Equal Partners
by Roland Ezri

Equal Partners by Roland Ezri

Equal Partners

By Roland Ezri

"Women are the backbone of all societies. They do a substantial part of the work, and play a major role in raising the future generation yet they are largely powerless. The decisions that count are made by men and foisted upon women."

Writings by Roland Ezri

The Second Exodus – Italy – CCV. Our Daily Life (14 of 19)

We bought the necessary textbooks and stationery, and started our Italian lessons with the most delightful family one could hope to meet. La Signora, Il Signor, and La Signorina Caselli were some of the most charming people I ever met. (Mrs., Mr., and Miss Caselli). I no longer remember their first names, and out of respect, I will only refer to them as Mr., …

Signorina Caselli was their only daughter, and she worked for the National Geographic, Italian Edition. Of course, with parents like her, Italian was not her only language. She spoke an impeccable French and a good English; and this explains how she secured a post with such a prestigious publication.

Our parents told us that Mr. Caselli was a demanding teacher. Nonsense! He had an easy manner, laughed a lot, and never got excited. I remember him as a superb teacher, who taught us a lot in a very short time span. How did he do it? I didn’t have an answer back then; today, I know how he accomplished what was really an amazing feat: gentle persuasion.

The first lesson opened with a plate of cookies that was replenished by Mrs. Caselli as needed! This was followed by pan de spagna (sponge cake); and we devoured the whole thing. The first attempt of Mr. Caselli to start the lesson was stopped dead in its tracks by his wife! “Let them eat first,” she said. Subsequent lessons didn’t unfold this way; yes, we were served syrup, soft drinks, and occasionally cake, but we would have never learned Italian if our main preoccupation was our stomachs!

How do you teach two educated adults (Robert was 16, and I was 21) a new language? There are many ways to do so, it depends on the teacher (or school), and the objective of the student. You may elect to learn a new language just to increase your knowledge, or because you intend to immigrate to the country where that language is spoken. In the latter case, you’re a more serious student and will apply yourself more. Whatever the case the teacher will play an important role, for he is the captain on that ship. And our captain was all business; and so were his students.

We went for our lessons at least four times a week. If it was up to Signor Caselli we would have been there even on Sundays! Mercifully, this wasn’t practical.

We started with the alphabet. While French has 26 letters, Italian has only 21, with 5 extra letters to be used for foreign words; whether it’s French, Italian, or any other Romance language, the same (with some modifications) alphabet is used, and it is derived from Latin.

Once our teacher was satisfied with our pronunciation, we were given simple words to read, this was followed by complete sentences and paragraphs. Next came writing. At this point, we were still A students for this was the easy part, but it didn’t last. We were not kids in an elementary class, and time was of the essence. Mr. Caselli was determined to impart as much of his Italian as was possible. And as we shall see, he did just that.

There came a day when our teacher set aside our books. Instead the newspaper was wide open on the table. Were we expected to read an Italian newspaper? Apparently, yes! It might sound crazy, but we did just that. Oh, we read haltingly, and we needed much help from the three Casellis, in other words, it was a team effort!

Next we were expected to explain what we read; it wasn’t that difficult for we knew enough Italian by then.

Having a wry sense of humor, one day, I asked, “are we expected to also explain Italian politics?” To which Mr. Caselli replied, “no, that would be impossible, for nobody in Italy can do that!” The rest of the family laughed; that was their way of saying, “Amen.”

At the next lesson, a pile of National Geographic was waiting for us; there, we didn’t do too well, one reason was that we were fascinated by the pictures and paid less attention to the text. Signorina Caselli told us that we could take as many copies of The National Geographic as we wanted and look at them at home.

This was the first time I had looked at the National Geographic and I was totally fascinated. I didn’t only look at the pictures, I read as much as my limited Italian permitted. Celio, almost keeled over when he first saw me reading aloud; he tested me; yes, apparently, I understood what I was reading. Thereafter, if possible, they (La Veloce staff) helped us out with our Italian.

I cannot possibly describe the process in detail. Suffice to say that we moved on to grammar, verbs (including some wicked irregular ones!), expanded our vocabulary, and were given a lot of homework. At an early stage we were able to write essays at (probably) grade 9 or 10 level.

In time, we realized that Italian was not an easy language; there is no such thing. It’s hell to properly learn a new language, no matter how many other languages you know.

I close the lesson part with an amusing incident. One day, Mr. Caselli was explaining the conjugation of an irregular verb. He wrote “Pongo. Pongo. Pongo.” We wondered if he was still talking in Italian! Apparently, he was. Pongo means, “I ask.” But why are three “pongos” necessary for such a basic verb? I don’t believe we figure it out even then!

How good were these lessons?

More than 20 years later, I could sit down, listen and understand Italian news.

Not too far from where I lived was an Italian supermarket, Nicastro. Everybody there spoke in Italian. I never said that I could also speak some Italian, for fear of embarrassing myself. But that ended when the owner, one day, pointed at the cat and said, “even it speaks Italian!” And that it when I delivered a perfect sentence in Italian! “Mio Dio,” (My God) he said; he then exclaimed to his staff, “ascoltare, Il Signore parla Italiano.” (Listen, this gentleman speaks Italian).

Thereafter, I was expected to talk in Italian, and I did my best. They had Italian movies, and I rented some and could understand 50% of the dialogue.

Time went by. I could no longer understand the news, nor could I rent movies. My Italian had evaporated!

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