Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Food market requires expertise to fully utilize but has something for everyone

Tuesday, February 28

Here are a couple of the 50 or so fruit and vegie vendors in the market.
Previously, we have never lived anywhere in Italy where we could walk just a few blocks to a huge daily market. Last year in San Salvatore, we discovered a small market that came to town just one morning a week. When we last lived in Padova, we were on the edge of town, far from the market, and we used a neighborhood Alí grocery store for small daily purchases. Once a week, we also took the bus or our bikes to the larger Auchen supermarket to stock up on staples. At that time, we passed by the huge Padova central market only occasionally, and for me it never really sank in that this market is set up and taken down every day, except Sunday, and that people come here each morning to buy the food they plan to prepare for that day.

The selection is vast and diverse. I walk up and down the aisles and count nearly 50 separate fruit and vegetable vendors, each with a tent set up over box upon box of fresh, ripe produce. I usually do not linger as I do today, and by taking some extra time, I notice that the prices are a little lower in the center of the aisles. I have always bought from the first stall I came upon, but now I see that the outside vendors, with their more convenient locations, can get away with charging more because of people like me. I also notice that the center rows are packed with Italian shoppers who already know where to find the better prices.
This is a bean lovers dream.

I go back to the vendor where last week we bought some soup mix. I really don’t know what this stand is called in either Italian or English, but it has a beautiful and mouth-watering array of every type of bean, rice and pea, along with many grains and other dried ingredients. They are in burlap sacks, but the tops of the sacks have been turned down to display the wares. It would take a lifetime to learn the best use for all these foods, so for our soup last week, we settled on zuppa golosa, a pre-mixed variety of orzo, farro, lenticchie, piselli and fava. Today we buy another kilo of zuppa golosa and also some mixed beans. I ask the lady who serves us how many types of beans this combination contains. “Tanti,” she says with a quick smile. “Tutti.” So many. All. I count the individual bean varieties on sale and find about 30, so I guess we will be having 30-bean soup soon. I also count 12 types of risotto, and then another 12 types of risotto mixed with various other individual items, such as dried mushrooms, dried vegetables, spices, beans and even fruit. Other bins have similar varieties of basmati and couscous.

Much of it I have no idea how to prepare. Lucy, of course, does most of our cooking and is an excellent cook, with years of experience and no reluctance to experiment or use a cookbook to try something new. Yet even with all her expertise, she admits to being overwhelmed and somewhat bewildered by some of the new and unfamiliar ingredients. We need a personal trainer to teach us how to shop and use everything the market has to offer.

Next to the outdoor stalls are vendors with more permanent locations, under cover and with electricity needed to keep their meats, poultry and cheeses chilled. There are nearly as many butcher shops inside as there are produce vendors outside. The cheese choices are truly daunting. I ask a vendor how many different types of cheese he has. Only about 140 here, he says, because he doesn’t have enough room for all the others he could stock. How is one to know which to serve with which type of meal?

When they say whole chickens for sale, they're not kidding.
One macceleria has defurred rabbits and whole chickens and turkeys hanging from the ceiling, but most meat is already cut up and labeled. Perhaps some Italians want to see the whole animal to make sure they are getting the real thing. My mom used to use rabbit meat in pasta asciutta, and it was delicious, but we don’t feel at ease buying a whole or even half rabbit.

A couple of markets specialize in horse meat. No thanks on that, too, although apparently I have eaten it before. I once made a comment that I have never tried horse meat, and Patti Gray said, “But didn't you eat lunch at the school? They serve horse meat sometimes.” Yes, when I taught for a year at EISP, I ate lunch in the cafeteria every day, so apparently I’ve had horse meat without knowing it. Still, I am not interested in trying it again.
The easiest and cheapest way to eat great Italian food is to buy fresh pasta and fresh sauce, then put it
together in your own kitchen. Even I can do this!

So though we only scratch the surface of the Italian menu possibilities, the choices we make are more than satisfactory. We can easily buy fresh pasta in nearly infinite varieties, and the sauce choices are also plentiful. Some shops offer freshly cooked pasta dishes which can be taken home and reheated in the microwave. The strawberries and oranges we buy today take no special skills to prepare and eat.

Here's another way to eat cheaply without knowing
how to cook. Buy it ready-made.
True, modern supermarkets are easier and more familiar for us, but shopping in the open market is a priceless experience. Italians have bought their food this way for thousands of years, and we feel in a small way we are now part of that history.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The richness of Italian word variations, and a filli billi filastrocca

Dianne Hales writes that the typical English dictionary has three times as many words as an Italian dictionary, but she adds that “a single Italian word can reveal more than an entire English paragraph.” This is so, she says, because “. . . with a prefix here and a suffix there, Italian words multiply like fruit flies. Fischiare (whistle) sounds merry enough, but fischiettare means ‘whistling with joy.’ A sign outside a rustic osteria (a tavern serving simple food) summarized its entire menu in three variations on a single word: pranzo (lunch)—fifteen euro, pranzetto (lighter lunch)—ten euro, and pranzettino (bite to eat)—five euro.

Today I meet an Italian friend, Alessandro Paccagnella, at a
 caffetteria to share a caffé and cioccolata calda. In a demonstration of the richness of his language, Alessandro provides me with an explanation of the main Italian suffixes. Three make things smaller (diminutivi), so a small casa could be a casina, casetta or casella. You could even combine suffixes to make the house really, really small, a casettina. Another two make things larger (accrescitivi), so adding on to your casa could make it a casona or casacchiona, with the latter ending usually having an ironic connotation. You can also make your casa sound endearing by using vezzeggiativi and call it a casuccia or casetta, but if you want to insult someone’s house, use peggiorativi and call it a casaccia or casastra. Some verbs, adjectives and adverbs can also use these endings. We live in the Casolare dei Fiori when we stay in San Salvatore, and that’s a suffix that Alessandro doesnt include in his list. He says it refers to an isolated house in the countryside or mountains. Now that I hear the definition, I realize it is probably a combination of casa and isolare, to isolate.

This linguistic multi-tasking was actually one of my first lessons in Italian. My nonno made up a
 filastrocca, a nursery rhyme, that he used to tell with much expression to his seven children, and they in turn passed it along to their children. Although I never heard the story first-hand from Nonno, I learned it at the knees of my dad, uncle Rudy, sister Linda and brother Roger. The reason I say Nonno made it up is that I have never heard or read anything similar in Italy, and when I told the story to my relatives in Italy, they just gave me strange looks. Apparently, it was not a story passed down from Nonno’s parents to Nonno’s brother Enrico. Then too, the story doesn’t have much of a plot; it is mostly just an excuse to tickle, quite literally, the bambini. During the entire tale, the story teller uses his hands to creep spider-like along the legs, torso, arms and neck of the listener to illustrate the actions of the main character, the fictional filli billi macola.

Besides being amusing when told in either Italian or English, it teaches a little about Italian word endings. I have provided the words below, as they were remembered by Roger and changed by me from the dialectic inflections that he learned into standard Italian, to the best of my limited abilities. Keep in mind that this is a story best heard and felt; it loses a lot of drama in the written form, but if you learn it with expression and tell it to your 3-year-old, you might see why it was so memorable for me.

First, in Italian

C’era una volta una filli billi macola (use one hand to creep along your listener’s body), che camminava (you can also substitute filli billi macolava for camminava here) sul filli billi macoletto, (now use the other hand as well) con cento mila filli billi macolini dietro. Dice la filli billi macolona, “Filli billi macolate voi altri! Io ho filli billi macolato assai!” E i filli billi macolini filli billi macolono. At this point, the story ends with lots of tickling and repeating “filli billi macola” over and again until the listener squirms away.

Now English

Once upon a time, there was a filli billi macola, that walked (or filli billi macola-ed) along the filli billi macola trail with a hundred thousand little filli billi macolas behind. The mother filli billi macola says, “Filli billi macola yourselves! I have filli billi macola-ed enough!” And the little filli billi macolas filli billi maccola-ed . . . filli billi macola, filli billi macola, filli billi macola . . .

This has multiple endings for the noun filli billi macola, and it also uses it as a verb in several different persons and tenses. This may not be exactly the way my cousins remember it, but such is the way of children’s stories. Nobody tells them quite the same way. Now that I have finally written this down, there is no excuse for my own children not to learn it. And I will have to make sure that my grandchildren hear it enough so that they can repeat it for their children and grandchildren.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Asolo’s charms worth excursion by bike, bus, train and foot

Part of the view from just below where we
ate our lunch.

Saturday, February 25
Almost without our noticing, the weather has changed from ice and snow to nearly spring-like conditions—perfect for a day trip to the picturesque hillside village of Asolo. Unlike some of our excursions last year, when we just looked at a map and picked a destination city that looked remote and yet large enough to have some interesting streets and shops, this time we have a recommendation. Calvin and Patty, friends from Gig Harbor, took a vacation in Asolo some years ago, and they still speak fondly of their time there. We have also read that it was once the home of the poet Robert Browning, British writer/explorer Freya Stark and Italian actress Eleonora Duse.

Without a car, we start with a five-minute bike ride to the Padova stazione, followed by a 30-minute train ride to Castelfranco. Then we have a 20-minute walk to the CSM bus station, and then it’s another 25-minute ride to the lower edge of Asolo. The bus driver tells us where to get off and says we should take a little city bus five minutes up the hill to the centro. He honks his horn to get the attention of the city bus driver, who is just leaving, but without success. Now we will have to wait 25 minutes for the next bus. We decide to walk, though we predict—accurately, it turns out—that we will reach the centro at the same time the next bus does. Va bene, the walk helps us build up an appetite that will make our pranzo all the more saporoso.

An old bike on an old street outside an old antique store.
The city is definitely worth the effort, with meandering stone streets and the always intriguing hodge-podge of ancient gates, windows, doors and walls. Lucy finds a little shop with hand-made shirts on display. She persuades me to go inside, and with an inner struggle, I overcome my aversion for clothes shopping. Silene, the proprietress, makes clothing to order, but the shirts in the window are for display and are now on sale. I try on a white shirt with purple stripes, and it fits perfectly. I can wear it in July for Lindsey’s wedding. We spend a couple of enjoyable minutes talking with Silene, a conversation made more pleasurable because it is entirely in Italian. We ask her if there is a panetteria in the city with an ancient wood oven, a place that Calvin and Patty had told us about. It is only 100 meters away, she says, but unfortunately it closed two years ago, a victim of the declining economy.
Silene, me and my new hand-sewn shirt.

Lucy relaxing on the steps just below the
cafe where we had our lunch. You can
just see our table at the top of the stairs.
We continue our stroll and end up at the Bar Castello, where we take a long snack at an outside table, soaking in the sunshine and the panorama. We share the best panino I have ever had in Italy. Instead of coming with already baked bread, the panino is made with two flat circles of dough and kept in the refrigerator. Between the dough is fresh pork, local cheese and red lettuce. It is popped in the oven, so not only is the thick cheese deliciously melted but the bread exudes that unmistakable fresh-baked aroma and taste. Our lunch stretches on, with Lucy reading a novel and me writing. We don't want the moment to end, so we keep adding items—hot chocolate, then the panino with potato chips. Now a Coke with lemon and ice. More potato chips. Another Coke, with a shared tiramisú (also expertly made).

When it finally comes time to leave, we catch the city bus—actually it is a van—
going down, and we reverse our itinerary. It occurs to me that part of the authentic Italian charm that Asolo has retained is because it is not so easily reached. And this is what we have come to Italy to find, not the crowded cities packed with more foreigners than Italians, but places like this, where the natives enjoy the simplicity and beauty of their daily business as they have done for so many hundreds of years.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Soup, spaghetti served con sprezzatura

Tuesday, February 21
We stay mostly inside today to work on our Italian lessons. I also do some writing and Lucy works on a quilt. Around mezzogiorno, though, we walk down to the outdoor market to look around and smell the delicious odors of fresh fruit, spices, pastries and pane. We can't resist some chocolate filled fritelle, and Lucy buys a quarter liter of various grains to put in a soup she is planning for dinner.

It is warm enough that a restaurant on the piazza has set up tables outside, perhaps for the first time this year. As we pause to consider sitting down, a waiter shows us an appealing menu and tells us there is no coperto, cover charge. We are trying to conserve our budget and eat meals in our apartment, but it is such a beautiful day, and we have not yet had our fill of the sights and sounds of the piazza, so we sit.

Lucy has some rigatoni and I have a bowl of soup, and we notice the attention the restaurant pays to style and detail. We are given a colorful basket with three types of bread, artfully arranged. Our table service is wrapped in a paper envelope imprinted with flowers. The waiter is in his mid-20s, but he has already mastered that easy going Italian charm and attentiveness that embody la bella figura.

I have been reading the book La Bella Lingua, by Dianne Hales, who like myself is an Italophile. Our waiter brings to mind something Hales wrote about the courtly manner shown by many Italians. She cites a 15th century count, Baldassarre Castiglione, who served in several royal courts. In his writings, he gives advice on how to be a gentleman, and he invents a word to describe his ideal, sprezzatura, which means the studied carelessness that “conceals art and presents everything said and done as something brought about without laboriousness and almost without giving it any thought.” Hales adds, “The closest English comes is ‘nonchalance,’ which fails to capture the behind-the-scenes preparation and hard work that underlies the ability to carry off ‘things that are exquisite and well done’—be it a duel, debate or dance, executed with such ease that it inspires ‘the greatest wonder.’ This is the essence of bella figura.”

As I give my credit card to pay the conto, I find that our waiter’s courtly behavior likely comes from the fine family line of his mother. He notices my name on the card. “Spadoni!” he says. “Mia madre si chiama Spadoni.” His mother is a Spadoni from Roma, so the confluence of our families could be 1000 years distant. Still, it is nice to have this added connection as a fitting conclusion to our little lunch break.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Italian class educational in its own way

Monday, February 20
My first free language class begins with 22 of us setting our chairs in a U shape around Ilaria, who explains that our placement test results showed mixed skill levels. Nine students showed more advanced knowledge and may find the class too simple, she says, and she encourages those students to go to the Wednesday and Friday evening classes instead of the Monday and Wednesday afternoon classes, because the evening classes will be smaller. I am one of the nine she suggests take the evening classes, and I say I will check my schedule. As she explains course expectations, more people trickle in, and we have to widen our semi-circle. Ilaria has to re-explain things to the newcomers, and I volunteer to carry more chairs from an adjacent classroom. By the end of the class, she has 28 students. I am barely able to keep up with what she is saying, and I wonder how the 19 who are less advanced than I are able to understand.

We must give notice if we will miss a class. Those who miss three consecutive classes will be dropped. We must attend at least 25 hours of the 45-hour term to be presented with a certificate of attendance. The classes are free, but we must purchase a textbook for 17 euro.

Ilaria is italianissima—well dressed, thin, pretty and graceful—and we are a motley group of blue collar immigrants. Some have brought their children, who sit quietly off to the side. Ilaria has us state our names and where we are from, and my classmates are from Morocco, Russia, Puerto Rico, Romania, Cameroon, Nigeria, Moldova, Algeria, India, Sri Lanka and Ukraine. I am the only American.

Since much of our time was taken with procedures, seating and introductions, we have time for only two very simple handouts. In the first one, we match 12 pictures with 12 words, such as treno, piazza, vino, stazione, mercato and so on. A couple of students think that piazza is something to eat, and at this point I have pretty much decided to try the evening class, because I am probably not going to learn anything new about Italian in this class.

The experience makes me grateful for many things. I am thankful that this is not my only chance to learn the language. I have the Rosetta Stone program, and I can afford to take lessons at a private school if I want. Most of these people have left everything behind to come to Italy, and they have no other choice than this free class. I am also grateful for my Italian grandparents, who left their homes to provide their children and grandchildren a solid chance for prosperity. The immigrants in this classroom remind me of my grandparents, who risked all to come to a new land, enduring hardship so that I can enjoy an easier life. I may not learn much Italian during the two more weeks I will take these classes, but that doesn't mean I won't be enriched by the experience.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

More amusing language blunders

Saturday, February 18
In a previous blog (Language blunders embarrassing but, from distance of time, amusing), I told of some interesting mistakes that I and other stranieri have made in Italy, and today I hear of two more while working with Curtis, a missionary in Italy who is also helping Steve and Patti move furniture to their new house. Curtis has been in Italy for nearly 10 years, and as I ride in his car, we have a helpful conversation about learning Italian, during which he mentions that he now is able to deliver a sermon in Italian.

Always looking for an interesting story, I ask if he has made any memorable mistakes during a sermon. “I’ve probably made mistakes that I’m still not aware of,” he says. “Someone did point out a problem in my first sermon. I meant to say, ‘capiamo,’ or ‘we understand.’ Instead I said ‘capisciamo,’ which essentially means, ‘we piss together.’ Someone discreetly pointed this out to me after the sermon.”

However, he said that his friend Terry, who is already included in my previous language blunders blog, had an even worse experience. He preached an entire sermon on discouragement, with the gist of the message being that we should not be discouraged. But there are only a few subtle differences between scoraggiare, discourage, and scorregiare, pass gas. Terry repeatedly used the wrong word and hence he essentially preached that his listeners should not fart—surely good advice in a land where fare la bella figura is important, but not exactly a message with the spiritual significance he intended.

“Now I try at all costs to never use the Italian word discouragement,” Curtis says, “because after hearing that story, I can never quite be positive that the correct word is going to come out of my mouth.”

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Venezia Carnevale fascinating, and the city itself is just as appealing

The legs on this costume are fake.
The person's real legs are under
the egg.
Thursday, February 16
Living in San Salvatore last year, we were only 50 minutes from Viareggio and were able to view the amazing animated floats of the city’s Carvevale in February. Now we are only 30 minutes by train from Venezia, and so we are off on the 8:30 a.m. train to take in the other of Italys two most famous Carnevale celebrations.

I continue to marvel at the bargain prices we can obtain on Italy's regionale trains. We purchase round trip tickets for 3.50 euro each and arrive at 9 a.m. sharp. Since the corso mascherto, the parade of masks, is not scheduled until 11 a.m., we decide to hop a traghetto for the island of Murano, famous since at least the 10th century for its exquisite glass artists. A one-way boat ride to Murano is 6.50 euro, and although one could probably get away with using the same ticket to get back to the train station, we end up buying a return ticket as well.
This is one of the options if you don't have a
mask or costume.

Lucy has been to Murano before, but this is my first time. Previously she was able to watch a glass blowing artist for free, but now we are asked to pay 3 euro to watch at one of the shops. We decline, as we saw a demonstration in Venezia some years ago. Today, we are content to stroll the nearly empty sidewalks and watch as the Muranesi go about their daily business. Murano is much like Venezia, except the buildings are not as large and the sidewalks are less traveled. No gondolas here—the diverse boats and barges going to and fro in the canals are carrying fisherman, construction workers, mail and bundles of cargo. After we feast our eyes watching canals, boats and people, we stop for some gelato and then catch a boat to Piazza San Marco, the heart of Carnevale.

Look carefully and you
can see this lady's real
eyes just below her left
Viareggio has the most spectacular floats we have ever seen, but in keeping with the long history of Carnevale in Venezia, the focus here is on elaborate individual costumes. The Venezia celebration dates back to at least the 1100s, and Carneval become an official city holiday in 1296. Masks have been the trademark, and it is said that it is a time when the rich and poor rub shoulders because the masks hide people’s identities.

Lucy enjoys her wine and
frittella in front of the
fountain of wine.
Revelers who neglect to bring their costumes can purchase masks on site, or else they can have trucco, face makeup, applied by local artists. The parade of masks is not a formal parade, as far as we can see. People just mill about the piazza adorned with everything from simple masks to intricately designed full-length costumes. Those with the best costumes are besieged by tourists asking them to pose for photos. We see an old lady who is very short but has a costume which extends her height an additional two feet. We know she is short because we can just see her weathered face peeking out through the midriff of the costume of a fair young maiden. Lucy comments that this is a time when people can be who they want to be.

Italians start participating in
Carnevale at a young age.
We buy a glass of wine and frittella at the fountain of wine. Behind the booth, a fountain spouts a deep red liquid, but the actual wine we drink is poured from a bottle. A stage at the end of the piazza has musicians, dancers, actors and acrobats performing, and after a while the master of ceremonies and his assistants round up a dozen of the most interesting costumes and bring them up on stage for judging. The winner for the day is dressed as Marie Antoinette, accompanied by Il Re Sole, King Louis XVI.

Tourists love to pose with
the costumed characters.
And the winner is . . . Marie Antoniette, along with the Sun King, Louis XVI.

We take a train home at about 3 p.m. Overall, we would say that though the costumes were beautiful and interesting, the floats in Viareggio make last year’s Carnevale far more memorable and impressive. But given that Venezia itself is one of the most fascinating cities in the world, I would be hard pressed if asked to recommend one over the other.
That's Lucy on the left and Paul on the right. Yeah, sure.

King Neptune and his bride attracted a lot of attention.
Lady acrobat applies her makeup while
being held aloft.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Finding my place in free Italian class

Wednesday, February 15
It turns that my first free language class for immigrants today is just a placement test. After a 20-minute bike ride, I find the right government office and join some 30 plus students who listen to Ilaria speak rapid Italian, explaining that we must fill out a form listing our names, addresses, passport numbers and cell phone numbers. Then we will take a two-page exam, which we must do entirely by ourselves, and we will be placed in a class appropriate to our level that meets next Monday and Wednesday in the afternoon, or Wednesday and Friday in the evenings, depending on either which is more convenient for us or how we do on the exam. That last part I am not quite sure about.

She pauses a couple of times to say, “Avete capito?”  Have you understood? A couple of people nod, so she continues, but my experience as a teacher and with human nature informs me that a number of people probably don’t understand but figure they can just follow along to see what other people are doing.

When she passes out the information forms, she calls out a number of different languages, because the questions have been translated to accommodate various immigrants. There are forms in Chinese, Arab, French, English, Romanian and a few others. The test is only two pages long, but it has a number of irregular verbs, nouns, prepositions and adjectives, so it will probably serve its purpose and be quick to evaluate.

While the classes may be large and I will only be in Padova long enough to take four lessons, it is something I feel compelled to do. It will at least give me some closure for my efforts of 10 years ago, when I tried to sign up for this class but was denied by some ironical regulations. I couldn't take the class without a permesso di soggiorno, but in the office granting this permission to stay in Italy, the officials did not speak English, meaning that I had to speak Italian to obtain permission to take a class to teach me Italian.

In any event, Ilaria does not ask for a permesso di soggiorno or even to see our passports, so it seems the government has relaxed its requirements.  “Ci vediamo lunedì,” she says as I hand in my test and leave. 

Thursday, February 16, 2012

At home in Padova

Tuesday, February 14
Today we help Steve and Patti by painting the inside their new home, which they will be moving into at the end of February. We started this last Saturday and by the end of today, we have painted two bedrooms, a bathroom and the living room. Now we head back to our cozy quarters for a delicious Valentine's Day dinner purchased at a nearby rosticceria.

We are thrilled with our little Padova appartamento. Though the temperature outside is consistently below freezing, we are mostly toasty warm, except for one day when the freezing wind was howling and the central heating couldn't quite keep up. Our appartamento is owned by our church here, International Christian Fellowship, and it is two floors above the church's office. The church uses it to house short-term missionaries and interns, but it was going to be unoccupied this month, so our staying here helps the church maintain some income while saving us a little money over the rate we would otherwise be paying in the San Salvatore agriturismo Casolare dei Fiori.

If we put our laptops by the window of the bathroom or the small bedroom, we can just manage to pick up the wi-fi from the church office, though we sometimes lose the connection and have to wait a few minutes and try again. If we need to use Skype to call home, we just have to go down below and unlock the church office to get better reception.

One of the best features of this place is the location. Just across the piazza is the Despar grocery store, so we can easily buy our food fresh for the day. The farmer's market in the centro is open daily and is only a five-minute walk, and the stazione is only 10 minutes a piedi. However, the church has loaner bikes, and we can get to most anywhere we need even faster. If we have to go farther, we are right next to many major bus routes.

We could happily stay in Padova for the next three months, but it is too easy to keep our American identities here. The church community is definitely international, but it is not particularly Italian. Most of the members are African or Eastern European, with a smattering of American, Italian, Filipino and other random nationalities thrown in. True, the sermon is translated into Italian, which is helpful for our language development, but we end up speaking English most of the time. Living in San Salvatore takes us out of our cultural comfort zone, and we are more likely to have encounters with Italians, some of whom are my relatives. This is more in keeping with my purpose for living in Italy. But meanwhile, we are enjoying every moment of our three weeks in Padova.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Learning our lessons the hard way

Monday, February 13
Finding the best language class is proving to be a difficult venture. When we lived in Padova in 2001-02, we tried two schools, Inlingua and Bertram Russell. Inlingua offered pricey individual instruction that quickly threatened to break our budget, so Lucy, Suzye and Lindsey took group lessons at Bertram Russell. Because I was working, I could sit in on only an occasional lesson.

They went to school four hours a day and five days a week in the beginning class, with instruction entirely in Italian. While total immersion has its advantages, it can be a daunting experience. The proprietress and staff were friendly and helpful, but the classes moved too quickly, with much time spent listening to the teacher talk and little time to practice one concept before moving on to the next. The insegnanti are obliged to cover all the curriculum, and they forge ahead regardless of the level of befuddlement of gli studenti. Some students give up and stop coming. The more persistent repeat each level numerous times before passing the tests to advance to the next level, which is what happened in my family's situation.

On Friday, Lucy and I walked into the office of Bertram Russell and were surprised to be greeted warmly by the head of the school, who seemed to remember us as if we had only been away one year instead of 10. We sat in on the last hour of the intermediate class, currently in its fifth day of 20 sessions. We were given the study guides for both the beginning and intermediate classes to peruse. By the end of the hour, we drew two conclusions: That there were some concepts in the latter stages of the beginning study guide that we needed to review, and that we would not be able to bear four hours a day of listening to the teacher. She seemed nice enough, but she did 99 percent of the talking in class, except for the long pauses when she wrote sentences on the blackboard. This did not seem the place for us.

Before coming to Italy, Lucy had purchased the Rosetta Stone interactive computer program at Borders Books closeout sale, and on the weekend, we took our first Rosetta Stone lesson. The first lessons, though too basic for our skill level, kept us fully engaged for an hour. In comparing the group class with the computer program, we concluded that an hour with the Rosetta Stone is worth at least two hours of group lessons.

This morning I check into two other options. First, I sit in on 20 minutes of the Bertram Russell beginning class, which as we thought is much too elemental for us, and once again there is much time taken to write on the board or listen while other students struggle to answer questions from the instructor. Worse, of the nine students present, only one has done his weekend homework, which was to write a paragraph on one's own hobbies and interests. The other students either didn't understand the assignment or just didn't want to do it, so the class spends most of the time listening to the teacher. I find it strange that people would spend $600 on a class and not do their homework, but I leave knowing that this is definitely not the place for us.

Leaving Bertram Russell, I pursue our final option, hunting down a government office that I had looked up on the Internet over the weekend. It offers free classes for immigrants, classes I had tried to take 10 years ago but was rebuffed because I didn't have a permesso di soggiorno (a story I will tell another time). I explain that I am a dual citizen interested in the free classes, and the man at the information desk tells me I should just show up at one of the classes and sign up. The classes are offered twice a week for an hour and a half, a total of only three hours a week. He circles the location that is closest to where I live but warns me that none of the classes are in my neighborhood. He doesn't give any indication whether or not my legal status here is important to my eligibility for the class, so I will have to see what happens when I show up for the next class, which is two days from now.

Three hours a week is not going to teach me enough Italian, but 20 hours a week of sitting and listening to the same voice at Bertram Russell is more than I can take, so I am not thrilled with either choice. Private lessons of about two hours a day might be ideal, but that will cost more than I want to spend. It seems Rosetta Stone is the best choice, but I will also see what the free classes are like.

The problem with Rosetta Stone is not the program but the student and the weaknesses of the flesh. I know it will be too easy for me to choose to read, write, take a walk or just snooze instead of doing my daily lesson. Hopefully, though, I will be a different person here, without the distractions of running a business and my many home projects. With the added incentive of having Italians all around who expect me to understand them and make myself understood, I have the incentive to make it work.

My goal will be eight hours a week of Rosetta Stone and three hours with the free government classes. If the free classes are not for me, then I can increase the Rosetta Stone hours. I’ve been told that the very best way to learn Italian is to get an Italian girlfriend or boyfriend, but neither Lucy nor I have an opening in those positions, so we’re just going to stay disciplined and stick with our lessons.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

African problem runs deeper than American attitudes of discrimination

Friday, February 10
Although yesterday I pointed out a parallel between U.S. racial relations in the 1950s and 60s and Italian attitudes of today, the roots of the situation here are much different. First of all, the blacks in Italy all came here by choice, with a majority sneaking in illegally. They are resented by the Italians for a variety of reasons: They take away jobs, they put a financial strain on the social, medical and education systems, and they change the culture and tone of a society that is hugely dependent on its cultural appeal for its number one industry of tourism. Seventy-five percent of Italians also think that immigrants are responsible for an increase in crime in the country, according to a 2000 census survey.

I find all this out in conversations with Jeremiah, a Nigerian member of our church here, and Steve, the pastor, as well as from on-line sources. Jeremiah has been here for seven years, without documentation and without a regular job. He has a wife in Nigeria whom he supports by selling cheap products on the streets and picking up the infrequent odd job. In order to obtain a permesso di soggiorno, he needs someone who will guarantee his support and health care while he is in the country, and none of his Nigerian friends are wealthy enough to do this.

Nigerians like Jeremiah are caught in a Catch 22-like situation, Steve says. “They can’t get a job because they don't have work permits. And they can't get work permits because they don't have jobs.”

To get a work permit, immigrants have to find someone who will stand up and say, “I need this man for this job because he has a special set of skills.” That very rarely happens, and so Jeremiah lives perpetually in poverty. Some Africans in his situation give up and go back home, but he remains, hoping that one day his situation will improve.

Italy cannot possibly afford the extra military protection needed to guard its coastlines from the flood of illegal immigrants. While Italian citizens cry out for the government to find a solution, it seems that for others, the unofficial policy is “We can't stop them from coming, but we can make it so miserable here that they won't want to stay.”

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Black man refuses to back down to train conductor

Thursday, February 9
I am standing in the corridor of a crowded train traveling from Lucca to Padova, reading the autobiography of Sidney Poitier, when I witness an episode of pure irony. Poitier writes of always feeling like an outsider because of his race while coming of age in the 1950s and 60s.

“Society had created laws to keep me at a distance or out of sight altogether. Were outsiders simply trespassers obliged by the nature of their lives to be constantly on the alert, known as
one of those’ but never as one of us’?

This, I fear, is still the fate of many black people in Italy, and today I observe this first hand. A black passenger, whom I guess to be about 45, is told he has to leave the train at the next stop. The conductor maintains that the passenger's ticket does not allow sufficient kilometers for his destination. There is a generic type of train ticket one can purchase to travel 10 kilometers, another for 20 kilometers, and so on. Based on where the man started (which the conductor could see, because before one enters a train, tickets must be inserted into a machine that stamps the starting date, time and location), he will have to exit at the next stop. An argument ensues, partly in Italian and partly in heavily accented Nigerian English, and I don't understood all the details of what each was saying. I'm not convinced that the parties arguing understand each other completely, either. The conductor is adamant that the man must get off and purchase another ticket to continue, but the passenger points out there would be no time to purchase a ticket and still get back on the same train.

When the stop comes, the conductor insists that the passenger leave the train, but the man refuses. The conductor wants to see the passenger’s identity card, and the man refuses this also. All this is taking place in the corridor, and I am the only witness, a fly on the wall, so to speak.

“At the next station, then, I’ll call the police,” the conductor states angrily.

“Go ahead and call the police," replies the passenger, waving his arms in the air. I’ll be happy to talk to them.”

The train starts up again, the passenger takes his seat, and the conductor goes to the front of the train. But pretty soon, they are both back in the corridor, this time with the conductor’s senior officer. He seems more conciliatory and says the man can just pay the fee for the extra kilometers, something the conductor had not allowed previously. However, the man now says he doesn't have the additional seven euros and adds that the people in the train station told him that the ticket he had was sufficient for his destination. The conductor, however, carries a little computer, which he checks, and declares that the city in question is just over the limit of the ticket.

Again, the black man is asked for his identity papers and he refuses. I’m sure they assume he doesn’t have them, as do I. The passenger asks for his ticket back, but the officers refuse. I am sorely tempted to pull out my wallet and offer to pay the seven euros, but I refrain because I am not sure it would be wise to interfere in a situation that I don’t really understand. Instead I wait to see what will happen, which for now is nothing. After another minute of arguing, the train officials leave and the man goes back to his seat. Now I leave my place in the corridor and seek out the passenger to see if there is anything I can do to help. He is friendly and grateful for my sympathy, but he says he does not need any help. He says he doesn’t intend to pay extra, and he doesn't mind if they call the police. He pulls out his wallet and shows me his identity card. His wallet is stuffed full of other documents as well, and I suspect he might even have the seven euros the officials were asking for.

“Why should I give them my identity card?” he asks. “Who knows what they’ll do with it or write about me? If they call the police, I’ll show the police my papers and tell them I had a ticket. Those men are just trying to make it hard on me. They don't like black people here. I used to be able to find work here, but not anymore.”

I don't know whether I believe that the man was told that his ticket was adequate for his destination or not, but I don't find it hard to believe that he was singled out for his skin color. Lucy later tells me that she saw a group of black men riding the train who got up and changed sections when they saw the conductor coming, apparently trying to evade him. Could the conductor have been taking out his frustration on the blacks who were running away from him by singling out this man who didn't try to hide? My friend Steve, who has lived in Italy since 1986, thinks that is quite possible.

“The Italians are afraid of the Africans,” he says. “They are afraid they are taking jobs away from Italians, but that doesn't make sense, because most of the jobs the Africans do the Italians wouldn't do anyway.”

Steve tells me a story about when he was a pastor in Rome and the church members engaged in street evangelism. Three black women who went out with the group did not return with the others because they were arrested by a policewoman for sharing their Christian faith, though there is no law against this. They were released without charges, but the incident pointed out to Steve the different treatment some police officers give to Africans and African-Italians. In some ways, the attitude of Italians towards blacks is similar to America in the 50s and 60s, he says, reminding me that I was reading about this era when I witnessed the train incident.

It goes both ways, though, Steve elaborates. The Africans do try to avoid and evade the law because many are in Italy without permission and they can little afford the high cost of living here. The police are frustrated and mistrustful and come down harder on the Africans than they do on Italians or Europeans. Steve said that the black passenger I observed may indeed have been paying the price for the Africans who fled the conductor earlier. I do believe, from my prior experiences, that if I had been the one in possession of an improper ticket, I would have been let off with a cordial warning. In fact, this has happened to me on both trains and buses previously.

It seems, though, that in this case, these two train officials have met their match. They can't physically force the man to leave, and in the end, they don't call the police. The passenger exits at his originally intended destination with no fine or arrest.

I report all this with full awareness that my background on the relationship between Italians and Africans is limited. It’s obviously a complex issue and has much to do with Italy's position in the Mediterranean, its proximity to Africa and the fact that is has around 5,000 miles of coastline that its military can't begin to protect against illegal immigrants. Africans flood into Italy and can't find jobs, but they don't want to return to Africa because they are no better off there. Many become street vendors, and, lacking the resources to purchase business licenses, they must be ready to bundle up their wares and run from the police at any time. I don’t pretend to have any idea how to solve these problems, but my goal is to write about what I see here, and today I witness up close a clash between these two forces. I may well see more such incidents in the future.