Editor’s Note: Joe Russo is a “Nortsider”, a retired teacher, and an aspiring writer. We’ve asked him to share his stories of the past and offer his perspective on the present and future of our neighborhood. His posts will appear each month under the category, “Old Times on the Northside.”
I have just returned from a wonderful trip to Italy. The trip gave me a chance to experience Italian culture and practice my Italian language skills. Both my mother and my father were fluent in the Italian language. My mother was born in Sicily and came to America when she was 7 years old. My father was born in the USA but everyone in his family spoke only Italian at home. My father never learned English until he went to school. Like many northsiders from my generation we did not learn to speak the Italian language. Our parents believed that the route to a better life started with speaking English well. I was always fascinated by my relatives who spoke Italian. It seemed I never had the time or the opportunity to learn.
The long flight back to Syracuse gave me a chance to reflect on my earliest attempts to learn Italian. Back in the days of summer when I went to Schiller Park every day, I ate lunch with my Grandmother. I remember my Aunt Antoinette asking, “How did you talk to Grandma?” “What do you mean?” I replied. “Grandma did not speak English and you do not speak Italian. How did you talk to each other?” she implored. At first I didn’t remember. Then as I reached back into my memory I recalled doing things like turning on the water faucet and saying “aqua.” Yes, Grandma didn’t speak English but we found a way to communicate.
On my trip to Italy I had to find a way to communicate. I took a couple of beginner conversational Italian courses with Frank Ricciardiello at Oasis. Frank is an old northsider, a good guy to learn from and a very good teacher. At first things seemed to be going well but I lacked confidence. When I said, “Buongiorno” the Italians smiled and replied “Molto Bene, e tu?” “These are just a couple of words but we understand each other,” I thought to myself. The big test would be when we were out on our own. On our visit to Ostia Antica we looked back in time at a city that was once an Etruscan seaport and then a Roman center of commerce. After this wonderful tour that took us back in time more than 2,000 years we went to the modern city of Ostia for some wine and a wonderful meal. With a group of six we stopped at an unassuming Trattoria with large windows and a beautiful view. Our server was gracious but did not speak English. The test was about to begin. It quickly became obvious that I was not only going to have to translate for my wife and myself but for others in the group as well.
We sat at the table and looked over the menu. I first looked for familiar words. “Let’s see,” I thought to myself, “il pollo that’s chicken, l’aqua minerale is drinking water for the table, il polpo is octopus.” Once again I thought to myself, “no one is going to order octopus.” As we went around the table everyone was able to order what looked like a great meal. I helped with a few words here and there to make sure the waitress got the order right. And then much to my surprise one couple said they were really interested in the Baby Octopus with red wine sauce. “Oh no,” I thought, “I hope nothing goes wrong with this order.”
As you probably imagined something did go wrong. The fellow who ordered the Baby Octopus said, “I don’t think I can take all those little eyes looking back at me. I’m going to have to order something else.” The pressure is on. I have to figure out how to say we’d like to send the Octpus back and order something else without insulting anyone, not in English, but in Italian! I nervously got the attention of the waitress and began a conversation partly in English, partly in Italian and mostly with hand gestures and sign language. Somehow we got the message across and the waitress returned with a replacement entrée and a smile.
I felt satisfied that I had passed my Italian test with the help of both my Grandmothers. Knowing a few words and understanding a few hand gestures helped. I gained confidence being able to communicate in Italian with my Grandmother while growing up on the old northside. Grandma helped me order a meal some 60 years later in Italia. Thank you Grandma, “Io ti amo”.