Why my boys will learn their grandfather’s native language

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Reporter Stefano Esposito with his father in Capri. | Family photo

As a kid growing up in England, most of the Italian words I learned were the ones my father spat from the car window at slower, less adventurous drivers.

“Papa just told that man to ‘Go make babies!’ ” my mother might say when I asked the meaning of one of Italy’s best known insults.

At gatherings of other Italian ex-pats, I was constantly reminded of my inability to speak my father’s native language. In the kitchen, the hostess’ hand, moist with pulpy tomatoes, would seize my cheek.

“Che bello ragazzo!”What a handsome boy, she would coo. “Come stai?”How are you?

Then, seeing my blank stare, she’d shoot a horrified look at my father.

“Perché lui non parla Italiano?!”

Papa would then turn to me with the identical expression.

“Stefano, why don’t you speak Italian?!”

After some grumbling, they would return to their conversation — presumably about the sorry state of the Italian government or the price of fresh mozzarella, forgetting I was there.

For a long time, I dreaded everything Italian — other than my American mother’s spaghetti Bolognese. I’d never learned the language as a kid because my father was a tour guide in Europe, gone for weeks at a time. And, if I’m honest, I was more interested in Matchbox cars and Action Man, the British equivalent of G.I. Joe.

But a few years before my first son, Lucca, was born, I had an awakening. Perhaps it was a sense that after two-plus decades in America, I was losing my identity. It helped that my father had recently moved from London to a spa town in Tuscany. I traveled to Florence to study Italian, spending afternoons wandering the maze-like streets in the old part of the city. I dreamed — and still do — of buying a crumbling, little villa in the midst of a Tuscan olive grove.

When Lucca arrived, I changed the pronunciation of our surname back to the way you would hear it on one of Naples’ congested streets — es-POH-zi-to, not es-po-ZEE-to. It raised a few eyebrows here. After all, the name Esposito is near-sacred among Blackhawks fans — despite the fact it’s the southern Italian equivalent of Smith and means, depending on your preference, “outcast,” “abandoned one” or “bastard child.”

But I want my kids to be proud of their heritage. I don’t want them, like their father many years earlier, to slink away in the company of native Italians.

Two years ago, we traveled to Capri, the craggy island in the Mediterranean where my father was born. My son marveled at streets so narrow that pedestrians had to press themselves against shop windows to let a tiny ambulance pass. There is no McDonald’s on Capri, no Target — and, by afternoon, no fresh milk available in shops.

People make way for an ambulance on one of Capri’s narrow streets. | Stefano Esposito / Sun-Times

People make way for an ambulance on one of Capri’s narrow streets. | Stefano Esposito / Sun-Times

Lucca still talks about one cave-like shop, a forest of salami sticks dangling from the ceiling, where we bought the world’s best mozzarella-and-tomato sandwiches to take to the beach.

In Chicago, when my younger son, Matteo, howls from his crib each morning, I greet him in Italian, “Come stai, tesoro?” How are you, my little treasure?

Lucca, almost 7, is at that age where he refuses to indulge his daddy. So he won’t speak Italian. But he does a spot-on impersonation of his grandfather — shoulder’s hunched, hands flung out — losing his cool.

I wonder if this is all just self-indulgence. My Italian comes stuttering from my lips when I speak to my children. In this country, Spanish probably would be a wiser option for them.

But it’s my hope that, one day, each will share a moment of self-discovery like the one I had after I had been in Florence studying Italian for a couple of months. I was no longer quite a tourist. I could, for example, say in Italian to a vendor at the city’s famed San Lorenzo market that I would pay 125 Euro for his inferior leather bag and not a penny more.

On that day, I was with some friends, Luigi and Costanza Puccini, eating dinner on their rooftop patio in a town about 40 miles west of Florence. We’d shared a bottle or two of Chianti, and, feeling a little melancholy, I said to Luigi, who speaks not a word of English, “Non sono sicuro perché sono qui — in Italia.I don’t know why I have come to Italy.

He looked me in the eye and answered, simply: “Perché tu sei Italiano.” Because you are Italian.

RELATED:

• A father’s gift to his young sons: a letter a month to read when they’re older • Learning to be a father at the knee of an expert: my grandfather • What I’ll tell my kids some day about the drug-addicted uncle they never knew • A dangerous question: ‘Daddy, what kind of music did you listen to as a kid?’ • Dancing on the Riverwalk: the ‘Papa’ I want my boys, his grandkids, to remember

Stefano Esposito.

Stefano Esposito. | Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times

Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times

FATHERHOOD: AN OCCASIONAL SERIES

This is one of an occasional series on fatherhood by Sun-Times staff reporter Stefano Esposito, the dad of two young sons.


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