|A typical Venetian scene of two first-graders walking home from school, though these two are perusing a Des Moines, Iowa Used Automotive & Recreational Vehicle Marketplace free newspaper|
Then she asked, "Dove sei nato?" ("Where were you born?")
Sandro replied, "Err, I don't think I'll answer that one..."
"Parli tu Inglese?" Jen asked next.
"I don't think I'll answer that one either," Sandro said.
And thus was confirmed what Jen and I had been noticing for the previous few months: that the carefree cloudless days of Sandro's bilingualism really were over.
In truth, he'd spoiled us rotten as parents with his inclination as a toddler to charge intrepidly into pretty much any new context we introduced him to. Shortly after turning two years old, he adapted without a hitch not only to his first preschool, but in a place (Piemonte, Italy) in which none of us had ever been before, and in a language (Italian) he'd never heard.
He was our first and only child so Jen and I could easily have taken this adaptability for granted, but we knew enough other kids his age who, understandably enough, weren't so cavalier about such things. In fact, neither of us had been anywhere near so cavalier at his age.
Yes, "spoiled" is the right word for it. Sandro indulged us shamefully in his willingness to interact with toddlers everywhere, regardless of language: Asheville (in North Carolina), Piemonte, Brooklyn, Florence or Venice.
Here in Venice, he became friends with two American boys from different ex-pat families who'd been going to Italian schools here longer than he had but still refused to utter a single word of Italian, though they understood what was said to them. Playing with Sandro was a welcome and rare respite for them from the foreign language and culture that otherwise oppressed them. He was as American as they were.
Except, of course, when he was playing with other of his friends with whom he happily spoke only Italian.
I marveled at his ability at the age of four to switch, sentence by sentence, from speaking Italian to his friend who spoke only Italian at that time, to speaking English to his friend's American mother beside him.
I noticed this particularly because his friend's mother, a long-time resident of Venice, is actually fluent in Italian and Sandro could easily have spoken Italian to her regardless of what she spoke to him. But Sandro, by four, automatically--stubbornly, even--spoke to bilingual adults in whatever was their native tongue. Thus, he would also reply to the Italian father of another friend in Italian, even when the Italian father (also fluent in English) made it a point to speak to Sandro in English.
With the clear, direct and slightly merciless logic of a young child, he hewed to what he knew about these bilingual adults, and what the accent of the second tongue revealed to him, and he responded--for the sake of sociability or to show he wasn't fooled?--in their native tongue.
Yes, he spoiled Jen and I horribly. It was all so easy. Sure, there was a brief period after about a year of living here that he claimed he preferred to speak Italian. And, around the same time, the night he told me (boasted, really) that I was only a "little bit Italian," while he was truly Italian. But these were blips in an otherwise smooth transit between tongues and cultures.
Those days are over. In America in August he kept his mouth clamped shut when his American grandfather, who's studied Italian for years (though he's not of Italian descent), spoke to him in Italian. And a brief exchange of Italian between the same grandfather, Jen and myself one afternoon in a diner in Wisconsin was enough to make him squirm uncomfortably in his seat, then threaten to actually flee the table if we didn't switch back to English.
Like all falls from Eden, this one, too, is marked by the sense that one has something to hide; and that to have it exposed is positively mortifying.
There are barriers now, or at least borderlines, that were hardly marked out before. In contrast to three or four years ago when any kid anywhere was a potential playmate, our nearby playground, though crowded with kids, can now be empty of anyone he's willing to play with. And it's not just between English and Italian language, American and Venetian culture that borders have formed, but within the Italian language itself and within Venetian culture itself. How Italian is spoken. How one plays and relates to one's parents.
Sometimes the barrier between Sandro and some kids in the neighborhood is that they are too much of the neighborhood and he not enough. There are cultural distinctions too various to lay out here, but any idea I had that our son could slip fairly easily into the local scene has been disproved.
One of the long-standing paradoxes of the Venetian Republic was how a place and people could be, on the one hand, so worldly and cosmopolitan--early visitors were astonished by the exotic variety of foreigners living here for the sake of business--and, on the other, so provincial. Writing in the early 1960s, Jan Morris noted how many Venetians still typically displayed in their daily life all the insularity one expects to find in an island people. And a native-born friend here told us that she and her two siblings often felt that many of the people they grew up among in Castello regarded them from a certain distance, if not with a certain suspicion. Though their father was (and is) what might be called an alpha-Venetian, their mother is Swiss, and even her slightest variations from the local norm of child-rearing were remarked upon and remembered. As I know our own are by certain of our neighbors.
But perhaps the old Venetian Republic thrived insofar as it was able to abide this paradox at the heart of its success. Abide it in a way that today's xenophobic Lega Nord can not. In a way that raving free marketeers, sacrificing all democratic integrity in the name of unbounded trade, can not. And in a way, too, that those multiculturalists who fantasize about a coexistence between cultures as comfortable as a warm bath can not.
I'll admit that that night before Sandro's first day of first grade a part of me wondered what in the world I was doing to my son by raising him in a way that doomed him to never be entirely of his place here in Venice, and never be entirely American if we were to return there. But to think that way is, I realized, to lapse into the worst kind of insularity: as if to keep him as isolated as possible from challenging differences would be to keep him more "whole", rather than, in fact, reducing his opportunities in life to a fraction of what they might otherwise be.
He'll have to learn that his differences from others are nothing to be ashamed of--and nothing to shame others for. (Those two troubling sides of the same coin.)
Not that it will be easy for him. Or others.
At dinner the other night he enthusiastically recounted a dispute he had with a classmate. Proudly he told us he hadn't resorted to fighting--there'd been a couple days of scuffling with a group of three other boys that he seemed to rather enjoy during his first week--but responded "only with words: I said to him, Shut up, worm!"
He pronounced the command with relish, twice, obviously happy for the chance to use a phrase he'd recently learned from a British kids' show.
"In English?" Jen asked, as surprised as I was that he'd used a language at school that he wouldn't even admit to knowing in the same context a month ago. "Does he understand English?"
"No," Sandro said. "So I said, 'Shut up, worm! O che vuol' dire, Chiudi il becco, verme!'" ("Or that is to say, Shut your beak, worm!") He beamed at us triumphantly.
I suppose this might be considered progress....