I HAVE been learning Italian for some time, in my spare time, mostly because I am bloody minded.
“Oh, so you’re pulling us out of an economic and political union worth billions to our economy and which has kept peace in western Europe for 60 years because you heard somebody speaking Polish in your GP’s surgery? Fine, I am going to become even more European.”
And partly it is because I have Italian forebears, so I thought somehow that I would have the genetic ability to speak Italian and it would be easier. I could not have been more wrong, but once I start something I have to see it out relentlessly until the miserable end, no matter the cost.
However because I work hours which prevent me from going to night school and am an age which prevents me from going to day school, I have been learning on my own. This has one advantage – nobody ever gets to hear my Italian – and one disadvantage – nobody ever gets to hear my Italian.
This means I jump at the chance to try it out on people. A few months ago, a gentleman approached me at a railway station. “Excuse. I have need to go to Birmingham on the railroad,” he said, in a heavy accent. He could not have been more obviously Italian had he been sharply dressed and on a Vespa while stretching pizza dough with his knuckles.
“Lei è italiano?” I asked, formally. He nodded. This was my moment.
“Bravo, bravo!” I said. “Parlo italiano!” I knew exactly which platform he needed. “Ha bisogno di…” and then I stopped. I had forgotten the Italian word for “platform”. I had forgotten the Italian word for “four”. I had forgotten the Italian word for “to go”.
Dumbly I pointed at a gate. “There,” I said. I had forgotten the Italian word for “there”. “You. Go. There,” I said, like an English tourist in Torremolinos. It is hard to describe his disappointment at this turn of events. He looked like a child handed an empty box on Christmas Day as he shuffled off warily in the direction in which I had vaguely pointed him.
It made me redouble my efforts. Never again would I forget the Italian for “to go”.
And then, a couple of weeks ago, I found myself in an Italian restaurant with an Italian owner and Italian staff. And Italian food. “A gin and tonic, please,” my companion asked the waiter. He looked at her baffled, walked away, came back and said, “I can’t get you a gin and tonic. I can get you a Negroni.”
“He’s definitely Italian,” I said to her, as he left again. “You know what that means…”
“Don’t,” said my companion, a languages graduate who speaks French better than the French. “You know what will happen.”
“But…” She was right. They would be ruthless. “OK,” I said, “But I’m going to pronounce the names of the dishes properly.”
I slipped in the odd “grazie” to the waiter, but mostly I kept my promise to speak English.
And as we left, I did drop a “buonanotte, arrivederci” to the owner as he said goodnight. That was it. But as we reached the door, my companion said: “Oh, I’ve left my gloves.”
“I’LL GET THEM!” I said, tearing up the stairs. This was my chance. I knew the word for “gloves”. I entered the dining room. A waiter was clearing our table.
“Scusi,” I said, “Ho bisogno dei guanti della mia fidanzata.” A perfect, if stilted, Italian sentence fell from my lips. I think I heard a choir of angels, but it might have been the opera they were playing on the PA. It was a very Italian restaurant.
“Ah, ecco i guanti!” I said, spotting the gloves on the floor and picking them up.
“Parli italiano…?” the waiter asked. “Hell, yeah, I flipping parlo italiano” I thought. “Un po’ [a little],” I said, suavely, waving my hand.
“Buzz buzz banana tutti frutti lambrusco lambretta wibble, eh?” he continued. I think that’s what he said. “Buzz buzz Roma Colosseum macaroni La Dolce Vita Lena Zavaroni?”
I looked stunned for a moment, then guessed “Sì”, and I scarpered back downstairs.
“I just had my first conversation in Italian with an actual Italian,” I told my companion.
“You couldn’t help yourself, could you?” she said.
“No,” I said, “I’m bloody-minded.”