Multilingualism as homeland

Mariano, our Italian translator, is an expat living in France. He contemplates love and death while crossing the Pont de l’Alma in Paris, in all the languages that live inside him.

My grandmother passed away only a few days after Christmas. Some days before her passing, I had flown from Paris, where I live, to Milan, where my girlfriend lives, and from there I had taken a train to Piacenza, where my family lives. From Piacenza, at dawn on Christmas Day, we—myself and my family—drove together to Naples, where I was born and where my grandmother still lived.

Once upon a time, I had lived at my grandmother’s house for a short while. The school I went to was a stone’s throw away from her place, and every morning she would tell me to eat my <em><strong>mottino</strong></em>. (A few years later, I found out that the word mottino doesn’t actually exist in Italian, and my classmates in the North had no idea what it meant).

When I got back home from school, we would have the <em><strong>colezione</strong></em>—and there were two things I simply couldn’t understand: for one, why my grandmother called it colazione (with that strange a pronounced more like an e), which means breakfast, instead of pranzo—lunch. And for another: why she would fool me every time by telling me she had made <em><strong>maccheroni</strong></em>, only to serve me regular spaghetti. At the end of every evening, she would tell me to go <em><strong>coricare</strong></em>—another word that sounded strange to me, used in the place of dormire, ‘to sleep’, as my parents would have said. And now, after I kissed her forehead and said goodbye to her for the last time at the hospital’s morgue (the same word in so many languages), I am again leaving Naples behind, and the bilingualism of my childhood (but I really should say tri-lingualism: Neapolitan, Italian, and that peculiar Italian spoken only in my family, sprinkled with words that existed neither in proper Italian nor in Neapolitan), to return to the multilingualism which has been my home for years now.

Back in France after those sad days in Italy, I again find myself caught in the linguistic maelstrom of my everyday life: the Neapolitan that still rings in my head after the time in Naples, the Italian in which I think, the French which I speak, the English which I read and write almost every day, the Spanish of my Parisian friends (and Catalan for some).
<blockquote>Multilingualism as homeland, translation as natural a gesture as breathing.</blockquote>
My mind drifts again—I don’t know why—to that ‘coricare’ that my grandmother would say, burned forever in my memory—and I suddenly realize it’s nothing but a literal translation of the Neapolitan word <em><strong>cuccà</strong></em> (‘to go to bed’), like Renato Carosone sang: ‘Mo‘ vene Natale, nun tengo denare, me leggio ‚o giurnale e me vado a cuccà’ (‘Christmas is coming, I’ve got no money, I read the paper and I go straight to bed’—to stay with the Christmas theme). ‘To go to bed’ in French is <em><strong>coucher</strong></em>, which is very similar, as it comes from exactly the same root.

But coucher also means ‘to go to bed’ with someone else. ’Voulez-vous coucher avec moi?’—that’s an expression even someone who doesn’t speak a lick of French would know, and it certainly isn’t an invitation to get some shut-eye. French is full of these euphemisms, these ‘false friends’ that the Italian émigré, fresh off the boat (as the expression goes), needs to learn—or at least to deliberately pretend not to know, if they can hope to gain some advantage from it. The French seem to have so much trouble locating the body parts properly: the <em><strong>soutien-gorge</strong></em> has nothing to do with the throat (la gorge), but, of course, with the breasts. If they tell you <em><strong>ferme ta gueule</strong></em>, they don’t mean ‘close your throat’ so you’d suffocate, but rather ‘shut your mouth’ so you’d stop talking. And when you feel like throwing up, they let you know that you actually have <em><strong>mal au coeur</strong></em> (‘sickness in the heart’), or that you’re having a <em><strong>crise de foie</strong></em> (‘attack of the liver’).

But you have to pay even more attention with the language of affection and love. The meaning of every word is transformed: <em><strong>embrasser</strong></em> means ‘to embrace’, but also ‘to kiss’; <em><strong>baiser</strong></em>, in turn, means ‘to kiss’, but also to do something much more intimate, known to the rest of the world as ‘making love’: fare l’amore, hacer el amor, faire l’amour. When I was a little boy in Naples, I often heard people talking about <em><strong>fà ammore</strong></em>. For instance, I remember that they were saying that a young uncle of mine had been doing this (<em><strong>faciva ammore</strong></em>) for many years—too many! But this was not actually intended to mean that he was engaging in way too much of a certain amorous activity, but that he and his fiancée had been postponing their wedding for too long. I would also get asked questions about whether I had started to <em><strong>fà ammore</strong></em> yet. This was all because in Naples, fà ammore just means to court, to be together, to spend time with each other. When I was 12 or 13, that question used to make me embarrassed, but today I would certainly have no problem answering it.

I think about these linguistic crossroads, these twists and turns, as I am walking alone on the Pont de l’Alma on my way to work. The Seine flows by my side, engorged by the recent rains. The Eiffel Tower rises before me, further to the right. My path, and the train of my thoughts, have brought me from childhood memories to the questions of a human life, and from death to love: love as it’s tried, love as it’s made, love as it’s talked about.

Just like Simon and Garfunkel in Kathy’s Song, I too, when the rain falls, think of the faraway place ‘where my heart lies’. But in which language is that thought? I’m not all so sure anymore.

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