Nonna has always invented words, Mama does too, and so do I.
Nonna invented nicknames and, by rebaptizing certain individuals, ennobled them in my eyes, making them into figures of distinction. Nonna has jumbled together the words of all the places she has known. They aren’t worldly words-she never traveled much-but words of the Marches, and they were enough for her. More than enough, so that Mama too, and I as well, still feel her words on the tip of our tongues. They are words that are precious to us, gentle remedies and treatments to be used skillfully for seasonal ailments, and recipes for good things to eat that are pleasurable to cook and make you memorable to your friends. They are words you take with you along with the household gods, though they aren’t heavy like trunks full of linen sets and silverware. They are reserves of expressions, light as air yet stronger than weapons, convenient for defending yourself and asserting your worth, and on occasion they can actually wound. There is some trace of Latin in them, it’s their spirit I would say, it’s their core, the nugget of their soul, and then they wear all sorts of garments, at times humble, at times grand, at times known to all and immediately comprehensible, at times made up out of whole cloth.
That’s right, completely invented, for instance. Like a wild jujube tree, or a hundred-year-old olive, trees that have no need of being cared for, or pruned, because they look after themselves and can endure any inclemencies and summer heat.
Actually it’s not a matter of invention: it’s a question of displacement, of shifting one’s ground. Just as you move from village to village in a movable feast, you can also bring with you the words of the mountains and those of the sea, those of the hills and those of the countryside. That’s what Nonna did, I think, when she came down from San Ginesio to San Benedetto.
It’s a characteristic of the area.
The language in these places is rather crazy and changes from kilometer to kilometer. In Grottammare, it even changes from neighborhood to neighborhood, from the town center to San Martino, from Tesino to Santa Lucia. If you ask the four or five elderly survivors from these parts how they would say a certain thing in dialect, you get four or five possible variations. I suspect that if there were natives of the place living in my building, you might get different versions from floor to floor even.
At the end of the lane behind my house there’s an inscription on a wall: “Sinda quanto coce stu sale,” feel how the sun burns. The sun, “sole,” is salt, “sale.” And probably salt is sun. I don’t know because I have never truly understood a single one of the thousand dialects that are spoken around here. Yet that abrupt inscription, repainted in blue on white each spring thanks to a willing resident, is the only one that makes sense, because it is a fossil phrase that always hits you just when the July or August sun begins to burn, deflecting the horizon lines with its fiery rays, melting the asphalt and releasing the fragrance of oleanders and geraniums along the seaside promenade.
All the rest of the dialect, when it is written, loses its potency.
If I happen to come across a book of poems in the vernacular, I struggle over the words like a child in first grade would do, recognizing them only after going over them several times and, in the end, being thrilled by this, like someone solving a crossword puzzle. It is not the inspiration that interests me in these dialect poems: I look closely at the words, trying to find some that flash and flicker. But often, written, they are disappointing-subdued by the rules of phonetics, you might say. These are words born to be spoken aloud, and when you set them down on a page they become like animals in the zoo, wretched, moribund, sterile. Marked by unfortunate double letters at the beginning of a word, in an attempt to render a rhythm that should be accompanied by a mischievous look, by fitting pauses and appropriate faces. The language of a place must be heard in the setting of its landscape. It shouldn’t be isolated in the white space of a page, a space that becomes immense when you’re talking about verse.
Usually, they are words that want to record the memory of activities and occupations that have vanished, while I, on the other hand, am searching for living words, those strong enough to come down through the centuries and endure all the invasions and contaminations, holding their own against television’s Brianza-speak and the plastic language of the “Cavaliere,” and resisting the standards and anglicisms of computer science and of the economy that tend to bond above all with the dialects of the North, especially those of younger people (God help them).
More than a dialect, ours is a medley of words that are both lofty and unassuming, literary and spoken. A blend, one might say. Because it is smooth, prompt, pasty, yet resilient, and when it thickens, it becomes a kind of dough, as indispensable as that of bread, pastries, and taglionini pasta that cooks at a boil. So that it nourishes you and lulls you with its cadence made up of accented a‘s that terminate each verb like a peremptory “stop!” or a pause in the dance called a saltarello.
At times I have the urge to infect everyone, with my language. To bring cholera out of the region of the Marches, that should set its sights not only on the shoe industry and agri-food production, but also on the preservation of its phono-lunacy with its ensuing exportation everywhere gratis et amore Dei, in the spirit of charity.
Other times, when I’m walking along the streets or in the shops of Milan, talking, I amuse myself by dropping some word of mine, to see what effect it has: to see if anyone is able to understand, if they catch the distorted meaning, the deviation. And if so, if the word is then able to pass somehow, to vary the “sonata” of everyday exchanges that are always the same, always predictable. A composition that is never based on Milanese-a language by now in extinction-but nearly always on the dialect of Puglia mongrelized with northern dialects, namely, an explosive, quite atrocious hybridization by people who would like to speak Italian but have a seething substratum that they are never able to vent in a sound way.
We, on the other hand, do not fit into this category.
We do not censure ourselves. On the contrary, we have a whale of a time joining the chorus of speakers. We feel at home. We are delighted when someone presents us with a word we did not know, or with an idiom that gladly characterizes illiterates as well. Language is a game for us, and it is a vital, very serious game, even though in the language of our area you can vary the rules.
Nonna was the summa of numerous languages of the Marches, owing to her words and idiomatic expressions.
And the cadence, the sound, was not elephantine like that of San Benedetto-heavy and slack in the cheeks-nor whining and nasal like that of Ascoli, nor neurasthenic like that of Fermo, nor cautious like that of San Giorgio, nor mockingly affected like that of Grottammare. It was all this put together and it was something else again.
If you made a face or rolled your eyes to show your annoyance in a moment of boredom, Nonna and Mama would warn you: “The angel will pass by and say amen!” It meant that if you went too far, you could stay that way, with your tongue hanging out and your eyes crossed. This fortuitous passage of angels was hard to figure out, nor was it clear why they had to be such bastards and inflict such a disproportionate punishment on you. But it makes no difference, I believed it, just as I believed that if you swallowed a piece of chewing gum it would stick to the walls of your stomach. And that if I continued sticking my fingers up my nose it would get big as a church bell.
“Pizzutu” (pizzuto, sharp), “frosciutu” (dalle grandi frogie, having big nostrils) and “puntutu” (puntuto, pointed) were three typical words that recurred in Nonna’s physical descriptions, especially when she was talking about women. A nose was “puntutu” or “frosciutu,” depending on whether it was a thin or a broad nose. Only a pointy chin was “pizzuta” and it meant, I think, a chin turned up arrogantly. If instead the jaw was quite prominent, it was simply called a “scucchia” or prominent chin, and in particularly severe cases rainwater could collect there!
The mouth might be a hen’s asshole, and when it was said to be succulent it meant that it was at the height of repulsiveness. If the eyes were light-colored they were “scalamarati,” with dark circles under them, and “cipicciosi,” rheumy (I imagine this alluded to the effects of blepharitis, a disease typical of green or blue eyes, that we have always held in contempt as being too delicate, not very sharp, and therefore “not very intelligent”-intelligence being a virtue of those who are able to grasp others at first glance, nailing them quickly). But eyes could also often be “possessed,” and hair “up in the air” or “like a broomstick.”
Finally, beautiful like the “bottom of a skillet” served to emphasize Nonna’s lack of agreement regarding an undeserved compliment paid to some odious woman.
Nonna pinned nicknames on people. A jeweler from San Benedetto was Farah Diba, because she was always impeccably made up and turbaned, but as a result of using her name among children, it became distorted into Barabitta, completely losing its Persian aura and acquiring one whose sole connotations were to the kindly witch Befana.
Others, shopkeepers in particular, were named for the brands of products they sold: “La Talmona,” for example, was a chocolate seller with a huge sign advertising Talmone Chocolate over her display window. The “Vegèni” were the managers of the Vegè, vegetable stand, and even the streets ended up losing their toponymy, rewritten according to their commercial activities, so that the real names of only two or three streets were known.
Mama confuses names, just like Nonna does, and even makes me make a fool of myself (just like them). For years she called the Grottammare fruit and vegetable vendor Evandro. “Go to Evandro and get the tomatoes,” she would tell me. “I shop at Evandro’s,” she would tell everybody. Now we’ve come to find out that the man’s real name is Venanzio. So Mama, gifted with the most remarkable brazen face, has begun calling him Venanzio with incredible naturalness, erasing from one day to the next the identity she had pinned on him. Now she is all for this Venanzio. “Venanzio has the best produce, and decent prices.” Since he changed his name, in her head, he has even become more honest and kind. If you still happen to say “Evandro,” she looks at you as if you were crazy. “Who are you talking about? Somebody new?” And this incident just occurred two days ago. It’s a fresh episode, nutty as usual. I mean to say: these misunderstandings that drive me crazy still persist even today, right now, or just two days ago.
And how beautiful were the words “vianco e roscio” (bianco e rosso, red and white), “pasciuto” (well-fed) and the well-wishing “gnenoccia” (non gli nuoccia, may it not harm him), used to refer to a young child who ate with appetite. Not being codified, the oral language of my region allows you to do what you want. Take getting in and out of a vehicle, for example: though “montare,” to get in, and “Calare,” to get out, are always used, if you have to chase a boyfriend or girlfriend out of the car during an argument, you have to jam on the brakes wherever you are and order “Get out!” followed by-if the argument is particularly heated-a swearword or a parody of a swearword such as “porcoddùe,” “porcozzìo” or “porcamadœsca,” softened variations of porco dio or porco Madonna, imprecations against God and the Madonna.
Then too, I personally love changes and variations. “Caliàmo,” “caléme,” “calìmm’,” all variants of caliamo, “let’s get out.” I always dress the same, but as far as language is concerned I like to vary it, even giving it an ethnic flavor-in this case Turkish, I would say.
Dealing with these dialects is like living on top of a volcano, you’re never really on safe ground. You move to the north, you think you are speaking Italian, then you say “appiccare” and you mean “hang,” but instead people think you are talking about setting a fire. You tell them that you will spread the wash out to dry on the “spandipanni,” or clothes rack, and they look at you questioningly, because the word “spandipanni” doesn’t exist there and they only know the word “stendibiancheria,” or laundry rack, poor things.
And then, I would like to say once and for all to my Milanese friends, quit using the verb “stortare” (storcere, to twist or sprain)-that doesn’t exist in the dictionaries-with that air of meticulous nitpickers. And “patello” doesn’t exist either, one says “pannolino” (baby diaper) or else “pannolone” (adult diaper). What, you didn’t know that? And it never even occurred to you to go and consult a dictionary, right? And those of you from Bologna: did you ever listen to yourselves at the grocer, when he says “Altro?” to ask if you want anything else and you answer “Altro” to say no? Does that seem logical to you? I’m not complaining, on the contrary, I’m glad that you too have your linguistic trapdoors and your obstacles. I only wanted to ask that you be a bit more relaxed.
When something wasn’t done well, Mama and Nonna would say that-besides being a “ciaffo,” a useless flop-it had turned out “alla sanfasœ,” and I would think of a young French lady, perhaps distracted by grave preoccupations. Then I discovered that “sanfasœ” derived from sans façon, just like the “gattœ” that I liked so much, that had nothing to do with gatto, cat, but rather with gateaux.
If upon seeing Nonna out of breath you asked her: “What happened?” and she didn’t want to tell you, she would answer: “An experience! A lady went to the toilet, and not having toilet paper with her, she cleaned herself with a big finger!” This amused only me and her, I imagine, but then whose big finger was it? Nowhere was it written that the finger was that of the lady in question. On the contrary, everything led you to suppose that it belonged to someone she had met while frequenting dubious toilets: porcoddùe, to actually be an experience! And which “real finger” could it have been? It certainly didn’t seem to be the thumb, as Nonna maintained, laughing, after somewhat mysteriously beating around the bush.
And when someone, a daughter or granddaughter, acted too timid, Nonna gave precisely this advice, “mettersi il culo in fronte”: brazen it out, be confident, and move ahead without silly fears. Timid people and those with complexes were not at all appreciated, since Nonna wasn’t that way in the least. Indeed, to insult or denigrate people, we would actually call them timid, as if it were a pathological condition to grieve over. The “be confident” was also used those times when you opened the closet and complained about not having anything to wear: “Have some self-confidence, sweetie,” Nonna would lose her patience, overwhelmed by haste.
If there was trouble in the air, or some character started acting up or some Tom, Dick, or Harry addressed you in a somewhat aggressive way, Nonna would say that a “film” or “movie” was being made. This spoken by a woman who in the end “made a film” almost every time she opened her mouth!
If a shopkeeper, artisan, or craftsman presented a bill considered way too high, or if you made a mistake and went to a delicatessen where Nonna had already been and where she had previously been cheated, she would put her hands to her head and shout: “What, that notorious crook?” Even today I could still cite dozens of notorious crooks, from Grottammare-San Benedetto to Milan.
The Notorious Crooks were like the Hideous Creatures, also known as the cousins’ boyfriends and Christian Democrat boyfriends in general, another very substantial category that cut across lines and each day saw its ranks increase. Especially as a child, I was astonished that instead of being locked up in prison, these “crooks” were not only still free to walk about but that they continued to manage shops and businesses, amassing who knew how much undeserved, inordinate wealth.
Postprandial drowsiness was called a “papagna” because it hit you like a punch, while sleepiness at the end of the day was “la nona,” referring to the “ninth” hour or “nones.” And Mama would always tell me stories about her grandmother, poor Nonna Antonietta (a woman so meek that “wherever you put her, she stayed put,” not as though she were a good set of coffee cups, and who had suffered betrayals galore from her husband without a protest), sitting in a corner, arms folded in her shawl. She didn’t have any particular artistic inclinations and she wasn’t a big reader or an intellectual either. She was a very gentle person, to the point of resignation, and taciturn; but she had a motto, or something, that I think is enlightening in various directions and circles of modern, contemporary knowledge-from the logic of scientific discovery to the birth of literary criticism, from the foreign policies of Bush’s United States to the discovery of the so-called subconscious. And this motto of hers, this admonition, was: “Chi prima la sente, dal culo je pende,” or as the English saying goes: “Every fox smells its own hole first.”
That in a certain sense is worth as much as a Leibniz, or the complete works of O.F.,1 in my opinion.
1Oriana Fallaci. (Translator’s note)
Translated from Tutto su mia nonna (Milan: Einaudi Stile libero, 2005). Copyright © 2005 by Silvia Ballestra. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation copyright © 2005 by Anne Milano Appel. All rights reserved.