Until I was 16 years old, I accompanied my parents on annual holidays in Florence (Italy). We always stayed at the Pensione Burchianti, which was run by two ageing sisters. Almost every evening, we ate dinner in a nearby restaurant (the Buca Mario). This excerpt from my book CHARLIE CHAPLIN WAVED TO ME describes how I began to acquire some limited skill in speaking Italia. Here is the excerpt:
” … After dinner we would walk back to the Burchianti. It might have been during one of these evening strolls that my father came up with a new version of the saying ‘a penny for your thoughts’, namely: ‘a penne for your sauce’. The traffic in the streets would have quietened down by the time that we had eaten, and all of the traffic signals, or ‘robots’ as my South African parents called them, had flashing amber lights instead of the usual sequence of three coloured lamps. The pedestrian signals, which alternated between the red ‘Alt’ and the green ‘Avanti’ during the day, simply flashed both messages at the same time at night.
When we arrived back at the Burchianti, the residents, who had been eating supper, were usually still lingering at their tables. Many of them almost lived in the Burchianti. There was an elderly commendatore, who took all his meals there but slept elsewhere. There were also a number of business people who spent the week working in Florence, but resided some distance away in the weekend. They lived in the pensione during the week. One of these was a lady pharmacist from Parma who spoke Italian with a curious accent, rolling her ‘r’s in an exaggerated way.
On entering the dining room, we would be greeted like old friends, which I suppose we were. We would be invited to sit at the sisters’ table, and then I had to perform. One of the sisters would ask me in Italian what I had eaten for dinner, and I had to reply in Italian. Everyone listened to my reply which usually went something like this:
“Primo piatto o mangiato spaghetti con pomodoro. Dopo o mangiato bistecca con patate fritte. E dopo, profiterole.”
It was not difficult to relate what I had eaten because every dinner I ordered the same thing or substituted lombatina di vitello (veal chop) for the bistecca. This nightly recitation gave me the confidence to try to speak in Italian, even if badly. When I did not know a word, I tried using a Latin word but pronounced it in a way that I believed made it sound Italian. Often, this worked! ...”
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