Learning the lingo: Italian

aerial photography of city

 

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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Photo by Josh Hild on Pexels.com

Through the tongue

During my three and a half decades working as a dentist, I have been assisted by numerous ladies varying in age from sixteen to over seventy years. ‘Carly’ was one of them. When she joined me in a practice west of London, it was the first time she had worked in a dental practice. She was a quick learner, but far from discreet.

CARLY

When we had a new patient, we recorded the person’s details on the outside of a record card. One day, a smart-looking woman sat down in my dental chair, a new patient, and I asked her for her personal details: name, date of birth, address, and so on. Carly entered the information on the record card. When we had finished, Carly asked the patient:

“Are you M.R.S. or M.I.S.S?”

The lady replied:

“Miss.”

Quick as a flash, Carly said:

“I can’t see why you ain’t married. You ain’t ugly or anythink.”

The lady took this quite well. She could see that Carly meant no harm.

One Monday morning, Carly arrived and said to me:

“Ere, look at this”

She stuck out her tongue, which had a shiny silver-coloured metal stud pierced through it. I was lost for words for a moment, and then asked her if it was uncomfortable.

“No, it ain’t,” she replied, “It makes eating spaghetti difficult, though. It gets caught up on it.”

All morning, whenever a patient sat in my dental chair, she would tap the patient’s shoulder, and then say: “Wht d’ya think?” before sticking her tongue out to display her stud to the person in the chair. Most of the patients were either politely complimentary of just smiled. By now, my regular patients had got used to Carly and her friendly but cheeky manners.

Another day, Carly arrived at work. Very excitedly, she told me:

“You’ll never guess how much I paid for a large pack of prawns at Tesco’s.”

“Four pounds?” I guessed.

“No, just a quid.”

“That’s a good bargain,” I said.

“What me and me boyfriend do,” Carly explained, “is we swap the labels on the packets in the chiller so that we get the special offer prices instead.”

“Be careful,” I advised.

On yet another occasion, Carly arrived at work looking distressed. I asked her what was wrong.

“I crashed me boyfriend’s car.”

“But you haven’t got a license have you, Carly?”

“No, but I was drunk. I got in his car and drove it backwards into a lamppost.”

I am sure that the boyfriend was not pleased because throughout the day Carly was rung up by him on her mobile ‘phone. She would go out into the corridor, but because she was screaming at her chap so loudly, everyone could hear her.

During one appointment, I was beginning to scale (remove the dental tartar or calculus) a lady’s teeth. After a few minutes, while I changed instruments the lady, a well-dressed woman with airs and graces, asked me:

“Excuse me, Mr Yamey, but what exactly are you doing to my teeth?”

Before I could answer, Carly replied quickly:

“E’s cleaning the crap off yer teeth.”

The patient seemed quite happy with this simple summary.

Despite Carly’s occasional rather undignified comments, she was an excellent assistant. Patients appreciated her unpretentious, friendly, open approach and the fact that she was rarely silent. After a few months, when she had gained some experience, Carly left our practice to take up a better paid position in another dental practice. Some weeks after she had been working there, she dropped into our surgery to say ‘hallo’. I asked her how she was getting on in her new job. She replied:

“It’s ok, but they have told me not to open my mouth during the day.”

Picture source: “Der Zahnarzt in der Karikatur” by E Hinrich (1963)

Spaghetti House

My parents loved coffee. In particular, they enjoyed drinking well-prepared Italian espresso coffee. Every Saturday morning when I was a child in the late 1950s and early 1960s, we used to drive to the car park by Jack Straws Castle, a pub near Whitestone Pond in Hampstead. Now, the pub no longer exists; it has been adapted to become a block of flats. The car park behind it, where we used to leave our car, still exists.

We used to walk down Heath Street, passing the open-air art exhibition if it was summer-time. Our first stop was a café housed within a building with a triangular floor plan, which still stands on the corner of Heath Street and Elm Row. The Pimpernel café/restaurant, which was run by Italians, no longer exists, but this is where my parents used to take their espresso coffee on Saturday mornings.

In those far-off days, espresso machines were not equipped with pre-set electronic controls as they are today. The person making the coffee had to pull down a leaver, which forced the hot water through the powdered coffee and into the cup waiting below it. The speed at which the leaver is pulled determines the rate at which the hot water flows through the coffee and the length of time that the water remains in contact with the coffee grains. These factors help affect the taste and quality of the final cup of espresso and are dependent on who operates the lever. Thus, using the manual espresso machines requires skill and experience. In my parents’ view those who worked at the Pimpernel had these skills. Whenever we visited this café, the kindly staff would give my sister and me a small matchbox sized piece of Italian nougat (‘torrone’). I remember that the piece of torrone was coated on two sides with thin edible rice paper. That there was paper which was edible really impressed my young mind.

There was another place, whose coffee gained my parents’ approval during the 1950s. This was the Bamboo Bar on Finchley Road in Golders Green. It was located under the Northern Line bridge which straddles Finchley Road close to Golders Green station and opposite a now disused covered walkway which was once an entrance to the station.

SPAG 2

Although the walkway and the Bamboo Bar have been closed for many decades, there is still an eatery in the same place, the popular Artista Italian restaurant. The latter is much larger than its predecessor.

SPAG 1

The walls of the Bamboo Bar were lined with bamboo. It was run by two Italian men, Lorenzo Fraquelli and Simone Lavarini. My parents, who both loved Italy and her people, enjoyed chatting with these fellows. In 1955, they opened the first branch of what was to become the now widespread, extensive chain of Spaghetti Houses.

As mentioned, the Bamboo Bar closed years ago. Sometime in the 1960s, another café, Bar Linda, opened next to the bus station at Golders Green. This souvenir of my childhood still survives and is thriving.

SPAG 3

One branch of the Spaghetti House chain made headline news in 1975. It was the branch, now closed, in Knightsbridge. This was the branch where managers of the various outlets of the chain would meet occasionally to deposit their takings before they were deposited in a nearby bank’s night-safe. On the days of the meetings, this restaurant was closed to the public. On Sunday 28th September, three armed men burst into the restaurant and demanded the takings that had been collected from the branch managers, who were meeting there. They bundled the managers in the basement. Luckily, one of the managers escaped and alerted the police, who arrived promptly.  The bandits held the managers hostage for three days before giving themselves up to the police. This event became known as the ‘Spaghetti House siege’. I am pleased to report that nothing remotely exciting as that has ever occurred during my years of visiting this restaurant chain.

SPAG 4

The first branch, which still exists, stands on the corner of Goodge Street and Whitefield Street (see picture above). When I was a young boy, my mother often treated me to a meal at this restaurant. We became quite familiar with the staff.

Many years later in 1970-71 during my first year as a BSc student at University College London (‘UCL’), I used to treat myself to lunch at the Goodge Street Spaghetti House. It was more expensive than the numerous canteens that were available on the UCL campus, but the food was far better. The ground floor of this multi-storey restaurant, like the Bamboo Bar, had walls covered with bamboo. This has long since been replaced by newer wall coverings.  Some of the waiters who were working at the Goodge Street Spaghetti House were getting on in age by the time I began my undergraduate studies. At least one of them used to greet me as she remembered me as a child. Not only had she worked at the Spaghetti House since its opening, but she told me that she had also been a waitress at the Bamboo Bar.

We still eat the occasional meals at various branches of the Spaghetti House chain. The food is usually of a good standard. A few years ago, I met a chap with whom I had been to school before 1960. I had not seen him since about 1971, and then only extremely briefly. We agreed to meet up at a Spaghetti House restaurant. He told me that he preferred meeting people on ‘neutral territory’ in places like restaurants, rather than in homes. Although he had aged quite a bit since we were both 8 years old, he was recognizable. Almost as soon as he met me, he said to me:

“Oh, I thought I was meeting someone else, not you.”