I spent the summer of 2006 in my father's town in Sicily. It was a great summer: the beach was great, I hung out with Italians practicing my Italian all day, Italy won the World Cup, I ate some great food, etc., etc. One thing from that summer, more sinister than I could even imagine, will always live on in my mind.
The thing you should understand about this town is that there are some people that don't know how to speak Italian. No, that wasn't a typo, there are people here that really don't know how to speak Italian. This is one of those places in Italy where the local dialect is alive and well. Of course all of the young people can speak Italian, but there are a lot of older people that never learned to speak Italian. Back when they were young Italian children weren't required to finish primary school and they spoke in dialect at home. One of my mother's aunts never even finished the 2nd grade. They understand Italian, though, from watching TV, but they just can't speak it because everyone else around them speaks dialect so there was never any reason to learn how to speak Italian. Speaking in dialect, however, is not only limited to elderly people. My cousins are both university graduates, under 40 years old and they speak in dialect all the time.
So if you are a foreigner learning Italian and you go to one of these places it is a bit disappointing when you realise that you still have difficulties communicating even though your Italian is pretty good. I accept this difficulty as a challenge and usually just let everyone go on in Sicilian even though I can only understand half of what is being said. You feel proud when you realise that you have understood them and can respond. I just try to tell myself that the local dialect is part of their heritage and it would be awful if I made them speak in Italian (and besides, like I said, some of them don't know how to speak Italian).
One evening at the dinner table my cousin and her husband, who are both teachers, were talking about a student. This student's father came from Sicily, but the mother was from Bergamo up north near Milan (I didn't know this then, all I knew was that she was from the north). Even though all the conversation was in dialect, I understood that something terrible had happened to them. One day the student's brother was playing outside with another little boy (they were around 4 years old). They wandered off onto the neighbour's property where there was a well. The brother climbed onto the well and fell in. When the mother realised what was happening she jumped into the well to save her son. Unfortunately, she was too late to save him and she almost drowned herself. The paramedics had to resuscitate her when they arrived on the scene of the accident.
This is not the end of their horror. The family tried to prosecute the neighbour as not covering your well or filling it up is illegal. They were unable to do so, however. Why? The neighbour was one the leaders of the mafia. There was nothing they could do - he was completely protected and the family, unfortunately, was not.
This is the deepest, darkest side of Italy. (No, I am not saying that the mafia is in every nook and cranny of Sicily - there is so much more to Sicily than the mafia and I hate that everyone automatically thinks of the mafia when they think of Sicily because of all the American mafia movies.)
|Lemon, olive and cactus trees framing such a beautiful setting. Author of photo: Den Nation.|
A few days later my cousin and her husband talk about going to meet up with a student and her mother for ice cream after dinner. As usual, the conversation was in dialect and I completely missed that we would be meeting up with the same family that had lost their son in the well accident.
So there I am sitting in front of the mother, this person who had suffered so much in her lifetime, and I started to ask her questions about where she came from. It isn't too often that you come across someone from the north living in the south. I felt that she was almost as much a foreigner down there as I was. So I went on and on, asking her about her experiences in the south. I had no idea that this was the mother that had lost her son in the accident. I felt my cousin pressing hard on my foot and couldn't understand what the problem was. I went on, "So why do you say that you wish you had never moved down here?" My cousin started to hit me under the table. Ok, maybe I was getting a bit too personal, but the mother seemed so willing to talk to me that I thought that my questions weren't that invasive. I quickly rephrased my question, "I mean you must miss your family up there so much, that must be what you mean." I stopped asking her questions and encouraged her to ask me about Canada, which she was more than happy to do.
"What the hell is wrong with you?" my cousin said when we got in the car. "What, what did I say?" I responded. "You know that she lost her son in the well accident, why were you asking her all those insensitive questions?" Oh, no. I know it wasn't my fault and it wasn't my cousin's fault, but I still felt guilty. My cousin had forgotten that I did not completely understand everything when they spoke in dialect (she doesn't even realise she is speaking in dialect when she does) as I was usually able to put two and two together and I didn't want to bother my family at the dinner table by asking them to interpret what they had said into Italian.
This really reminded me that speaking Italian well is not always enough. In some communities, the local dialect is engrained into the local culture. You cannot really live and be integrated into these communities unless you can understand the local dialect. I met some foreigners down south who could speak the local dialect better than they could speak Italian.
I'll never forget the woman who lost her son in the well accident. Things have slowly been changing in Sicily, but I wonder if they have changed enough? The accident happened around 20 years ago. Does the neighbour have as much authority today as he had back then? I like to think that this is not the case, but things can't change that quickly. I hope the well can be closed one day.