By David Orr
My two year old son calls me ‘Daddy’, occasionally ‘Babbo’, and a few times a month, ‘Davide’. Of the three, ‘Davide’ is the most startling, as if he’s aged sixteen years in a sentence and turned into an ironic teenager. Also, my first name is David – Davide is what comes out the other end of an Italian pasta-press, flattened and exotic.
Though he was born in Italy and we still live there, my son primarily asks questions in native English. ‘Davide, how are you?’ ‘Davide, what you doing?’ He hangs out on the upward lift of the question-marks, pausing for effect, more interested in getting a smile from his parents than an actual answer. He has the same studious air of a comedian trying out a joke, scanning the audience for validation, or, at the very least, a connection.
Disarming someone by making them comfortable – that was my trick growing up. In fact it still is. Ever a people-pleaser, if someone is in a bad mood, or worse, unhappy with me, it’s analogous to having committed murder. In my mind’s sensitivity levels, there is very little difference between the worst atrocity you can commit as a human being, and forgetting to take out the trash. Hence, I cultivated an extraordinary series of tricks to try to make people feel at ease. This worked some of the time, or at least, enough to make me keep doing it. Until I moved. To Italy.
Language was the problem. My first years in Italy I couldn’t crack a joke, couldn’t even manage levity, as I was missing the tools, the language to do so. I was basically a child, trying to make people feel at ease, and failing miserably.
I made cute attempts at rolling my R’s, and inhaling my C’s Tuscan-style. I would crawl from one train-wreck of a conversation to the other, throwing down tantrums at the most basic words or expressions. When I succeeded in understanding the odd phrase it was like catching a few raindrops on my tongue, enough to feel the wetness, but never enough to drink.
I tried reading newspapers, comic-books. I took lessons, improved marginally, then regressed. During this time, my son became a full-throated two-year old, struggling with his own lack of language. Young children display so many basic emotions there is a tendency to accept their behavior as inevitable physical law – an alarm clock rings, a stove gets hot, a baby cries. The hard part comes when ‘frustration’ enters the party, surveys the crowd, and decides that your two year old looks like a great dance-partner. Enter the toddler.
A forecast is displayed on TV, presented by a man, who, with cheerful and false exactness, shows my son’s mood swings on a wildly lit map. He points a toy fishing pole at animated suns blinking with ear-to-ear grins, and dark black holes swirling with crevices.
“…And tonight, we have a cold-pressure system moving in, resulting in unpredictable tantrums, mixed with occasional spots of absurd cuteness that reward your patience and leave you with the feeling of the sublime. Tomorrow, as per yesterday, you will struggle to understand what the term’ the sublime’ actually means.”
This was our existence – my son screaming in his crib to be heard, me screaming internally, both sharing an inability to live out the basic human practice of expressing oneself, our identities straitjacketed.
And then, a funny thing happened. We got better. I began to read every night to my son in Italian, starting with the indestructible children’s books – those of the cardboard pages. His craving for new material (‘six books tonight daddy’), led me to slow down to a pace where I belonged – at a two-year old level. My son bolstered his usual kingly demands with his own sets of new phrases. My pronunciation improved, and full sentences began to form. His identity started to take root while mine began to return.
Today, I’m now able to hold basic conversations in Italian. My son is able to identify precisely why he is crying (it turns out he has many reasons). We have both successfully navigated our own identity crises. He is moving onto underwear. I am moving onto complex tenses. The forecast is positive with hints of sun amongst the clouds that are bright, illuminating, one might almost say, sublime.
Short bio: David Orr grew up in the town of Stratford, Ontario, Canada, famous for swans, Shakespeare, and the future embryo of Justin Bieber. He graduated from the University of Waterloo with a Bachelor of Systems Design Engineering. David is also part of the Writers Group in Florence, contributing writer for the bilingual, local newspaper Florence Is You! and recently crossed the finish line of an ultra marathon, starting from the beautiful citadel of San Gimignano to the city of Siena. He consults for Wall Street technology firms, and writes to keep sane, seek truth, and overcome.
You can also read more of David’s stories following his website http://blog.thedorr.com/.