"Well, here you are at last. We've been puzzled about you for so long;
although you left behind much love and devotion, you bequeathed us very
few facts." -- Nathalie Babel, 1964
From Tom Ložar: How to learn Italian18 April 2011
Because our Italian was still childish, we read children’s books. Giorni felici (Happy Days) was recommended for children one year and older, da 1 anno i poi, but we had no children in tow and would under no circumstances kidnap, so we read it to each other. This was a translation, too, as it turned out, of that classic, Nice for Mice. It was a picture book and we did very well in it. It was no more and no less difficult than Frost’s “Il Pascolo.” What was it Christ said? Unless you be like little children, you cannot be great poets.
The book was about our own happy days. How would we not understand giorni feliciwhen all the time J was keeping a journal of our felicity? The little mice d’estate, even English used to say of a summer, went al mare, to the sea, just like we did. They thought it was bello remare—that sea should rhyme with row in Italian!—on the lago dorato, the golden, the goldened, the gilded lake. They and we walked tra i fiori, among flowers. No wonder we were all stanchi, tired-issimi, la sera, the evening.
We were making progress, J a little more shyly. I had triumphs. I told myself jokes in Italian and found them funny. Horse walks into a bar. The bartender says, Perche la faccia lunga? Why the long face? Get it? He’s a horse and the other one’s the sympathetic bartender. Killed me every time.
But we were adults, too. You should have seen the adult entertainment in our room! So we graduated. We took advantage of a subterfuge: we read in Italian what we knew by heart in Canadian. We read Alice Munro.
That we loved exceedingly. We even loved some mistakes. If they improved the original. In “Nettles,” in the children’s story part of it, Ranger, the much-loved dog—what a cheap trick, Alice, I mean, really, a doggie!—“one day chased a skunk and the skunk turned and sprayed him.” In “Ortiche,” Ranger si mise a inseguire una puzzola, e quella si rivoltò e gli spruzzò.
How smelly the skunk was in Italian: puzzola—POO-tsolah. How refined, in the passato remoto, the literary past, the spray of spruzzò. How common, yet exotic, was Ranger inside an Italian sentence. Does one pronounce his name as Canadianate or Italianate when playing the story on (sic) Italian?
Something had to be done prontissimo, and so the mother of the piece got “several large tins of tomato juice,” the basic stock of the Canadian de-skunking recipe. Mike, the boy of the story, which the girl of the story, much, much grown up, is telling us, was “fond of [Ranger] and always addressed him kindly and by name, telling him of our plans and waiting for him when he took off on one of his dog projects, chasing a ground-hog or a rabbit.” So it was Mike who “persuaded Ranger to get into a tub, and [they] poured the tomato juice over him and brushed it into his hair.” Ranger has hair, not fur, and is persuadable. AM generously lets us read children’s lit while reading adult lit. It’s like she wants to be L. M. Montgomery, too.
However, però, in “Ortiche,” Susanna Basso has the mother buy “salsa di pomodoro,” that bit of Italian every Canadian knows from can labels, the basis of the Italian de-skunking recipe, I guess, and so forever J and I will see Ranger bathed in tomato sauce instead of tomato juice.
He is now our dog, too. Ranger sitting in tomato sauce is as much a part of Venice as all its little, Venice-size dogs, including Carpaccio’s on its hind legs sharing the vision of St. Augustine at the Scuola Dalamata. I may have shown you his picture before, but you won’t complain about an extra serving of Carpaccio.
Sorry, wrong dog! Here’s the right one. (Cheap trick, Tom!)
True, esatto, one sentence later, when Ranger is actually being bathed, Basso corrects the salsa to succo. Juice. We wish she hadn’t caught it. We prefer him sauced. When I was checking just now, I first saw only the corrected sentence, the second sentence, and was afraid I had made the sauce part up. She doubtless meant to change both but was interrupted by lunch or love and forgot to change one of them. We are glad. Grazie, Susanna, tantissimo. For the beautiful mistake.
It is a top request. We will be sitting on the Zattere. J will say, “Do Ranger in tomato sauce for me.” She will be wearing Makola, I will be wearing Munro.
Makola, which used to be in Padova, Treviso, and on Madison, is out of business because the world has no taste. The doggie in bliss is from Carpaccio’s Visione di Sant’Agostino at the Scuola Dalmata in Venice, around the corner from the last place we rented in Campo de le Gate. It is here.
The “wrong” dog was feigning abandonment when Judith Stonehewer made him famous, too.
Giorni felici is Laura Pelaschiar McCourt’s translation of Jill Barklem’s Nice for Mice [London: Harper Collins, 1999]. The translation is from Edizioni ELin what the Italians call Trieste. “Nettles” is from Alice Munro’s glorious Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage [Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2001]. “Ortiche” is Susanna Basso’s translation, of us beloved but human, in Nemico, Amico, Amante... [Torino: Einaudi, 2003].