Thursday, January 17, 2008
One of my readers, the always-delightful Lime, recently told a story concerning her grandfather and his use of a tremendously off-color Italian curse. Her reminiscence led me to recall the story that follows. I originally posted it as a response to her piece, but now I've figured, "Why not use it here?"
I've told you before that my Dad worked for the airlines. I was, therefore, fortunate enough to grow up being able to travel to many wonderful places that otherwise wouldn't have been possible for a kid from a middle-class neighborhood in Dorchester. This story takes place in Italy - Rome to be exact - where I had traveled with my parents in 1970. I was 13.
Now, my Dad often used to hang out in the North End of Boston, which was (and is) the Italian section. He did so because many of his friends, fellow airline employees, lived there. He enjoyed their company, and they enjoyed his. He was sort of the token Mick, being the only non-Italian member of a social club called The Sulmona. Anyway, because of the time he spent immersed in this culture, he became facile with certain idiomatic Italian expressions.
Most of these expressions were innocuous enough. He might call someone a shadrool, for instance. I have no idea if I'm spelling that correctly, but it's certainly the way it was pronounced. In any case, it meant cucumber - or so I was told at 13 years of age. Perhaps it meant something resembling a cucumber; a dick, in other words. All I know is it was bandied about easily and caused nobody any particular embarrassment.
Back to Italy in 1970. The World Cup was going on, and Italy was in the semi-finals. It was an exciting time to be in Rome. The semifinal match, against Germany, was being telecast and there wasn't a single place in Rome that didn't have the game on the television that night. The entire country was glued to it. My Dad and I were watching it in a common TV room at our hotel. My Dad, in his usual gregarious fashion, had become quick friends with many of the Italian men with whom we were sharing this spectacle.
The game was a real nail biter, even for those of us (me, my Dad, my Mom) who knew shadrool about soccer. Italy led 1-0 for most of the match, but Germany tied the game in extra time, in the 92nd minute. In overtime, there were FIVE goals scored, with the Italians finally winning by a score of 4-3. The city went berserk following the game. The noise was deafening, and nobody - least of all us in our hotel on a main drag - slept that night.
(Italy lost the final to Brazil, as I remember. We were in Denmark by that time, so it didn't impress itself upon me as much as the semi-final did. However, I digress.)
Back to the night of the game. We're sitting there watching the overtime, on the edge of our seats, and a member of the Italian team takes a kick at the ball and misses an open net by a wide margin.
One specific phrase that my father learned, while hanging out with his Italian friends from Boston, was used to express strong dismay. I'm not sure if my father knew the literal translation of it, but he knew the sentiment of it, and he now wished to show solidarity with his new Italian friends. He wanted to assure them that he was strongly rooting for the Italian team and sorry that they hadn't scored. My father uttered the phrase, loudly.
The room went completely and utterly quiet, even in the midst of what might have been the most exciting overtime ever in World Cup history. Eyes bugged out all around. From the reaction he had gotten, my Dad might just as well have announced his intention to go find an Italian flag and wipe his ass with it. My Dad looked back and forth, from face to face to face, and found nary a single kind one.
Finally, one man had the courage (and manners) to say, "Eh, Mr. Sullivan, 'at's-a no sometin' you say inna public. At's a very, very bad saying." There was a general nodding of heads around the room. My Dad looked appropriately ashamed, and he blushed. This won him a few smiles, as many of them realized he probably had no idea what he was really saying. Since my Dad was a good one for jollying along anyone he may have inadvertently offended, he worked his way back into their good graces before long, and we all cheered and hugged when the Italian side finally won.
As I later came to understand, the phrase was roughly translated as "Your mother is a whore", but it may have contained other less-printable (even for this blog) obscene shadings. I would put it out here, spelled phonetically as I remember it, but I don't want to risk offending anyone inadvertently. I try very hard to offend you only on purpose, as you know.
Soon, with more better stuff.