That’s Nonna. She arrived on December 8th and will depart on February 8. It’s a long time. I love her dearly and appreciate her commitment to her family. Of course she’s still my mother-in-law, and she’s sleeping in the middle of the living room, so that comes with it’s own set of things. But it’s all worth it to see the joy it brings her to spend time with her grandkids. And to see how attached the kids get to her after such a long stint. In fact, when I picked Sabina up from school yesterday the first thing she said to me was, “nonna.”
Now Nonna doesn’t speak English. She has a variety of words she uses at the grocery store, but I have never actually heard any of those words. When she arrives, we stop speaking English in the house. For the first time, Luca was aware of the change, and therefore, as a three-year-old, the most resistant to it. We have a joke around our house that when someone is acting out, or in Sabina’s case, crying for no reason, we send them “to the moon”. One night when Luca was playing with his food, Lorenzo said in Italian, “we have to send you to the moon Luca.” Luca responded in English, “but Papa, who will Mamma speak English with?” I’m glad the little man is looking out for his Mamma.
I always get inspired upon Nonna’s arrival. I welcome the chance to practice speaking with her (Lorenzo tends to get frustrated with my juvenile vocabulary and American accent which keeps us from speaking to one another as regularly as we should in Italian). Francesca is very patient and understanding and perhaps too lenient, since she rarely corrects me. I understand my fair share in a conversation but there are always moments when I don’t. The other day I called her on my way to the store to ask if we needed anything. When I hung up I told Luca, “I have no idea what Nonna just said. Do you think I should buy milk?” I thought I understood that she bought it, but instead, we each bought two loaves of bread and no milk. I tried to play it off by saying her phone had a bad connection and that I couldn’t really hear her. I changed the verb “to understand” to “to hear” and that was that.
The first few weeks I do pretty well, considering I can go months without speaking Italian, and am mostly self-taught. And then, every time, about 3 weeks in, I hit a wall. My brain just stops wanting to translate. My words get jumbled, I get increasingly frustrated, I get tired. Then I start acting like a child, asking Lorenzo in more important conversations to please speak to me in English. My Italian actually gets worse as time goes on instead of better. It’s a strange phenomenon. I’m in week four now so I’m coming out of it, but I wouldn’t have wanted to be Nonna last week. I was probably very difficult to understand, and somewhat annoying with my refusal to speak Italian in group settings, like a three-year-old.
Sabina is a sponge, English, Spanish, Italian; it’s all the same to her. She repeats everything. It’s incredible to see the way she’s differentiating between the three (we accidentally managed to enroll our kids in a bilingual daycare/preschool, the closest one to our house, which is why Spanish is in the mix). When I ask her in English what sound a dog makes, she barks – “ruf, ruf!”. When I ask her the same question in Italian she says, “bow, bow!” It’s crazy that she shits in her pants, but can understand three languages.
Luca on the other hand goes through phases like mine. Sometimes he’s really excited to recite sentences he remembers to Nonna because he knows it makes her happy. Other times, particularly when he’s being disciplined in Italian, he turns his head and asks for me. If we press him to respond to Papa and Nonna in Italian, just like any normal boy, he refuses. But if you give him space to figure it out, he ends up saying things we didn’t know he knew, and using vocabulary we never thought he’d heard. It’s really quite an amazing phenomenon to watch first hand how language develops.
When I was young, growing up in Southern California, I was immersed in Spanish, so much so that hearing it now evokes a feeling of nostagia. I remember sitting in a waiting room somewhere when I was 6 or 7 and hearing a family speaking Spanish. I yearned in that moment, which is still clear as day, to understand. I remember thinking how amazing it would feel to turn the switch that would unveil the words and give them meaning. But understanding another language isn’t like that at all. When a radio is on in the background with a voice speaking, if I’m not intently listening, it still sounds like garbled tones. I can tune it out completely. Lorenzo does that to me all time. He just turns the switch off and English gets garbled again. Whereas, if there is a voice speaking English in the background somewhere, it’s a huge distraction, it doesn’t blend as background, I understand every syllable, even if I don’t want to, or try not to listen, it’s there, always.
I’ve struggled with this language thing for 10 years now, and like my experience with skiing, I can’t seem to surpasse the blue diamonds. It doesn’t stop me from continually trying, stumbling, allowing myself to sound like a kid, using the same words over and over. Because the day, that seemingly through osmosis, the conversation between members of a family in a waiting room in Rome became clear to me. I knew I had accomplished something I never thought I would. And that has been an amazing thing.