¡Que viva México! – May Mexico live on forever!

Is it true that each culture can be a treasure trove for all humanity? Giuliana confirms this hypothesis for us by recounting stories from her childhood summer vacations in Mexico, which marked her for life, giving her a taste for lively colors, a passion for traditional markets and a particular way of thinking about death.

My recollections of Mexico are burned into the innermost sanctum of my memory. They are intertwined with the extraordinary experiences from my childhood, the discovery of the most vivid and colorful of life’s hues, those times that would forever alter the way I imagined the exotic and the way I appreciated beauty and color, and that would create in me the ever-present need to come into direct contact with the most authentic humanity and the most luxuriant nature.

Nearly every summer from 1989 to 1999, my brother and I had the good fortune to be able to travel from Italy to the birthplace of our mother, accompanied by her and several other family members from our ‘Californian diaspora’. After crossing the US border from San Diego, on the Pacific coast, to Tijuana, we would fly to Mexico’s capital on an Aeromexico plane, the country’s flagship airline.

The moment of landing in Mexico City brought with it a liberating, almost spiritual enthusiasm. I could see my mother’s overflowing emotions each time she returned to her homeland, and I was also somehow conscious of being reunited with something that was an essential part of my own life as well, a parallel dimension that had little in common with the Italian one of my regular life.

The capital of Mexico appeared to my eyes as a place of magic and madness, marked by harrowing contradictions and a primordial energy of constant renewal. It was a universe of daily and spontaneous discoveries, engaging my imagination to the fullest, and giving me the most intense impressions through its novel and unending delights for the senses.

It was in Mexico that I discovered the flavor of tropical fruit for the first time—I still remember the day when I gorged myself on so many mangoes that I got a terrible indigestion. It was there that I discovered the fearsome powers of true Mexican chili. It was there that I first held in my hands a magnificent hummingbird, and it was there that I got struck again and again by the merciless ‘Montezuma’s revenge’, elsewhere commonly known as traveler’s diarrhea. But more than anything, it was there that I came face to face with the biggest fear there is—the fear of death, which came to me in the form of one of its ubiquitous popular representations, which would disturb my innocent dreams for some time.

It was in one of the flea markets, called tianguis (an old Nahuatl word, from long before the Spaniards came), that I first ran into the so-called Cajitas de muertos (‘Little boxes of the dead’), small handcrafted dioramas with the theme of death. The sight of these little ‘shrines’ made me uncomfortable right from the start, raising existential questions that, at my age, could no longer be ignored. I didn’t understand what was the point of such macabre representations, or how my mother and her sisters could like these things so much—these skeletons, these skulls, made of plaster, sugar or paper—and even find them funny! They didn’t make me want to laugh at all. Instead, they stirred up in me a fear and an aversion that I just couldn’t control.

Yet, as I spent more time immersed in this strange world, and came into contact with its values in the most intimate way, I finally developed the awareness I needed in order to overcome my childish reaction. I learned to appreciate to the fullest this part of Mexican culture, which connects death with laughter in a way we wouldn’t even think possible, and manages to collectively exorcise one of the biggest taboos of humanity, particularly in the Western world.

I also learned to love the vibrant street markets, not just in the capital, but also those in the small light-filled pueblitos that we visited during our stays in the lush Valle de Bravo, near Lake Avándaro, where my grandfather owned a summer house, a few hours away from the big city.

I would wander among the stalls, searching for precious objects that could encapsulate my Mexican experience as a whole, channel my affection into solid material form: colorful beaded necklaces with figures of animals and children, small wicker creations, silver rings with Aztec symbols, such as the famous Piedra del Sol, that I had seen in the museum of Anthropology in Chapultepec, and so many others. I needed the reality of those little objects, both to give expression to my love for this land and to remind myself of its existence after returning home to Italy. I needed them as irrefutable proof that this world was real, and not just a figment of the wild imagination of a child.

But as the new millennium dawned, my mother became more and more reluctant to take the usual summer trip to her Mexican homeland, as the growing perception of the danger of being in that country was brought up again and again. It finally turned into a taboo, a forced expulsion of a kind, which my brother and I tried to resist. Unlike him, I finally yielded.

With time and distance, my second country became a kind of ‘Mexico of the mind’, an ‘imaginary homeland’, like India for Salman Rushdie, and its memory fed my bittersweet nostalgia for something elusive, a past that had been lived, but was also idealized—a world which, inevitably, could never be the same.

The severing of my physical connection with Mexico went on to feed the flame of my search for belonging—to an imaginary place that I projected countless times onto different real ones, to make up for the loss of the relationship with that source of life, that visceral and irresistible attraction for the senses. I became convinced, again and again, that I could find my Mexico in the colorful bazaars of the Balkans and Turkey, in the coruscating traditional costumes of Bulgaria, in the near-psychedelic brightness of the patterns of the artisan fabrics of the Caucasus, in the Latino neighborhoods of Los Angeles and San Francisco, and in others too many to recount.

I kept alive my own forms of nostalgic remembrance, with a series of daily rituals encompassing my memories of that lost paradise. Today, I still wear my bead necklaces, my silver bracelets and rings from Valle di Bravo, the earrings I got in a tianguis, and the scarf my brother bought in Chiapas.

And, 18 years after I bought the last of them in Mexico City, I still keep my cajitas de muertos with me—the laughing skeletons whose mocking grins no longer make me afraid.

This story was originally written in Italian by the impressive plume of Giustina Selvelli, our native Italian writer. It was then beautifully transcreated by Eugen R, and carefully proofread and polished by Eugenia P, our native English Linguist Team, until it shone like a diamond. Finally, it was all magically spelt out to you by our lovely Project Manager, Katerina. Learn more about our French to English services writing and translation services here.

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 mottino. (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 colezione—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 maccheroni, only to serve me regular spaghetti. At the end of every evening, she would tell me to go coricare—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). Multilingualism as homeland, translation as natural a gesture as breathing. 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 cuccà (‘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 coucher, 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 soutien-gorge has nothing to do with the throat (la gorge), but, of course, with the breasts. If they tell you ferme ta gueule, 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 mal au coeur (‘sickness in the heart’), or that you’re having a crise de foie (‘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: embrasser means ‘to embrace’, but also ‘to kiss’; baiser, 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 fà ammore. For instance, I remember that they were saying that a young uncle of mine had been doing this (faciva ammore) 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 fà ammore 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.

This story was originally written in Italian by the impressive plume of Mariano D’Ambrosio, our native Italian writer. It was then beautifully transcreated by Eugen R, and carefully proofread and polished by Eugenia P, our native English Linguist Team, until it shone like a diamond. Finally, it was all magically spelt out to you by our lovely Project Manager, Katerina. Learn more about our French to English services writing and translation services here.