I’m headed back to Modena this week to visit friends and as I get ready for another Italian journey, I remember that it was only last year that I was navigating a new country and a new language.
My mother’s family comes from the Piedmont region of Northern Italy and we still have cousins there. The relative that I connected with immediately is my third cousin, Carola Savio. Although she is my grandmother’s first cousin, Carola, is more of a grandmother to me. She is a typical Northern Italian pensioner who speaks mostly dialect and very little Italian. The only phrase she knows in English is “thank you very much.” Every time I visit, she would wake me up with the same sweet phrase, “hai dormito bene [did you sleep well]?” She would have a huge cup of tea and my favorite ‘Abbracci’ Barilla cookies waiting for me. One of my favorite times with her is from my last visit to her home in July. We went to a local restored church for a dedication ceremony.
During my time in Italy I was living in Modena, about a six hour train ride from the small town of Bollengo (near Turin) where my family lives. This particular day I was running late for the train, which I had to catch at 7 am and my clothes were still on the drying rack. In Italy no one I knew owned or even used an automatic dryer. It was hot that day so I put on a sundress and threw a pair of jeans into my suitcase, little did I know that wouldn’t be the right clothes for my two-day stay. When I got to Carola’s she immediately asked if I had an outfit for church the next day. I looked at my sleeveless dress (something you cannot wear to church in Italy), then down at my suitcase and shrugged. “Ho portato I jeans [I brought jeans],” I said. Carola ordered me to take them out of the suitcase. I hesitated because I knew that they were still a little damp. As soon as she felt they were wet, she yelled at me and marched up the stairs with the jeans, spending the next 30 minutes carefully ironing them. Next, she had me model several of her blouses to find the perfect one for church. I now know what I look like in the wardrobe of an 80 year-old Italian woman.
The next day, after a three-hour lunch topped off with polenta dolce (my favorite), we arrived at the church. It was small and made entirely of stone making it very hot inside. I stood there fanning myself with my hand to keep from fainting. As the services began everyone started to sing Italian hymns, except me.
Now I was raised Catholic, and by this point I was quite conversational in Italian, but I will never be able to sing a song I do not know. I hoped no one would notice my lack of participation, but I was not that lucky. Carola nudged me, “canta, canta [sing, sing],” she said in an encouraging whisper. I stood there trying to mouth the words to look like I was singing. Someone once told me if you mouth watermelon it will work for every song, this is not true. I even started to mouth anguria (watermelon) to make it more authentic; I looked ridiculous. In the end, I got by with loud humming, but this time around I’ll remember to brush up on my Italian hymns- before I go.
Written by OSIA National Office Intern, Carol Cummings. Cummings is a senior at American University, majoring in print journalism, with a minor in Italian.