Thursday, June 28, 2012

Lo Zaino Invicta, or, Why Henry Will End Up In Therapy

Photo credit: Curiosando
Rayne is a packrat. He collects comics, baseball cards, Playbills and fleeces among other things. When we first moved in together, he had no less than 17 black coats of various lengths, styles and materials. I had to force him to try on each one and donate at least half so I could also own a coat or two.

I am the opposite. I throw everything out. I once shredded a diary just because I didn't want to read it ever again. I do, however, have a couple of nonsensical keepsakes which I refuse to part with. One is my dog Hudson's faux shearling puppy coat. I just can't get rid of it. Another is lo zaino (backpack) Invicta that I bought while living in Italy in the late 90s.

Anyone who has been to Europe (or to Times Square in mid-August) will recognize this backpack as the ubiquitous travel gear of every bonafide Italian. I think each person is assigned one at birth. 


A little backstory is in order. I studied in Rome during my junior year of college and met a boy. (How original!)  I spent the next four years traveling often to Italy, spending whole summers and even the entire year after I graduated from college. I bought the Invicta bag right before I left for good. These bags are ugly, I reasoned, but they are sturdy and spacious. Perfect for travel.

The last time I used this perfect travel bag was in 2000, when I spent a month in Paris on my own. Carrying that backpack was fabulous, because everywhere I went, people assumed I was Italian. (My Italian American features and surname probably helped as well.) If I spoke French, the natives could hear my American accent butchering their precious Parisian French two kilometers away. But if I spoke Italian, no one could detect my slight accent. This was convenient, since even before the absurdity of Freedom Fries, we weren't so popular in the City of Light.

But if I'm being completely honest, there is another reason I preferred to seem Italian.

I loved who I was in Italian. Not who I was in Italy -- I would have been my same tempestuous self regardless -- but rather who I was when speaking the language. My slight but inevitable accent coupled with the occasional incorrect preposition -- hallmarks of a fluent speaker of a second language -- cut the edge off my natural intensity in a way that made me simpatica, nice, for the first time in my life. And as people reacted differently to me, I actually became a version of myself that I liked better, a version I could only be in Italian.

I also loved my boyfriend's warm and boisterous family, who reminded me of my own, and especially of my grandfather, who had taught me to say that I was “American of Italian descent,” as early as five years old. The similarities between my family and my boyfriend's were striking: the fever-pitch of quotidian dinner conversation, the intermittent bursts of temper and wild gesturing, the Catholic guilt, the plastic-covered sofa, the Sunday macaroni. I felt I understood my family for the first time. 

So you can see why I refuse to give up lo zaino Invicta and why (perhaps less obviously) when Henry was born, I was determined that he learn Italian. While pregnant, I bought books, CDs and DVDs to this end. Forget Mandarin, Spanish or even French. I was gunning to have my child speak a beautiful but practically useless language. 

Here he is, practicing with a book we read together. He's both reading in Italian and eating the book, which is a great start toward appreciating the culture:

Nom nom nom

I say I want to pass my heritage on to him, to teach him the wonder and beauty of dreaming in another language. That's what I say, and it is true. But I know my identity is wrapped up in my experiences, that I still cling to a little part of the future I once imagined for myself -- summering in Umbria with bilingual children who ate proper lunches.  

I may, in fact, have a little too much invested in his learning -- and loving -- Italian.

We all have expectations for ourselves and for our children. I hope the fact that I am aware of this particular piece of baggage will save Henry from the crushing pressure such hopes -- as positive and innocuous as they may seem -- can place on little developing egos.

I'm pretty sure he will come to me at some point and tell me, in all seriousness, that he hates prosciutto. And I'll have to be okay with that.