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Learning My Grandmother’s Language

“I like to think that we came to understand each other in ways that transcended language.”

Growing up, being Italian was something that my grandparents were endlessly proud of. They loved America. Loved it. But they held on closely to their heritage and passed that pride down to their children and grandchildren. Moving from the US to Italy just after my 22nd birthday was an adventure and an expression of that pride. I wanted to experience that feeling firsthand.

It was an interesting parallel. My grandmother made a similar move from Italy to the US when she was only 20 years old. There are some key differences though.

My grandmother was sent by her father, against her will as she described, to claim the American citizenship he earned his family by fighting in WWI (and to keep her away from my grandfather). I, instead, went on my own accord shortly after my father secured the right to Italian citizenship for the rest of our family.

While my grandmother had little education, no knowledge of the language, and zero work experience, I had a university degree, Duolingo and Google Translate tucked neatly into my pocket, and a few years of work experience already under my belt.

She managed to find a job, establish a home, learn the language, and acclimate. Meanwhile, I was struggling with the au pair lifestyle and couldn’t seem to get out of my own way.

My Italian was clunky, at best. I could order a glass of wine and that’s about it. I was frustrated and disappointed in myself – my grandmother faced a much higher barrier to entry, and while she talked about her experience candidly, she rarely complained. Despite all the advantages I had, I felt like I was barely keeping it together and certainly not keeping up.

And then something changed.

After about four months of living in Italy I began speaking Italian with my grandmother. I remember it like it was yesterday. I was walking down Strada Maggiore in the center of Bologna, heading toward the Due Torri, when she insisted that I practice my newly acquired language skills with her.

I was hesitant at first. I was afraid that we wouldn’t be able to understand each other, and while she was the one person that could possibly understand how I was feeling, I was afraid of letting her down.

All it took was one phone call though, and the words came pouring out. She accepted my muddled Italian and I let go of the fear that she, or anyone for that matter, wouldn’t be able to understand me. Instead, I relished the time we spent on the phone facendo due chiacchiere, gossiping and confiding in one another. She let me make mistakes, and I let her correct me. She let me switch to English when I wanted to gossip on the crowded city bus, and I let her give me pep talks in Italian when I needed them.

I always knew my grandmother in my language, and now I was getting to know her – and the rest of the world – in hers.

What I always assumed were personal linguistic quirks turned out to be grammar and syntax borrowed from her mother tongue. Silly things, like the way she would tell me to “close” the lights instead of “turn them off,” suddenly made sense. The Italian words she would casually throw into her English finally had context, and now I could throw them right back.

We always got along but this new relationship, jumping back and forth between the two languages was so uniquely ours.

Along with new words I was dealing with another, often overlooked, aspect of language learning – new perspectives and feelings distinct to Italian. All the letters signed ti voglio bene” and “baci” took on so much more meaning than before. I was able to feel the weight of these words and the sentiment they carried. 

There were funny moments, too, like calling her crying when the Giro d’Italia was passing through Bologna – I spent entire summer days sprawled out on her living room floor watching it with my grandfather. I couldn’t believe it was right in front of me, and I don’t think she could believe that I was crying about it. 

But she still understood. It was a feeling not distinctly Italian, but instead one that comes with building a life in an unfamiliar place – the bittersweet nostalgia of something so close reminding us of something so far away. 

I like to think that we came to understand each other in ways that transcended language. We forged a sort of unspoken connection based on mutual experience, and even when she struggled to understand why I came back to the place she’d left over 70 years prior, I know she was proud of me. 

We had one whole year of speaking Italian together. Sometimes, I wish it was more, but I couldn’t be more grateful for the time we had. Often when I miss her, I look up to the sky to send her a little “ti voglio bene”and let her know that I’m thinking of her always. In the interim, I’m still learning my grandmother’s language (and still making mistakes), but now without fear.