano’s Sicilian stamping ground. But whereas the Mafia lurks in the background in the Inspector’s Vigata, in this series, as the title suggests, it’s centre stage.

It’s the late Seventies. Salvatore, the narrator, is a pre-teen member of a small family – eccentric dad, ambitious mum whose heart is set on getting a job for life in teaching and sister whose teenage love affairs nearly consume her. The boy watches as dad, who’s a mid-ranking civil servant, does his utmost to avoid the clutches of the Mafia and mum battles furiously with the corrupt bureaucracy that denies her rightful tenancy.

Meanwhile Tore battles with his schoolmates for the affections of Alice, the femme fatale of Year Six.

The whole thing, despite the serious subject of the Mafia and its hold on Palermo, is as sweet and light as Thou Shalt Not Kill is gloomy. Like Montalbano, the narrative is rich in humour. Despite their comic pretensions, the character never lose their dignity. It’s a joy.

While watching these series, I find the subtitles merging with the language itself. Whether I’m really picking up more – other than familiar words and phrases – without the aid of translation I’m not sure. But I definitely feel the water wings slowly deflating as I learn to swim again in this gorgeous language.

I’m not sure of the precise way forward, whether through books, online tutorials or even finding people to talk to on Skype. But I’m hoping my new project will outlast the virus. More than anything I want to be able to revisit a country that’s close to my heart. The more I can speak the language, the greater will be the joy.

I suspect that our forays further afield will have to wait for a while, but when Italy’s ready, we will be too.

From → Film, Travel, UK

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