Say What?

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I recently got hooked on a television series on the Sundance network. It’s a show about people who suddenly return from the dead. Anyone who knows me knows that besides classic sitcoms, I am fascinated with all shows about hauntings, psychics, and aliens and haunted psychic aliens. A few weeks ago I was watching something when my husband, Tim, walked in and casually asked, “Is everyone in this show dead?” I had to truthfully answer, “Yes.” Tim kept walking. This series on Sundance is called Les Revenants, or translated, The Returned. It takes place in the French Alps and because it is filmed in France, with a French cast for French television, it has English subtitles for those of us who could never learn another language.

It’s not that I wasn’t ever around other languages. Since both sets of my grandparents came from Italy, my parents sometimes spoke Italian at home. As a kid I learned general household words: bagno (bath), latte (milk), pane (bread), scarpe di cemento (cement shoes) – my father was Sicilian. Sometimes when my parents spoke to each other they couldn’t understand what the other one was saying. My father spoke with a Sicilian dialect and my mother’s family was from Calabria. I remember many dinner conversations that ended in heated arguments. Whenever there was a subject my parents wanted to discuss and didn’t want my brother or me to know what they were talking about, they would lapse into Italian. They would do fine for a few minutes and then all of a sudden my dad would scream in English, “I don’t know what the hell you’re saying!” And my mother would shout back, “That’s because you don’t understand proper Italian.” Then the ancient battle of Sicily versus Calabria would ensue for the rest of the meal. Usually on those evenings we didn’t get dessert.

As a kid I thought it would be cool to learn another language. There was such beauty and mystery in hearing those Italian words flow from my parents’ mouths. On Sundays my mom would pull out Italian albums and sing along with them. My mother had a beautiful voice and when she was younger she used to sing on the radio. I loved to hear her singing along with Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra. Not a Sunday went by where you didn’t hear my mother belting out Nel Blu Dipinto Di Blu with the love of her life – not my father – Dean Martin. I used to try to sing along too but since I didn’t know the words I made them up. Little did I know that by the time I was 12, I would find a foreign language I could speak.

The summer before I was to head off to junior high school, the musical Oliver! came to our local theater. After seeing it three times I spent hours every day perfecting my British accent. It was an accent that I could speak with, sing with, and drive my family insane with. I dropped all of my H’s and greeted my mom in the mornings with an enthusiastic “Ello mutha.” I interspersed stories with colorful words like “cheerio,” “pip-pip” and “blimie!” However, after a few weeks of my fake accent everyone around me got a little tired of my cockney conversations. My Oliver! summer came to a sad but predictable end one day when I was bike riding with my best friend, Nancy. I was alternating between singing Food Glorious Food and reciting Fagin’s speech to his pickpockets when Nancy’s bike screeched to a halt. She flipped her long blonde hair, pointed a finger at me and said, “If you don’t knock it off right now I’m going to kill you. And I mean it. I will kill you.”

By the time school started that September and I entered junior high I had decided that along with my swimsuit and shorts I should also pack away my British accent. Actually, my head was swimming with all of the changes that the new school brought. There were locker combinations to remember, six different classrooms, new boys to check out, a gym uniform, and showers. I was nervous about subjects I had never had before like science, algebra, home economics and a full semester of foreign languages. Foreign languages! Finally, I might be able to understand what my parents were always arguing about. Since I had spent the whole summer talking like Richard Burton, I was ready to impress the language teacher with my fluent British accent. I imagined the foreign language teacher would be a svelte European beauty who looked like Audrey Hepburn and had a romantic French accent. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

On the first day of my foreign language class I was disappointed that instead of Audrey Hepburn floating into the room with a basket full of croissants, we were introduced to Mr. Venditelli. He was about five feet tall, round around the belly, had a bristly brush cut and mustache to match and he spoke with a thick Italian accent. He was all business and something told me I should not welcome him with a rousing chorus of Consider Yourself. Despite the fact that Mr. Venditelli was Italian, we were only going to study Spanish, French and German – so much for arguing with my parents. As the semester progressed I learned something important about myself: I was unable to learn a foreign language. No matter what language we were studying they all blended together. I had a better understanding of Klingon from watching Star Trek than I did of Spanish. German wasn’t much better. No matter what you said it all sounded like you were angry and relaying horrible news. A benign phrase like “The sun is shining today” spoken in German could easily come across as “I will kill your dog and eat him!” Needless to say, Mr. Venditelli was never very pleased with any of us. If he called on you and you couldn’t reply in the proper language he would walk right up to you and shout “What’s da matta wit you?” Looking back on it now, I think Mr. Venditelli needed to learn how to speak English. Anyway, by the time the semester ended I had learned some important phrases that every traveler should know like: “Here is the pencil.” “The bird is in the window.” “Jacques is my brother.” This is why I have never been to Europe. The class wasn’t a total waste, though. I did master a spot-on imitation of Mr. Venditelli that would amuse students and teachers alike. I would take two hairbrushes and put one on my forehead with the bristles sticking straight up and one under my nose and then I’d yell, “What’s da matta wit you?” He gave me a C- for the semester.

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I wasn’t too upset about the poor grade or that the class had ended, because one day a new poster was put up in the cafeteria. The drama department was holding auditions for the yearly play and this year it was to be the musical, Oliver! I took it as a divine sign from Heaven. How could I not get a starring role in that play? Hadn’t I just spent an entire summer speaking in a cockney accent? I knew all the songs, I could recite entire scenes and since I had recently cut my hair, weighed only 69 pounds and had no chest I knew I could pass for a boy. The role of The Artful Dodger was going to be mine! Once again I pulled out my cockney accent, played the Oliver! soundtrack on my dad’s stereo until it was worn out and sang non-stop. I sang walking to school. I sang in between classes. I sang walking home from school. I was walking alone now because Nancy ditched me as soon as the drama club poster went up.

On the day of the auditions I walked into the Drama Club room filled with confidence. I quickly scanned the other kids to size up my competition and felt pretty confident about my chances. That is until Wendy walked in. Since the beginning of the school year people were always confusing the two of us. We looked a lot alike and it wasn’t unusual for either one of us to be called by the other’s name. It also didn’t help that Wendy was in the choir and I wasn’t. To make matters worse, Wendy and I weren’t all that fond of each other. Even though I gave an enthusiastic read and a less than stellar singing solo, Wendy got the part of Dodger. I ended up being one of “the boys” and Wendy’s understudy. Unfortunately for me, Wendy never suffered any of the horrible disasters I had wished upon her and I never got to take her place. You have to remember this was years before aspiring Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding had Nancy Kerrigan whacked in the knee. If only I had thought of that. After the run of the play, I put away my cockney accent for good and Nancy once again walked with me to school.

I was ready to forget Mr. Venditelli’s class and believe my father when he once said to me, “I hope you realize that that fake British accent isn’t considered a foreign language.” I didn’t attempt any more foreign language classes until my first year in college. On the first day of French class I was hopeful I would do well. The teacher was from France and she had a lovely accent. She pronounced my French name – Terese – so beautifully that I wanted to make a recording of it for all of those people who would quickly glance at my name and call me Theresa. Not even close. I purchased all the books for the class, the recommended tapes to listen to and tried to immerse myself in the language. It didn’t work. I dropped the class four weeks in when I realized that the only French phrase I had learned was to shrug my shoulders and say, “Je ne sais pas.” Translation: “I don’t know.” Besides, I already knew how to say, “The bird is on the window” in Spanish. I figured that’s all I needed. But now, I had that French TV show.

Every week I watch Les Revenants and marvel at how effortlessly the dead people speak French. I get excited every time I hear one of them utter, “Je ne sais pas.” “I know what they’re saying!” I yell to Tim. Then, after a few weeks, I was surprised by how much of the language I did pick up. I realized a lot of French words are very similar to English words. It started to get easier for me to follow the storyline and pick out familiar phrases. By just listening to the words and seeing the corresponding English in the subtitles I was able to learn a few new words and phrases. Of course, I don’t know how easy it will be for me interject phrases like, “Je suis mort,” I am dead. “Est-ce que vous etes morts?” Are you dead? “Ici vient les morts.” Here comes the dead. But, I’m sure if I’m as diligent as I was in learning my British accent, I will be able to annoy just as many people now that I can speak French.

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