When you are in a bilingual household from birth it never occurs to you what language you are listening in. When you process what you have just been told you either think of it in English, or the second language whatever that might be.
In our house that second language was Italian even though my father was Greek/American and didn’t understand one work of Italian. Although, if my grandmother was being less than complimentary he always got the drift. One might not know what the words are, but the meaning comes through loud and clear. Even my Uncle Christy, my father’s brother, knew when my grandmother was not happy about something.
My mother and grandmother most often spoke Italian to each other. To me, my mother spoke perfect English as she came to America when she was just one year of age. Grandma on the other hand spoke to me in Italian and broken English. The result of her being in the United States from the time she was twenty-two years old; she could no longer speak Italian without throwing in a, “you know, or ok”, or another American short cut that we all allow to slip into our daily speech patterns. One time relatives from Sicily came to visit and the conversations between Grandma and her nephews was not what you would call smooth. Every time she threw in an English idiom they would stare at her blankly. She never even realized she was doing it until one of my aunts told her, “Mom, you are not speaking all in Italian.” This only served to piss her off. If she knew what she was talking about, every one should. She always thought I was smarter than my cousins because I understood Italian and they didn’t. Never mind that they didn’t grow up in the house with her, but in an all English-speaking home.
Despite all my hookey playing I was educated in the United States where everyone spoke English in school. I learned to read and write English fairly well and have kept those skills to this day. But there were some words that never come up in school, therefore when you have learned a word in your home, from your parents and grandparents, even though that word was the Italian or Italian slang for a particular thing, then that’s the only way you know how to refer to an item.
It never occurred to me that I didn’t know the English word for some things. I never thought about how it looked to others, those who didn’t understand Italian, that when my grandmother spoke to me in Italian and I replied in English, they thought it odd that I was making sense out of another language. Even my father would smile at some of these interchanges.
I will give you some examples, but I must spell the Italian words phonetically. Keep in mind that it was a dialect spoken in Sicily at the time Grandma left her native land, in nineteen-twenty-one. Even after all these years, thirty-nine since her death, I find myself using these phrases at times just to feel the touch of the women who came before me.
When one was wiping their mouth or drying the dishes with a dish towel it was a mapine. Everyone always needs a mapine at dinner time and after dinner. Even my father started calling it a mapine. Since you only use a mapine in your own home this word never caused me any grief.
I was a young bride of eighteen years old and stocking my kitchen with all the necessities of a good kitchen. I went into the hardware store in the Bronx where my new hubby and I set up our first apartment. This was not an Italian neighborhood. Walking up and down the isles for a few minutes I couldn’t find what I was looking for. Like any bright teenager I sought out the storekeeper, and asked for a schulapasta. He looked at me like I had three heads. After some mimeing, and explaining that it was the drain the macaroni thing, he instructed me that it was called a colander. What the hell! What a stupid name for the drain the macaroni thing.
Another problem which I kind of figured out for myself when I was much older was Demi tasse`. This only came to light after Jim and I had enough money to go to better restaurants. At dessert time the waiter appropriately asked if we would like coffee. Jim ordered a cup of American coffee and I ordered a Demi tasse`. Nope that’s not what it is. Nor is it black coffee. All that means is American coffee without milk. Its Expresso, well la de da. When I thought about it I realized that Demi tasse` means a little cup. Grandma always referred to Expresso by saying do you want a little cup, which Expresso is always served in. However, she always gave me a double before grammar school in the winter to warm me up. Oy Vey!!