My dad Dominic loved languages, had a great sense of humor and was a talented storyteller. He was immensely proud of being Italian. Once he had retired, he and my mom were able to travel to Italy, to reconnect with family, and to visit the place he had so often dreamed of. All of this had a huge impact on me.
Raised in Larchmont, NY, a bedroom community north of New York City, I was surrounded by Italian family, friends, food and traditions. Though I have many warm memories of those aspects of Italian culture, I had almost no real knowledge of Italy. Nor had I learned the language, even though I heard what I now know was Calabrese spoken by many in our circle of family and friends. At that time, and in that community, it was important to be as "American" as possible. So, no Italian for us kids.
However, with my dad's strong encouragement, I began my study of languages with Latin and Spanish...eventually adding dashes of French, German and Portuguese. But still no Italian. And I'd never traveled to Italy, nor did I know much about it except for the big names...Rome, Venice, Da Vinci and Michelangelo. And I wanted to know more.
Finally, I decided to do something about this because of my desire to live in Italy, learn Italian, and soak up as much as I could about my heritage. I planned a year-long stay in Italy, began to study Italian on my own, sold almost everything that I owned, bought a great camera, and picked my friends' brains endlessly to get recommendations on places to see and things to do in Italy. Then I took a year-long leave of absence from my job and headed across the pond.
Fortunately, I had chosen to live and study in Florence, where I connected with a close-knit group of fiorentini who welcomed and surrounded me with what they proudly dubbed the most perfect Italian...the Italian of Dante. It was total immersion in the language and culture, and some of my proudest moments were when foreign visitors to my adopted city would ask ME for directions!
After many months, a much-anticipated visit by my parents was imminent, intended to be a highlight of my experience in Italy, and a chance to show off my Florentine-approved version of Italian. Little did I know that greeting them was not at all what I had expected.
Upon seeing my dad for the first time in months, on the hallowed ground of the Renaissance, I welcomed him warmly as I had heard my Florentine friends greet their dads...saying, joyfully, "CIAO, BABBO!!!", expecting a huge smile in return.
Instead I was met with a stony-faced look, and a question..."WHAT did you call me?" Confused, I repeated my greeting. He now looked slightly amused and asked me if I understood what I had said. "Yes...'babbo' means Daddy", I replied.
"Oh, no, that word does NOT mean 'Daddy'..."
"But...all my friends here in Florence call their dads 'babbo.'"
"Well then", he said with a smile, "I guess Florentines don't speak the most perfect Italian. In Calabria, if you said "babbo" to someone, you'd be calling him a fool!!!"
Thankfully, my dad had a broad appreciation of languages, and a boundless sense of humor. And he gave me a story about language and dialect that I love to tell!