Today we are talking about the Italian language. Its beauty, its history beginning with Dante Alighieri, and how we can use this time when many of us cannot travel to Italy, to be able to assimilate once we land in Il Bel Paese.
We all tend to equate Italy with antiquity, and with such a vast history it is easy to assume that Italy as a country is quite ancient itself. So, a lot of people are surprised to learn that Italy, a unified Italy as we know it today was only established in 1865. The same year our Civil War here in the states came to and end.
So, what about the language? Well, we owe modern-day Italian very much to the Florentine poet, Dante Alighieri who broke with the tradition of writing poetry in Latin and chose instead to write his Divine Comedy in the everyday tongue he spoke, the Tuscan or Florentine dialect.
Of course, like Shakespeare to the English language, modern Italian has changed, but the impact of Dante on the language is undeniable.
Without making you feel like you are back in English class, just listen to the first few lines of Inferno, his journey through hell.
Nel mezzo del cammin in nostra vita
Mi ritrowai per una selva oscura,
che la ritta via the smarrita era.
Ahi quanto a dir qual era e` cosa dura
Esta selva selvaggia e aspra e forte
Che nel pensier rinova la paura!
Tant’e` amara che poco e` piu` morte;
ma per trattar del ben ch’i’ vi trovai,
diro` de l’altre cose ch’i’ v’intrai
In the middle of the journey of our life,
I found myself in a dark wood,
For the straight way was lost
Ah! How hard a thing it is to say
how that wood was so wild and harsh and strong
that the thought of it renews the fear!
It is so bitter that death is a little more so
But to tell of the good I found there
I will tell of the other things I saw
And so, begins Dante’s journey into hell. It is slightly reminiscent of this difficult time to me, and through countless dark woods of my life, I’ve found a sort of comfort in Dante.
So? What is the point, right?
Well, miei amici, the point is, this is a hard time we are facing, for many reasons. Illness, job loss, fear of both, exciting plans cancelled, trips to Italy canceled, couldn’t we all use something good to focus on? A way to not only better ourselves but make those trips we hope to take in a not so distant future that is even more special?
One thing we can do, wherever we are, is learn the Italian language.
Is this a necessity when visiting Italy? Not really. Most Italians, especially in the tourism sector speak English very well if not fluently. It will, however, elevate your experience beyond your imagination.
I stumbled into my first visit to Italy, thanks to my mother teaching good old Dante and wanting to visit his hometown of Florence with her students.
Without knowing the first word, I feel deeply in love with the country and with the language. Its intonation, its music, its joy. The mere sound of it captivated me.
Those first few trips, I still knew nothing of the language beyond, “Ciao”, “Grazie”, and “Prego”. Italy had my heart, but I wanted to belong, to be a part of the place and its culture, so I took all the classes I could and even majored in Italian in college.
I have already told you how my husband and I met studying Italian there. Between working, moving, and saving, it took us four years after we were married to be able to go to Italy together for the first time.
Within moments of being there and speaking with people we found ourselves at first became tripping over words to make our story easier. People would ask, “But why do you speak Italian?” Italians are rather romantic, so hearing we met studying their language made people instantly warm to us.
My family, friends, and I were always treated splendidly as tourists. Yet, we were still treated as tourists. Someone who will come and go and will likely never be seen again.
When Matt and I went and could actually chat with locals, things changed.
One moment that sticks out to me is when we walk through Rome’s Borghese gardens and to the beautiful terrace that overlooks Piazza del Popolo. There was a little red cart selling snacks and refreshments. We bought a beer and had just eaten lunch, so we weren’t too hungry.
We ordered in Italian, simple enough, “Due birre per favore”, and the man could not believe it. We talked with him for a few minutes until more customers came up, and he insisted on giving us a bag of chips to enjoy as we walked around, a thank you for loving his country so much.
Later that day as we explored, we were passing in front of the enchanting Spanish steps. A group of friends maybe 18-20 were walking by us chatting and we overheard one of them speculating that I was from Milan and Matt was from Russia. We almost died laughing as Matt is the one with Italian heritage but since he studied in Milan most Italians automatically think he is Russian.
Seeing the difference in that first trip, even though we were rusty and made countless mistakes, we connected with people like I’d never had before.
Since then, every time we go back, the usual conversation of how and why we learned the language in the US lands us in the most incredible conversations.
Back in February we stayed in one of Florence’s most charming bed and breakfasts. Gordana, who I am in touch with constantly during normal times, hugged us as soon as we walked in the door and greeted us every morning as we would head out to explore the city.
On a residential street a bit removed from the most touristy restaurants right by the Duomo we discovered a tiny trattoria run by a family of three. The conversations began as they always did, “Where are you from? Why do you speak Italian?” Before we knew it, the five of us sat talking. About their delicious food and house wine from San Gimignano, and about life in the city. How the dad hated driving a car. We simply chatted, and it was lovely.
On the walls were two little signs that read,
“La vita ei sogni sono fogli di uno stesso libro” “Life and dreams are pages of the same book”,
“Addormentati semper con un sogno. Risvegliati semper con un proposito.” “Always fall asleep with a dream. Always wake up with a purpose.”
Getting to know this family it seemed that they lived the words of both, as we did.
During those few days, no matter where we went for dinner, the family would invite us in for cantucci e vin santo, a traditional Tuscan welcome that made us feel like we were at home.
These are the moments, the connections that we are blessed with when we learn the language. You do not have to speak it perfectly. Goodness knows I need to practice more! The thing is, when you show what you have put in the time and effort to learn, it says, “I choose this place. I want to belong. I want to understand.”
And the people reward your efforts by assuring you that you do indeed belong and will always be welcome there.
My heart, many of our hearts, no doubt aches right now to be there. It breaks for the people who have suffered much, lost much, and fear for their futures.
This has in a sense been a sort of hell for many of us and for countless reasons. And yet, like Dante, let us focus on the good that can come from it. Maybe this time when we are so disappointed that we have had to cancel or postpone it, it can actually make our experiences infinitely more meaningful when we can finally get there.
Dante, father of the Italian language ends his Inferno, having traversed the darkness of hell and all it taught him with what to me is the most beautiful line in all of literature,
“E quindi uscimmo a riveder le stelle”.
“And so we came forth and once again beheld the stars.”