I grew up with a singing mother. Not so that she was constantly warbling, flitting hither and dither, but she liked to sing, and in particular she liked to listen to and sing along with Italian artists – more specifically San Remo winners.
Why this love affair with Italy, one wonders, and I suppose the answer to that lies precisely in a love affair – with an Italian. But that was long, long ago by the time I came around – more or less ancient history when my mother sat in the candlelight and hummed along to one song after the other.
At the time, I was already trilingual – this as a consequence of an itinerant childhood. Other than Swedish and English, I was also fluent in Spanish, which meant that all these Italian songs were not all that difficult to decipher. One word here, another there, and soon enough I had a pretty good take on what the song was all about – which was generally love of the sadder kind.
Lontano dagli occhi, lontano dal cuore, e tu sei lontana, lontana da me, Sergios Endrigo crooned, and I learnt that if you’re out of sight you’re also out of mind (or in this case out of heart, as cuore is Italian for heart) Or Tu sei quello, che s’incontra una volta e mai piú – i.e. you only get one chance to find the love of your life (and if you squander it, well tough) I had a thing about il cuore e uno zingaro – my heart is a gypsy – probably because it existed in a Spanish version which I knew – aptly – by heart: gitano es mi corazón. (Very much about committing issues) But my absolute favourite was Canzone per te with dear Sergio. A very, very sad farewell to the woman he still wishes well, now that she’s walking out of his life forever. *sniffs*
Other than a good grounding in emotional responses to broken hearts, broken promises, false lovers and what not, years and years of listening to all these Italian dated love songs, I had quite the impressive Italian vocabulary – albeit somewhat restricted in subject matter. Not that I ever said I spoke Italian – that would be lying – but I did understand quite a lot. Enough, as per my boss, to almost qualify as fluent in Italian, which was how I was sent off to Milano to work as an auditor for a couple of months.
Let me tell you, heart and love and longing and wishing your former lover well are not words or expressions that are in any way useful when auditing the books of a chemical company – or any other company. But the fact that I knew all these Italian songs served as something of an ice-breaker, and the various employees of the book-keeping department would cheer and yell for an encore or two, before handing over whatever financial records I had requested.
My vocabulary grew in leaps and bounds. Now that I was spending all my time in Italy, with people who spoke little of anything but Italian, all that passive vocabulary I’d picked up came to life, and soon enough I was declining verbs, discussing the correct way of accruing for Italian social costs, and in general moving away from the soft crooning of the San Remo winners to the real life language spoken by my temporary colleagues.
I was helped by the fact that I spoke Spanish – to a point. I was also made lazy by this – after all, if nothing else I could always speak Spanish, and whoever I was talking to would understand me. Which meant I wasn’t really learning Italian – I was aping it, picking up enough to get by without making the effort required to really master it. At the time, I had other things on my mind, like the fact that I was pregnant with our first child and so sick the only thing I could eat were bananas (which I have never, ever eaten since)
Due to future baby, my stay in Milan was cut back from planned six months to three. I went home, had my girl, had some more kids, continued working as an auditor for some years before moving to a new position.
One day, my new boss came in to my office. “We need to check out this company,” he grumbled. “You’re right, there’s something very off with their reporting.”
Yup. This little Italian company was one my company presently owned 51% in, with a plan to acquire more. Every month, the strangest numbers came in, and any questions we asked were met with a blanket “we don’t understand”. My boss looked at me. “You speak Italian, don’t you?”
“Umm.” Well, more than he did, at any rate. Which was how I was sent off to the north of Italy, very close to Turin. I prepared by doing some serious re-listening to my old favourites – after all, I’d forgotten a lot of what I’d learnt in Milan.
The company was housed in modern buildings on the outskirts of a very old Italian village. From a culinary perspective, I had the best risotto in my life there, plus a surfeit of goat meat, seeing as the locals were very keen on mountain goat. But I wasn’t there to eat, however relieved I was to find not a banana in sight, and I swept into the reception with my brightest smile.
“Hi, I’m from the head office,” I said in English. It is always amusing to say those words. It’s not as if the company you visit are delighted to have the head office pop by in any form – there’s a saying that head office visitors are like corporate sea gulls: they fly in, shit all over the place, and fly back home. Not me, obviously.
The Italian receptionist did a perfect balancing act between a welcoming smile and an ice-berg – a sort of glacial “how-do-you-do”. I was escorted upstairs to the Financial Manager who took one look at me and grinned. Not because he was happy to see me, but because he discarded me as being easy to fool. That’s what happens when you’ve got a head of blonde curls and a generous bosom. Huh.
We chit-chatted for a while in English, him trying to impress on me just how difficult it was for them to understand what numbers we required from them on a monthly basis. Seeing as the Italians invented double bookkeeping, I wasn’t buying it. After all, no matter what language you speak, accountants all over the world can communicate through debits and credits, balance sheets and P&L Statements. But I smiled and nodded, assured him we understood – and yes, it was so difficult to reconcile inventory accounts, wasn’t it?
After some minutes, he pressed the intercom button and ordered someone to fetch the books – in Italian. He also added that the person on the opposite end had best make sure he brought the right version of the books, the ones they wanted me to see. I pretended not to understand.
I spent two days reviewing the cooked books. Seeing as I do have a brain – despite the curls and curves – it wasn’t all that difficult to work out what was going on, further reinforced by how cagey everyone became when I insisted I wanted to see the goods in inventory. But I played along, worked out just how much the present management was keeping for themselves, and called a meeting.
The Financial Manager was looking his dapper best, legs neatly crossed, one polished brown shoe bobbing in time with his swinging leg.
I smiled – and I imagine it was a wolfish grin. “I think it is time I see the correct books,” I said in Italian. Well, after that it was curtains down for the dear Financial Manager. I could have sung “ma oggi devo dire che ti volio bene” as I left, but I didn’t. After all, I didn’t wish him well – I wished him behind bars.
Other than making me very appreciative for all those hours I spent listening to Italian love songs as I grew up, this entire incident brought home a much more important lesson: never presume the person sitting opposite you, or behind you in the bus, or beside you at the airport doesn’t understand. Now and then, they actually do. Might be good to remember – especially for all those people who seem incapable of keeping their voices down while speaking on their ubiquitous mobile phones.