A short story from my book, Christmas Suprise: Birch Clump Village Reader
Sins of the Italians
This a letter written by Brother Moses from Assisi, Italy to the Franciscan Friars of the Congregation of St. James in Birch Clump, Michigan. The letter was dated, Saturday December 4, 2005. This presents an amusing look at multi-culturalism.
Dear Brother Rubin
Our younger brothers struggle with Italian, but with greater success than I. This Assisi Charism study will depend on them.
I’m going nut-so on this Italian language! These wonderful people want to help out so much, but in ways I cannot relate to. I simply cannot learn according to their lesson plans or whatever their teaching method is. Classes at the Italian state run school, similar to our ESL (English as a Second Language) are three hours a day, five days a week. Compare that to a normal college course of three hours a week. By the third day we’ve received the equivalence of three weeks study and I haven’t figured out day one; week one. We are currently in what I think is our eighth week.
I think my linguistic learning ability collapsed under the pressure.
I can read and understand articles and prepositions already in place. I simply cannot fill in the blanks for these things on my own regarding any of this stuff. And there is no break.
The usual question each afternoon upon entering the Friary is, “Come Vai?”
This is followed with inquiries as to how studies are coming along. The only answer they want from me is, “Ba-bene.” (Very well).
I want to say, “Disastroso.”
Once, at a meal with only older Italian Friars, I answered, “Nervoso.”
Most drew back. The one who spoke excellent English understood and corrected me, “Agitado.”
Apparently, “I’m nervous,” in Italian, sounds like I’m deranged. Agitated has a softer sound to them.
At morning and mid-day meal I understand a fair portion of what is directed to me slow and carefully, provided I can hear them with my failing ears. But, it takes me a few moments to mentally digest the message and respond. God forbid that there is a pause in a conversation. So someone jumps in and translates for me (I don’t always need the sentence or question translated).
Arguments break out among the non-Italian Friars and seminarians because someone spoke to me in English. “No, no English, only Italian – he will not learn Italian if you speak English.”
The Italians, themselves, are far more patient and understanding. Maybe the foreigners are jealous they had to learn Italian and they might think I’m lazy and getting preferential treatment.
I wish knew the Italian equivalent to: “That’s a crock of shit.”
[I later learned, “Si tratta di un coccio di merda.” The Italians loved my response to those foreign Friars once I learned to say it smoothly.]
Once, an Argentinian Friar came all the way across the dining hall after hearing a bit of English rise from our table. “When I come to you country I speak you language. In Italy, speak Italian.”
He gave a surprised look. “Perdono?”
I went on in the Anishinabe language.
His look conveyed he was totally confused and surprised hearing a language with not a single word resembling English, Italian or Spanish. So I switched to English, “I’m sorry. I thought you said you speak my language when you visit my country. We speak Anishinabemowin, the language of the Indigenous in my region, my country. I have never known a visiting foreign Priest to learn our language, much less know or care about our existence.”
He swished his sissified self to his table. Everyone nearby busted up laughing once a translation was provided on what just took place. “Prima – Bravo – eccellente” I understood those words.
I repeat, “Solo Scriptorous!”
Thousands of immigrants come to the USA and learn English while still maintaining their sanity by speaking their old language when they can. I realize speaking anything other than Italian at a Roman table can be divisive, but an occasional explanation in English, if I ask for one or not, should not cause such uproar.
We have two huge Polish Friars here that are built like brick outhouses. I speak German with one of them and no one becomes unglued about that. I have a small working knowledge of Polish I experiment with as well. The Polish Friar comes right out and uses English because he wants to hear a little bit about who I am, and he wants me to understand him.
It seems as if three very large people (two of them being weight lifters) speaks something other than Italian in front of the foreign friars, no one questions their choices in language. I am reminded of Paul’s letter to the Philipinos, 1:28, “Do not be afraid of your opponents.”
The smaller, dark skinned, gentler ones who might slip up and say something to me in English get verbally pounced on in a flash. No one addresses me in this rude manner; – they just go after the small guys. Well, not that I’m tall, as anyone knows. They don’t back off until I lean over with a nasty look on my face. Hell, this is like a grade school playground, except most of the kids are in their thirties, and some like me, over forty and fifty are supposed to be religious. The aggressors apologize to me instead of to the ones they insulted.
You knew me in my earlier days. Nothing would have been more satisfying that to deliver a right cross to such self-righteous ones, as that Argentinian. Ah, but then I was a child and did as a reckless child. Now I am older and have put on the Cross of Christ. I did not turn the other’s cheek.
The long and short of it – I am not learning Italian.
A neighbor walking his dog asked me, as a means to say something nice in English, “Do you like dogs?”
“Sì. Sono deliziosi.” (Yes. I find them to be delicious.)
He chuckled, but he also coaxed his dog to his other side, further away from me.
A Lady came to me in the cobblestone front yard we have here and began speaking to me. I told her a few times I don’t speak Italian. She needs to go to the office. But she just kept going on at the mouth. So, I began nodding and saying “Si,” at various pauses, or “ah-humm.” I’m sure I had a very attentive and caring look on my face; that’s expected of one in my profession. I plunked my cigarette into the sewer for her sake. She strongly insisted I didn’t have to do that and offered me one of her cigarettes. She then went on and on about the business she came here for.
Finally she thanked me and asked my name. I said, “Si.”
She was confused and tried to get my name again and finally asked if I comprehended Italian.
I asked her, “Heeft u Nederlands spreken?”
She went in a huff to the office.
I was not sure at what points of her conversation with me she was confessing her sins or her husband’s sins, or the sins of her adult children and their spouses. Most of the sins belonged to her husband I think. It was hard to distinguish.