My house has more than it’s fair share of kitchen gadgets – more than I think my grandparents ever had and I still can’t match the quality of food they used to put on the table. But there’s one thing they used constantly in the kitchen that I can’t live without either.
I learned early on when I was on my own that all I really needed to cook or warm up food or get that good home cooking taste was a frying pan. My grandparents would slow cook frittatas, potatoes even “spaghetti pie” in a frying pan. A microwave was no way to warm up pasta, it goes rubbery in a hurry, but a little water in a frying pan made it piping hot in minutes. Those frying pans, large and small, held a meld of fresh garden vegetables and home spun recipes that were a throw-back to old Italian living.
A lot of planting went on this last long weekend, including in my own garden and in my parents’. In the process, I ended up spending some time with a younger cousin, teaching her Italian words for the vegetables my mother was diligently preparing to sow. It was a moment that made me consider, and I consider it fairly often, how much I know and don’t know about communicating in Italian.
At home, my grandparents spoke almost entirely in Italian. My parents a mixture of English and Italian though I always answered in English. In grade school, my parents enrolled me in Saturday morning Italian school (I think I still have the workbooks somewhere). In high school I became uninterested in it all. In University, I took courses in Italian trying to gain it back. As a result I can understand Italian fluently, I have written 20 page essays in Italian but my pronunciation is limited so I don’t speak it except in single words here and there. I’m at a loss of how to fix this, or how it came to be, but I do intensely feel as though it mars my connection with my heritage. I’m apparently not alone in this thinking.
Recently, BBC Radio 4 broadcasted an interesting show titled “Losing your Parents’ Language” that interviewed immigrants to Britain and their expanding generations about growing up with parents who have a different language, what it is like to have a language barrier within a family and those trying to keep languages alive.
One of the more interesting items in the piece is the poem “Mother Tongue” by poet Dean Atta. His mother, born in Britain from Greek parents, spoke to her parents in Greek but her children in English. The language barrier was tough on Dean, who often felt like an outsider when his grandparents were around or on trips to Greece. The poem repeats the idea that “our mother has swallowed her tongue.” Of his trips back to Greece with his family, Dean writes:
Made in England, we’re half this and half that
But they could more easily overlook that fact
If we could speak with our mother’s tongue
Not let our skin speak for us
So there’s definitely more of us out there thinking about what it means to be Italian-Canadian and how Italian that is. Last month, MacLean’s magazine published “When Italy met Canada”, a short article about how Italian immigrants settled in Canada in terms of culture and traditions and how we are not exactly like our cousins still living in Italy. Covering the typical tomato plants in the backyard, plastic on the couches and huge weddings, it suggested how shocked modern Italians would be of our culture here.
I’ve got this thought now…what memories, what histories, were lost when my parents came to Canada from Italy?
I was up late last night reading the opening story to my new book purchase, Are we related?
The first story, with the same title, is written by Linda Grant and is about a daughter coping with an elderly mother who is losing her memory. It explores the notion that losing her mother’s memories meant also losing her history. More interesting was the truths that came out about the family’s past as Jewish Russians, things that were hidden or names that were changed to facilitate their living in England now. The main character, or I guess, the author depending on how it was written, touches briefly on the family history lost in the immigration and things she will never know about the past.