A Few Choice Italian Words

In which I reflect on a recent viaggio with my parole preferite

I spent last weekend in Florence with my sister, who is studying there, and my dad, who took a transatlantic getaway. A smaller city than I remembered, but hey, I’ve done some growing and traveling since my last visit. Over those 8½ years (a happy accidental film reference??), I’ve become just about fluent in the language and fallen in love with the culture.

My own family hail from the south, Calabria and Puglia, which have their own linguistic and dialectical idiosyncrasies; but until I get there I’m content to immerse myself in the northern vocabulary and manner of speaking.

What I should have been expecting was to come away with new and exciting bytes of that vocabulary—that’s what happens when the world becomes your classroom, baby!

With that said, here follows a list of some of my favorite Italian words, whether for their sound, their meaning, the memories attached to them, or a combination:

abbigliamento: n. clothing

aggiungere: v. to gather, to accumulate

Biancaneve: n. Snow White (of Seven Dwarfs fame)

briganti: n. pl. thieves

carabinieri: n. pl. the cops, yo (fun fact: I originally came upon this word in Cornelia Funke’s The Thief Lord, translated from—what?—German! #FullCircle)

Cenerentola: n. Cinderella (are you sensing a pattern?)

cipolla: n. onion (as in “looking through a glass…”)

degno/a: adj. worthy (like “to deign” to do something, to think that something is worthy of your attention)

doppia vu: n. the letter W (strange how such a wonderful-sounding phrase should be wasted on a letter which is basically nonexistent in Italian)

frattempo: adv. meanwhile (literally fra + tempo, “between time”)

frigorifero: n. refrigerator (so much better, right?)

innamorato/a: adj. in love (as in “sono innamorata della lingua italiana”)

lontano/a: adj. faraway

meraviglioso/a: adj. wonderful (pro tip: use this word in front of a native and they’ll ask if you speak the language fluently; real self-esteem booster)

orecchini: n. pl. earrings (sing. orecchino)

pellegrinaggio: n. pilgrimage (cooler than its relative, pellegrino, which is “pilgrim”)

pesca: n. peach (the fruit; pesco is the peach tree)

poltrona: n. armchair (aaaahhhh)

pomodoro: n. tomato (from pomo d’oro, literally “apple of gold”)

rimpiangere: v. to experience nostalgia (piangere is “to cry,” so this is literally “to cry again”)

Ringraziamento: n. Thanksgiving (mostly useful for Italian-Americans)

schiavo: n. slave (only because the phrase sono suo schiavo, or “I am your slave,” evolved into the greeting—ciao—that we know and love today)

sciarpa: n. scarf (not to be confused with scarpa, which is “shoe”)

sfortunato/a: adj. unlucky (but it sounds more romantic than that)

speranza: n. hope

statunitense: adj. of or pertaining to the United States (a really interesting one because we have no English equivalent—we’ve only got “American,” which technically pertains to two whole continents)

tedesco/a: adj. German (nothing whatsoever to do with the country name, “Germania,” and it just sounds so cool, which is good because I say it a lot in my current location)

So this is your second-rate Elizabeth Gilbert reminding you that it’s never too late to appreciate Italy or its language. Learn to roll your r and you’re halfway there.

Forse ci vediamo

Image: my own, taken from the Palazzo Vecchio overlooking a side street

An Ode to Shostakovich

In which I ignore the current political climate and argue how great Russians are

Today marks the 92nd anniversary of Symphony No. 2, a.k.a. “To October,” by Dmitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich. If that name alone isn’t sufficient to convince you of the inherent nobility of the Russian people, I don’t know what I can do for you. (At least, they haven’t always tried to hack us…)

Shostakovich composed “classical” music (part of the school of modernism, if you want to get technical) under the long arm of Soviet law. Occasionally his work conflicted with Stalin’s own opinions, so it’s a wonder he didn’t wind up “disappeared” like many of his contemporaries and friends. His memoir, Testimony, an extended interview with a young journalist in the ‘70s, is widely regarded as unreliable because he knew he was still being watched. The post-Stalin government had even coerced him into joining the Socialist Party. And the book was only published because the journalist smuggled it into the United States. So that paints a picture for you.

My first exposure to Shostakovich came in the form of Disney’s Fantasia 2000. Whenever I hear the first movement of Piano Concerto No. 2, I see a little tin soldier, his ballerina partner, and an evil jack-in-the-box. (I’ve never trusted those things.) My formal education happened in college, starting in sophomore year on a ride home for vacation. A junior friend, one hand on the wheel and one year of music history under her belt, described his subversive efforts to rebel against the regime by filling his orchestration with coded themes. I didn’t consciously store this information for future use, but it came back two years later as I read about him in a twentieth-century-music history course.

I won’t mince words: music is a highly emotional experience for me, and the more I learned about his valiant creative struggle, the more attracted I was to him. Also, the glasses. I love a man with a sharp pair of specs. We visually impaired folks need to stick together, you know?

In any event, I signed out every biographical and historical source in the library and set to work on a master paper shedding light on said valiant creative struggle. I couldn’t believe I’d gone so long without stumbling upon his story: the way he fell into and out of favor with power, his seemingly endless spring of inspiration, his tumultuous relationships with an array of colorful characters. I was really and wholly taken.

A few of my favorite popular artists have mentioned him among their influences, and he seems to get the recognition and the performance time he deserves. As I unearthed more and more of his compositions, I discovered the Second Piano Concerto—my oldest association with him—to be rather out of character. A majority of his catalogue is not cheerful or even pleasant, but dissonant, menacing, sometimes downright frightening. (Other pieces compensate; the waltz from his Second Suite for Variety Orchestra never fails to make me swoon.) Which only goes to show how accurately it reflects its time. And how you need not like an artist’s entire canon, or agree with his politics, to appreciate and respect him.

Shostakovich died in 1975 at age sixty-eight. He is buried in Moscow, but my first ambition is to get to St. Petersburg, his hometown and the dedicatee of at least one of his symphonies and probably plenty more works. Every culture has got ugliness in its past, and I think representatives like Shostakovich remind us how much beauty there is also.

That said, maybe I’ll hold my visit until 2021, or until things quiet down.

Here’s to a fellow September baby! (We do get all the good ones, don’t we?)

Image: Sovfoto/UIG, via Getty Images

What is a Culture Slut?

In which I define the descriptor of the blog persona

n. A member of a very particular subspecies of Homo sapiens wh develops a regular, periodic, and intense fascination with different cultural works (e.g., specific songs, books, plays, films, television shows) and their creators, thereby amassing a collection of heroes and pop “things” over their lifetime. In certain cases, the culture slut’s affinity for the artist exceeds their affinity for the art; but they usually strike a balance depending on the artist or art in mind. For example, whereas 30 Rock constitutes a large part of my admiration for Tina Fey, I prefer studying Dmitri Shostakovich’s life to almost any single composition of his.

The culture slut’s degree of fascination with any such cultural tidbit can range as follows:

<interest—————————————-fixation>

Whatever the level, their attention is concentrated on that subject, and they will reference it, subtly or not, for as long as their attention lasts. At the mild end of the spectrum, they entertain their companions with witty allusions; at the intense end, they quote lines/melodies/whole passages until their companions want to die. The amount of references is directly proportional to the presence of the subject in the culture slut’s mind. Thus, when the references peter out, you may assume the subject has crossed into the culture slut’s subconscious. However, similar to the normal human being, the culture slut is liable to experience a flare-up, or “phase,” at a later point.

The exact number of living culture sluts is unknown. Experts suspect that many more exist than will identify themselves due to embarrassment; but they have determined that those who do embrace the identity tend to congregate in cities, and they have not given up hope of pinpointing the major loci of culture slut social life worldwide.

(Culture sluts can and do survive and thrive in various socioeconomic environments.)

One of the consummate culture sluts of our day is Abed Nadir from Community, who interprets life almost exclusively through quotations of film, television, and comics. The fact that I am using a culture-obsessed sitcom character to delineate and diagnose cultural obsession should tell you all you need to know about my own condition.

Every social circle has at least one culture slut. If you don’t know who it is, it’s you.

Treat the culture slut in your life with care. Underneath all the enthusiasm, their quickness to form attachments can be a source of sensitivity, even self-consciousness. “What’s wrong with me,” they may ask, silently or aloud, “that I whore myself out to a new band or writer or Netflix show all the time?”

Listen with compassion. Reassure them that they are not a whore, even though they are. Don’t give them a hard time about it. Let them pour their heart out over the flavor of the week or month or year, and should it reach a point that you deem unreasonable or you just can’t take it anymore, gently ask them to shut up.

Image: Abed (Danny Pudi), in one of those paintball episodes that ended season 1 or 2

#ThrowbackThursday: A Tribute to International Pepper Day

In which I reflect on a gathering in Central Park to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the release of Sgt. Pepper

With the “Beatles 50” decade (that is, a series of Beatles-related 50th anniversaries) fast coming to a close, I sit listening to the special remaster of Abbey Road, which is everything I could want and more. But as this is Throwback Thursday, I’d like to commemorate an exciting event at which I was present: New York City’s Pepper Day 2017, a celebration to honor the release of the seminal Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

1 June marked half a century since Rolling Stone’s Greatest Rock Album hit the market on both sides of the Atlantic. I and my musically-inclined friends and associates anticipated the anniversary well in advance. Various ideas crossed my mind for a proverbial tip of the hat, including a joint graduation party (college for me, high school for my sister) requiring guests to dress as personalities found on the sleeve—and featuring my sister, me, and our parents as the militarily-clad Fab Four.

Like that was going to happen. The closer the big day came, the clearer the need for a more definitive plan became to me.

Halfway through the spring semester, a Beatles-scholar professor lent me his copy of Beatleness, a book by sociologist Candy Leonard which catalogues the unique cultural experience of fans growing up alongside the band in the sixties. Among many fascinating facts, I learned of the biannual Fest for Beatles Fans—and of International Pepper Day, a celebratory listening party organized by the man behind the Fest, taking place at the Strawberry Fields memorial in Central Park on the day in question.

What more definitive plan could there be? My father and I set out for the city the morning of, navigating the serpentine Upper West Side in the opposite of our usual route. We arrived with plenty of time to spare before the official noon commemoration, so we strolled across the expanse of the park, soaking in its early-summer glory under leafy brush and nearly cloudless sky, until finally we settled in for the big event. Said event consisted of…about a hundred people. Colorfully clad, florally bedecked, and peacefully minded people, no doubt, but a small group. I couldn’t help wondering if this was the place.

Then a girl in long tie-dye pants and crowned with a wreath of flowers handed me a button—a LOVE button—and I knew it was.

The lot of us clustered around the marble IMAGINE circle in the center of the memorial, in a reverent hush, and more or less stayed there for the next hour as the organizer played the new remaster on a small speaker connected to his phone. I found it almost unfathomable that the technology of music production and consumption could have come so far in half a century. Every so often we swapped positions to provide everyone with a closer listen. And I won’t say it felt like hearing the album for the first time—not least because we’d listened to the original and two different cover versions on the trip down—but to be surrounded by people whose passion vibrated as palpably as mine did was something else. The energy in that circle electrified me. I spoke with total strangers, a feat for someone with her share of social hang-ups, and felt understood. It was an atmosphere of goodwill and camaraderie that I imagined resembled Woodstock, albeit on a smaller (and less muddy) scale.

That atmosphere was sustained as the album ended and we segued into what the organizer, a beneficent older gentleman, called “the jam session.” This consisted of several musicians in the crowd bringing out their instruments and playing through the album in their own style.

Of course, they needed singers. No rendition of the album could be complete without those fantastic lyrics.

Enter me. Alongside the organizer and the guitarist of a local band, I took a tambourine and sang my way through every song without missing a word. We harmonized brilliantly on “With a Little Help from My Friends.” Eventually I was at the helm of the singing group, and a man I later understood to be the producer Mark Hudson joined me on “Getting Better.” He had tie-dyed his beard. I couldn’t remember the last time I had smiled so continuously; it had been hours on end.

That afternoon was proof that it is getting better all the time. And although I missed the recent Fests in Chicago and New York, despite encouragement from the people I met that day, the event is now on my radar permanently. (Let’s see when I get there, or when an outpost comes to Europe.)

I acquired Sgt. Pepper on CD one Christmas when I was very young and unable to appreciate its genius. Sometimes things take a while to percolate. Don’t ever dismiss a piece of work: it might never mean anything to you, but it might.

Nota Bene (On the Title)

Benvenuti al mio blog!

Or, you know, Willkommen, because that’s where I live!

(But I took this photo in London.)

In which I introduce myself and explain the forthcoming venture

This blog will not begin with me. That honor belongs to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Mozart’s comic opera Così fan tutte follows two sisters’ madcap scheme to—what else?—marry their men of choice. The Italian libretto, written by longtime collaborator Lorenzo da Ponte (who *FUN FACT* lived for a while in the town adjacent to my Pennsylvania college town), is not among the texts I have studied in eight years of exposure to the language, nor in any opera studies class. But I did sing an aria from it at a workshop, and I can roughly translate the title to “All women do this.”

Really? All women? How disappointing. I mean, I know I take great pains to deceive everyone in my life into believing I’m devoted to one person before zanily swapping them out for someone else, but I figured that was what made me special.

In any event, I’ve modified the phrase for my agenda: the conjugation of the verb fare (to do) is now in the first-person singular. Così faccio io. This is what I do. I am like this—besotted with music, books, film, theatre, language, travel, and all things cultural.

A few other things I am: a brand-new Master of Arts in English Literature, having graduated this past May from Central Connecticut State University; a singer-dancer-actress; an expatriate Berliner; an Anglo- and Europhile; a voracious reader; my own greatest audience for my jokes and monologues; the biggest Beatles fan in almost any given radius; a high-functioning neurotic; and very, very Italian.

I do hope something in that list resonated with you. Even if not, cut me some slack. I’m new here. And the obscure tidbits and minutiae that occur to me might just have occurred to you too. The human mind is an extraordinary thing. It’s boring to explore it alone.

So give me a chance, why don’t you? Or if not, at least give peace a chance. That’s all we are saying.* Right?

*John Lennon is my love. God help the man I marry, if I marry a man, if I marry at all.

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