Unconventional Learning: Understanding the Italian Language Via Smurfs

It was hot.  But not as hot as it had been in the cities. The sun had been unforgiving in Berlin, Paris, Milan, Florence, and Rome. Here, for one night in a farming hill town near Frosinone, about ninety minutes southeast of Rome, the heat was tolerable. However, my family didn’t think so. Every so often they’d look at Stacey and I and frown, fanning themselves with their hands or tugging on their shirt collars. “Caldo,” they’d say. The tone of their voice was apologetic like they were sorry they couldn’t control the temperature. They didn’t have air conditioning; they relied on the openness of their homes provided by the fresh air that rolled off the nearby hills.

The language barrier made it difficult for me to tell them that they should not worry because it felt like a retreat after spending so much time in the thick heat of the big cities. My Italian is extremely limited; it’s based on words I remember my grandparents speaking and whatever beginner knowledge I picked up from Pimsleur Language Program CDs I borrowed from the library a few months before travelling. Being a second generation Italian-American, Italian wasn’t something that was forced on me. It was my grandmother who would scold my grandfather when he spoke to me in Italian, making him speak English.

But my Italian happens to be better than their English. Living in a rural area about a hundred miles outside of Rome, far enough away to warrant no tourists, there’s no reason for them to speak anything other than Italian. The only English I heard while visiting them came from my seven-year-old cousin, Savina, who counted from one to ten for us. A fine job she did, but that knowledge wouldn’t help with further verbal communication. For the first time on our European trip, we were without the comfort of knowing that someone close by could bail us out in a communication crisis. “Va bene,” I’d reply and shrug my shoulders, hoping they’d stop worrying about the weather.

We ate dinner outside in the gravel courtyard around the time the sun began to set and give a distinct glow throughout the valley. The air absorbed the light and became a thin layer of translucent gold that lay gently over the hills. The forests on the hillsides dimmed as they drowned themselves in their own shadows. The low crops in the valley fields became more prominent, matching the tone of the air that surrounded them. The tranquil air was silenced as the sun took what little noise there was during the day with it. The eerily screams of the red fox was the only sound that could be heard in the valley that intermittently broke up the silence.

We sat right in front of the converted monastery-to-home building my grandfather was born and raised in ninety-one years ago. The Nazi Party, World War II, and the hard times that followed split up the seven siblings that grew up in that house. The oldest, who I never met, stayed home and passed the family property down to his son who is now deceased. There I was, visiting the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of my grandfather’s brother. I could see a resemblance in appearance, but we did not sound anything alike.

My family kept dinner simple and it consisted of just pizza, giant pizzas: a mushroom and mozzarella pizza; a pepperoni and mozzarella pizza; a ham, artichoke, and mozzarella pizza; a Parmesan and arugula pizza; and a pizza with salt, pepper, and olive oil.  There was enough pizza for the eight of us and an additional twelve people who never showed.

By dinner, I felt comfortable enough with my family to tell them basta, enough is enough, and only ate what I could handle. I was also learning that anything went at the dinner table. I had always been told it was rude to change the food that is served to you; don’t add salt before tasting. I watched as one of my cousins added mortadella slices to a piece of seasoned/olive oil pizza. He also brought out a brick of Parmasan cheese to add more on every piece he was eating. I felt comfortable enough to make a piece of pizza modeled after one of his creations. I too took a slice of mortadella and added it to a seasoned slice. He smiled at me, satisfied in my copying ability, and I smiled at him, satisfied with what I had just put in my mouth.

By the time dinner was slowing down with us, Savina sat down next to Stacey and me, and she had with her a sticker book. I recognized the drawings of the Smurf figures on the book.

“The Smurfs!” I pointed it out to my wife, Stacey, who was equally excited to see something familiar after spending over two weeks away from any kind of American pop culture, but for the occasional song we’d here on the radio in shops or restaurants.

Stacey pointed to Savina’s book and said, “Oh, you know The Smurfs?”

Savina, smiled politely at us.  Stacey gave me a puzzled look.

“I guess she’s not excited that we know about The Smurfs too,” I told her, and we went back to eating more pizza.

Some amount of pizza slices later, I watched Savina as she flipped back and forth through her Smurf sticker book, carefully placing stickers in their appropriate location.  Then I noticed the front cover in detail.  At that moment my body was full, emotionally with excitement and physically with pizza. I had the kind of excitement I thought Savina would have had when Stacey and I, the out-of-town relatives from the United States of America, recognized The Smurfs.

I Puffi!” I exclaimed, as I brought Stacey’s attention to the title on the front cover of the sticker book.  Savina looked up and her faced moved from total sticker book concentration to an enthusiasm that matched that of mine when she realized I was familiar with I Puffi.

I Puffi!” she repeated.

ItaliaI Puffi.  America.  The Smurfs,” I explained and she understood.

We spent time going over the names of the Smurfs.  Stacey pointed to the one in the red hat.

Grande Puffo,” Savina said.

“Papa Smurf,” we told her.

Stacey pointed to the blond Smurf, Smurfette.

Puffetta!”  Savina explained.

There was Puffo Vanitoso (Vanity Smurf), Puffo Inventore (Handy Smurf), and Baby Puffo (Baby Smurf).  She taught us all about I Puffi as we explored her sticker book, and I started to feel like some sort of Puffo myself after eating too much pizza.

Puffo Quatrocchi,” Savina said as she showed us Brainy Smurf.

Quatrocchi?” I asked.

Quatrocchi,” she repeated and pointed to my glasses.

I took my glasses off and pointed to them. “Quatrocchi?

No!” she laughed. “Occhi,” she said, and placed her fingers on her eyes.

It took me a moment. Brainy Smurf wore glasses. Occhi means eyes. What does the prefix stand for? Quatro occhi. Quatrocchi. Four eyes. In that moment I regretted not staying longer and learning more Italian.

We got to the page with the mean, old guy that looked like he was excommunicated by a group of monks.  “Gargamella,” Savina said.  I laughed at the thought of the creators keeping the name Gargamel similar, but changing the word for Smurf to Puffo.  I then assumed the cat’s name was some form of Azrael.  It wasn’t.  Azrael is known as Birba in Italy.

There we were, an English-speaking thirty year old man and twenty-eight year old woman from Michigan and an Italian speaking seven-year old girl in Italy, breaking down the language barrier one sticker book page at a time.

Savina’s Smurf sticker book became our Rosetta Stone.

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