Lightly Roasted Sorry, Signore – non parlo italiano

Sorry, Signore – non parlo italiano

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I’m a nurse, not a teacher. But even I know that in education, it’s important to meet the student where she’s at, snack bar or otherwise. Potato chips aside, for me, learning has to be logical and sequential.

As a teen, I used to sneak bites of breakfast during my morning ninth-grade English class. My teacher knew I was munching while we were reading “Romeo and Juliet” aloud. But he ignored it, since when my mouth wasn’t full of bagel, I did participate, and with great feeling – sequentially. A bite, a phrase, a nibble, a heart-breaking monologue, crunch, dagger.

“Miss Eliscu,” he said one day in class, while I was cracking open a few walnuts. “If your parents knew what you were doing in here, they’d kill us both.”

Actually, my folks would have understood. Food was important to us, as was music and theater. Fast forward to college.

I was studying voice and drama at a school with a decent program in both – and exquisite tuna salad in the cafeteria. I signed up for Italian class, in case I wanted to study opera or be in a “Godfather” sequel. Which, I really didn’t, and definitely wasn’t.

“Signore” was an Al Pacino look-alike. Kind eyes, good looks, a bit short in stature with a warm smile big enough for this nervous freshman. I immediately lost my appetite, but not because he was so charming. See, I was the only girl in the class who didn’t come from an Italian background. I looked the part, with dark skin and eyes, but the only thing Italian about me was the delicious New York pizza I’d regularly pounded away.

Still, Italian 101 went surprisingly well.

I learned to introduce myself (“Mi chiamo Katerina”) and greet the professor (“Buongiorno, Signore.”) I mi-chiamoed every chance I got. I think it scored me a few dates. Tests were straightforward, and the material was logical. I ended the semester with an A.

Then came the holidays – time to go home for Christmas break and the required January work term.

“Mi chiamo Katerina,” I said, when I saw my folks.

“I know,” said Mom. “I named you.”

At the start of the second semester, I walked into Signore’s classroom and greeted him with the usual “Buongiorno, Signore.” He beamed at me.

“Bentornato! Siediti. Siediti, cara Katerina. Bentornato!” he said.

Ben who? Huh?

Like a maitre d’, he made a graceful sweeping motion with his arm, apparently welcoming me (that first part) and indicating for me to take a seat (supposedly that’s what all the siediti was about.) Once we were all present, he gave a 10-second explanation in English, which amounted to saying that from now on, we would only speak Italian in class.

Uh, scusi?

It wasn’t so much that I was lost. It was that the others weren’t. Easy for them. They’d just come back from working at Uncle Tulio’s Italian deli for the month, or had been told by Noni or Zia Theresa to “make-a sure to eat plenty of insalata. Bene!”

Talk about your language immersion. I felt like I was underwater at the local swimming hole, for that’s how much I was taking in. I approached Signore after class.

“Signore,” I said. “Um, first – mi chiamo Katerina, the A student-io from last-o semester-io.”

He smiled. Dammit, he was cute. Kind. Trustworthy.

“I am totally, um, confuso. I understand nothing … um, hold on.” I was flipping through the back of the textbook. “Niente! I understand ni-en-te.”

“It’s OK,” he said. “It’ll all fall into place. Do not worry, mia cara.”

Friends, please reread the above conversation. Again. Again. Once more, per favore.

My occasional attempts to join the classroom conversation were met with giggles from other students (“Please pass the bathroom”) and sympathetic looks from Signore (“I wish to go to the zucchini.”)

The semester came and went. I was able to do homework and get through exams. I doubted I’d ever catch on to the oral comprehension or expression. But every time I approached Signore, his pitying eyes reassured me: “Cara mia …”

Here’s the thing. You know how I doubted Signore and his wisdom? His promises that it would all fall into place?

Later, I felt ridiculous when I thought about how much anxiety I’d experienced along the way. For, by semester’s end, I’d gotten a B.

And Signore? My dashing professor of promises? Well, just like he advised me, I did hang on. I waited it out. It was an amazing lesson in patience. And guess what?

I learned nothing.

Well, that’s not quite true.

It was more like … a big “niente.”