Book Review: La Bella Lingua by Dianne Hales

bella.comp.inddThe beautiful language. The Italian language is the subject whose story is beautifully told in Dianne Hales’ book, La Bella Lingua. Subtitled “My love affair with Italian, the world’s most enchanting language,” Hales’ book is very thorough in presenting the history and development of today’s Italian.

Most engaging for me were the stories of her  falling in love with Italian, and the research on the book. Her personal experiences transported me to Italy, and brought me into the room for her conversations with various language teachers and experts, historians, and writers.

I also enjoyed learning more about the origins of the Italian language. She definitely prompted me to consider a closer look at Dante, and introduced me to several significant contributors to today’s Italian. I didn’t expect to find Galileo, but there he was. Verdi, Garibaldi, and many others–the famous and infamous–are included.

Perhaps food-related Italian words are most widely known in America–and a chapter is devoted to eating Italian. Other chapters celebrate art, love, and cinema, the Italian way.

For people with an interest in languages and linguistics, this will be a fun read.  For students of Italian, it’s a must. The book includes an index, chapter by chapter bibliography, and a discussion guide with questions. I recommend it!

Can I also encourage you to visit Dianne Hales’ website? Many great features will draw you back to it–Italian food and travel ideas, a blog with language learning helps, resources for teachers and students of Italian language, and a nice introduction to Dianne herself.

The cover of this book really appealed to me because of a dream I had in 2004. I was in Sorrento, studying Italian for two weeks at SorrentoLingue. About ten days into my two weeks there, I had a dream. I was in a boat, one of the colorful fishing boats found in that area, just me and the boatman. I was fishing with pole and line, but instead of trying to catch fish, I was fishing for words. Ever done that? I would reel one in and look at it, the Italian word I had caught, but it wasn’t the one I wanted, so I threw it back. Over and over, I cast my hook into the water but kept bringing in the wrong word. And there on Dianne Hales’ book cover–aside from the Venetian gondola rather than the fishing boat–I saw my dream depicted. And in addition to the book’s contents, the cover is a delightful reminder of my wonderful experience in Sorrento.


Ravioli con la zucca: Lessons in cooking and Italian

The Pumpkin, late 17th century by Bartolomeo Bimbi

I’ve been dealing with pumpkins this week, and the stores are overflowing with them. I have lots of pumpkin puree in my fridge and freezer, so I found a way to use some of it, and I’m sharing it with you. Cook up that zucca and make this for dinner! With many thanks to the Italian Food Net, which presents this cooking lesson in Italian with English subtitles.

Now be honest, can you cook this way? I’m distracted in so many ways–the Italian language in my ear, conversion from metric to whatever my ‘normal’ is called, the impossibly clean kitchen, and the friendly and attractive Italian chef who wants to help me cook up something delicious.

Aside from looking up recipes, have you learned to cook something by watching video instructions online?


Small world stories: My friend Wakana

Wakana and I in Pompeii

During my first Italian class in Sorrento, I had one classmate, a Japanese woman my daughter’s age who spoke very little English. And because I spoke no Japanese, we communicated entirely in Italian for two weeks. Wakana was friendly and fun, and our teacher, Elena, guided us through conversations about topics I would not have thought possible to discuss considering our limited language skills.

But we did. I learned about the annual ceremony in her town in which the local god statue is taken from the temple and washed in the ocean. She learned about my town’s annual Irrigation Festival, and when she didn’t recognize the Italian word irrigazione, I explained with a combination of words and charades, about digging ditches from a river to make small rivers to water the farms. We talked about the men in our lives, our reasons for studying Italian, and personal goals. She was interested in architecture and design. I was writing a novel.

With Elena, left, and Wakana at Positano

Our classes met in the morning, and we had most afternoons free, so during our second week we launched out into some sightseeing together. The February rain didn’t hinder us from taking in Positano with our teacher, riding the public bus around the hair-raising cantilevered roadway hanging off the cliffs of the Amalfi coast. The next day, Wakana, Vern, and I went to Pompeii together on the train. With no teacher to provide language mediation, we did the best we could in Italian, and I provided English translations to Vern as needed.

Wandering Pompeii with Wakana

Then, as we wandered toward the Villa of the Mysteries, we passed near a Japanese tour group with a guide. We paused at a little distance as Wakana listened with interest. When they moved on, she turned to me and gave me what she could of the spiel, in Italian. I took that and shared it with Vern in English. We kept near enough to hear more about Pompeii for the next half-hour or so, in our own touristic version of the old parlor game of  “Gossip”.

A couple of days later, Vern and I headed off in a rented car, and we heard no more from Wakana–until about two years ago, when I received her ‘friend’ request on Facebook. We exchanged comments occasionally, and this spring, she contacted me. She was coming to the Seattle area to take some art glass classes, and asked for help finding a place to stay for six weeks between two classes. So this month, she is at my house. We are sightseeing together again–this time on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington. This time, we are speaking in English, and she is learning new verb forms and idioms, and seeing the irrigation ditches for herself.

With Wakana in July 2012

I love living in a time and place where these connections can be made in the first place, and kept alive with ease thanks to technology. Do you have a small world story to share? I’d love to hear about it in your comments!

Katoitaliotika, Italy’s Greek dialect

Greeks began to settle the Italian south almost 3,000 years ago, and were the prominant culture there for almost 2,000 years. I tend to think of the culture of the “Magna Graecia” as something buried deep in history, like the Riace bronzes I posted about last week.

But now I find out about the Griko–a surviving culture speaking a Greek dialect, which Greek speakers call Katoitaliotika, or Southern Italian!

This very interesting video (thanks to Agora Productions) provides a lot of history and many great photos reflecting the Greek history of the Italian south.

Dreaming in Italian

At the top of my list, for my next trip and possibly any trip to Italy:  A couple of weeks (or a month, or three months) of Italian language school at SorrentoLingue.

In February of 2004 I started two weeks of study there, hoping to hack down at least some of the language barrier that stood between me and my research. I was placed in an advanced beginners class (thanks to some introductory Italian study and previous Spanish and Latin classes), and I had one classmate, Wakana from Japan, who spoke no English, and about as much Italian as I did.

How much can be communicated with those limitations?  I learned that Wakana’s home town in Japan has an annual festival taking a local god from their temple down to the ocean to be washed. I learned that she hoped to speak Italian well enough to attend a university in Italy to study architecture. She learned about my home town’s annual Irrigation Festival, and about the research I was doing for a novel set in the 13th century.

Vern and I walked around Sorrento, visiting the touristy places—shops selling ceramics and inlaid wood products, learning Italian as we bought coffee and pastries in the sidewalk cafes, and tickets for the bus to Positano. The ancient city walls, medieval cloisters, and brightly painted fishing boats in the Piccola Marina all delighted us, and kept the camera clicking.

About ten days into our two weeks of Italian study, I woke up from a dream. I was drifting on the Bay of Naples in one of those small fishing boats, an Italian fisherman at the oars. I held a fishing pole and cast out into the water. Soon I had something on the line, and reeled it in. Not a fish, but a paper with an Italian word written on it. Unfortunately, not the word I was looking for. Disappointed, I threw it back in and cast my line out again. I reeled in another word, but it still wasn’t the right one.

Perhaps it was my frustration that woke me, because I never “caught” the word I wanted! But I woke up laughing, and shared the dream with Wakana and our teacher, Elena, at school that morning. I had heard of people dreaming in a language they are learning, but my fishing expedition was a new take on the theme.

After our last day of classes, Wakana and I put our communication skills to the test. She joined Vern and I on a visit to Pompeii, about 40 minutes by train from Sorrento. As we wandered around the remains of the Roman-era city, we jabbered in a mixture of bad Italian, a few Spanish words, and her limited English. Then we saw a Japanese tour group with a guide explaining things to them in Japanese. Hanging around the fringes, Wakana translated into Italian for me, and I translated into English for Vern.  A little like the old party game of Gossip, I wonder if what Vern heard was anything like what the guide told his group.

I left Sorrento far from fluent, but far better equipped than when I arrived. We were able to manage much better during the following two weeks as we traveled. When we returned to Italy in August, we again spent two weeks at SorrentoLingue. With another leap in language skills, our travels were much more enjoyable, and research more productive.

Immersion language schools are available in many countries, and if your travel time is flexible enough to include a week or two—often the classes are half-day, so you can still see the sights—do it! Check out SorrentoLingue at