Why I learned to speak Italian

If you had told me back when I was in high school that one day I would be speaking a second language, I would have thought you completely insane.

This is because high school Olivia had attempted to speak French, and by speak I mean she only really learned how to say “this is a baguette” and “I am happy in the shower.” Clearly two very useful phrases.

Being a visual person, trying to hear the difference between the multitude of verb tenses and their exception to the exceptions was next to impossible for me. It was most likely during one of these constant battles with verb conjugations that I decided I would never, ever, be able to speak a second language. 

And yet, here I am, riding the Frecciarossa back home to Rome after a weekend spent joking around in Italian with my cousins in the north of Italy.

Now I will be the first to admit that my Italian is far from perfect, I make even myself cringe at times with the mistakes that come alongside speaking a language other than my mother tongue. But the fact that I can go for hours in conversation without a single word in English is really all I need to feel that I have finally earned the honor of calling Italian my second language. 

Now that I have done what a younger Olivia deemed utterly impossible, I have to ask myself why I set out to prove her wrong in the first place

Well, let me tell you the story of Luigi Gambelin.

Luigi was the only child of Davide and Maria, Italian immigrants to San Francisco in the mid 1900s. Davide came from Friuli-Venezia Giulia, and Maria from Liguria, two different regions of northern Italia with two very different dialects. This meant that Luigi was to grow up speaking traditional Italian so that the little family of three could understand each other. 

One day Luigi met a woman named Madeline in a grocery store check out line, the woman he would later marry and have a family of four healthy boys with. Luigi worked very hard to provide a good life for his family, and even though he did not pass along the Italian language to his sons, he did pass on the Italian values.

Family was everything to Luigi, so he was overjoyed when his time to be a grandfather came around.

Luigi spoiled his grandchildren, slipping them five dollar bills for good report cards, sneaking extra packets of mini MnMs for them when grandma wasn’t looking, and showing up to every single event from dance recitals to sports games to show his support. He played Santa every Christmas and made sure that every holiday his house was filled with more home cooked food than his family could eat.

Luigi was the caretaker of his family, the one constant that the family could count on no matter what life was throwing their way. 

Luigi passed away from colon cancer in January of 2011

Why do I tell you this story?

Because I had the honor of calling Luigi by a different name;


Being his first grandchild, I held a special place in Nonno’s heart, and he in mine. I treasure my memories of morning cappuccini and making pasta dough and forcing Nonno to wear the funny hats I had found in the closet. He was always patient and kind to me, even after spending hours at an amateur ballet recital just to watch me skip across the stage for a few eight counts.

I never realized how much his constant presence in my life meant until I no longer had Nonno to invite to one of my trivial water polo games or musical performances.

I would give anything to have had him sitting in the crowd with that same proud smiling face I had come to know so well looking back at me as I walked the stage for my college graduation. 

I can’t have my Nonno there for all the big life events I so desperately want him to see, but I can still find him hiding in different parts of my life. Like in sitting around the dining room table swapping stories with my Italian cugini, our fingers black from the soot of freshly roasted chestnuts, one of Nonno’s favorite winter time snacks. Or in sharing freshly baked fugassa with my friends, the smell of it reminding me of Nonno hard at work in his kitchen.  Or in something so simple as airport security when I get to pull out my passaporto, a privilege I am so fortunate to have thanks to the Italian blood Nonno passed down.

Nonno may have been physically gone for a some years now, but his influence has never been far from my heart.

So I learned to speak Italian to keep that bit of Nonno alive in my life.

And it has been more than worth it.

Fa il bravo Nonno, ti voglio bene per sempre. Ci vediamo a dopo. 


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