by Robert Gillis
Published in the Foxboro Reporter, 2/1997 and the Boston City Paper 10/2006
Ciao and buongiorno! (Hello and good day!)
Sue and I have played “ambassador to the United States” these last three weeks, with the happy arrival of some of her family from Italy. Uncle, Aunt, and their nineteen year old daughter Angela arrived for a brief visit in early January along with Angela’s fiancée Franco, who has never been to the States before.
The Italian part of the family hails from a little town called Viareggio, which is in north west Italy on the Ligurian Sea, about 20 miles from Pisa in Tuscany.
Any visit from the Italian part of the family is welcome; they’re warm, romantic and loving people, and they really took a liking to me when I met them several years back.
When I try to communicate with them, it’s like the “I Love Lucy” episodes where five people communicate in five different languages using the “I tell you, you tell him, he tells her, she tells him” method. I worried sometimes that, “Would you like coffee?” might be mistranslated to, “Your country is yucky” or something far worse, but fortunately we were able to communicate fairly well and avoid declarations of war.
Although Sue speaks Italian almost fluently, I wanted to be able to contribute a little more to each conversation besides the minimal ten Italian words I know (not including “spaghetti” and “pizza”) so I stopped at Boyden Library for an Italian-English handbook.
While my pronunciation of Italian words was still ludicrous, at least my thoughts and ideas were crossing the language barrier a little more intact. I’ve often found that foreigners really appreciate it when you at least try to speak their language — even if your pronunciation is as garbled as mine. You’re still making a connection because you’re making the effort.
While the time was crazed and rushed, these last three weeks of playing tour guide for two extremely likable kids have been a joy. Not only are Franco and Angela obviously in love, but they bring a sense of wonder with them. While Viareggio is very beautiful, they’ve never seen skyscrapers like the ones in Boston or New York before, or the incredible variety of our local malls. Their biggest mall near Viareggio has about ten stores. On their last visit (and this one) trips to the malls to buy gifts for the family and friends back home were a regular event.
Their generosity extended to us, as we humorously waged regular international incidents over who would pick up the dinner check when we all went out. We started to play games, where Franco would try to grab the check before it landed on the table, or I would race ahead to buy the movie tickets before he could.
For my wife and myself, activities that have long since lost their novelty (such as overlooking the Boston night skyline from the 60th floor of the John Hancock tower) were renewed when seen through the wide-eyed wonder of our Italian guests.
“Bello, bello!” Angela kept repeating. (Beautiful!)
A request to see some “American cinema” lands us at a screening of “Star Trek: First Contact,” and the amusing sight of Sue trying to translate the concept of a Borg invasion of 21st century Earth into Italian. While he enjoyed the movie, Franco says he’s looking forward to the dubbed version in Italy next year!
We showed them Foxboro Stadium and explained all the hoopla going on here this past month. We tried the exciting “MOM” ride at Jorden’s Furniture and had nachos and burgers at the Bull & Finch, a.k.a. Cheers.
We braved the bitter Boston cold to support the Patriots at City Hall Plaza. “Fredo, fredo!” Angela kept repeating, referring to the frigid cold temperatures. She finally sought shelter at a nearby coffee shop, but Franco smiled and kept his camcorder going, drinking in all the enthusiasm of a crowd cheering its beloved home team. Hearing Franco yell, “Go Pats!” in English brought a smile to everyone’s face. He even bought a Patriots T-shirt!
A trip to the bowling alley brought us a lot of laughter, especially when we started a new “sudden death” bowling match, where five of us threw a ball down the lane simultaneously. Wisely, we adjourned to the air-hockey tables before the management asked us to leave.
Of course, we had to visit Boston’s North End, to compare gourmet coffees and pastries with the originals in Italy. Overall, we found they compare well. We also found a copy of the daily Italian newspaper, which made Franco light up with a ten megawatt smile. He was pleased to learn his favorite sports teams back home were doing well.
Franco and Angela had also asked to try some typical American food, so they had hot dogs at Fanuel hall, and they absolutely loved the steak subs at Primos here in Foxboro, repeatedly saying, “Molto buono, molto buono!” (very good, very good!)
We also got the opportunity to try some authentic Italian cooking. One evening, Franco picked up some spices and vegetables and prepared a very unique pasta sauce. He learned the delicious recipe, he told me, from a woman in Italy who made her living as a lumberjack! A few nights later, Franco also treated us to his homemade tiramisu (a delicious Italian dessert). Uncle favored the family with a uniquely Italian seafood dish a few nights later.
Despite the language barriers, I got to know Franco and Angela pretty well, and Franco became a buddy, mainly because I discovered to my delight that he’s as crazy as I am. American or Italian, concepts like humor and music are universal. A hilariously off-key version of the “Lion King” song has everyone in hysterics. Shared interests in music by Enya and Springsteen seem to fill the language gaps nicely. Many moments were truly “You had to be there,” but once Franco and I started singing No Mercy’s, “Where do you go, my lovely” in a mangled English/Italian version for the family, none of us could stop laughing for the rest of the day.
The little translation book continued to be a hit; Franco and I continued to teach each other Italian and English. Franco says he’s going to pick up a similar book so that he can learn some English every day.
For me, one of the nicest moments was when Franco flipped through the translation book and then said in perfect English, “Thank you … very much … for your hospitality.”
Don’t thank us. We say “grazie” (thank you) to you, for being so loving and fun to be with. We thank you for making a cold January exciting and colorful, and I personally thank you for making me feel like such a welcome member of your family.