Tuesday, 30 July 2013

All Fired Up

Isn't it funny how we so often assume that we are still good at the things we were good at when we were young? I foolishly assumed, for example, that I was still a star athlete because half my life ago I used to win medals for running.

The reality check came when I eagerly volunteered to run in the teacher race at the athletics carnival at the school I worked at last year: I was the last runner in my relay team and we were winning by a good twenty metres by the time I got the baton. I took off like a bull at a gate, just like old times, but very quickly I realised that my legs could not actually keep up with what my brain was telling them to do. Suddenly, my knees gave way underneath me and I started to wobbled towards the ground. Through some merciful act of God, I didn't fall completely on my face. No-one will have noticed I told myself, as I pumped my arms and continued hurtling down the track. But oh, oh no oh no no no no ... it was happening again! My brain told my knees to run and my knees answered back: you've gotta be joking! When was the last time you actually made me do any running of any kind? Six years ago? Seven? The knees started to wobble once more, but this time more violently. My arms flapped around like an injured bird, as I tried to hold myself vertical. I slowed down. All the other teachers running the last leg overtook me. I staggered over the finish line with my heart pumping like it was about to burst out of my chest.

Image courtesy of picturesof.net. Luckily there is no actual photographic evidence of the event (that I know of!)

It wasn't that bad, said the very naïve voice in my head. If anyone did notice, they'll think you got your foot stuck in a hole in the ground. Twice. Then up came the deputy principal and slapped me on the back.

"You right there, Liz?" he asked with a sneaky little smile on his face. "We thought we were going to lose you there a couple of times!"

Luckily my cheeks were already so inflamed that he couldn't see my crimson blush.

Now if anyone ever makes derogatory remarks about the current state of the younger generation, I fondly remind myself of this: although this incident was apparently blatantly obvious to all spectators present, not one single student ever mentioned it to me (what they said behind my back is their own business!). My male colleagues, on the other hand, were a different matter. Apparently this spectacle was hilariously funny and looked, as one of them informed me, "like someone falling down a flight of stairs".

There are several other things that I used to be quite good at that I am gradually discovering I really am quite embarrassingly unskilled at. Let's take fire lighting for instance. I was once quite handy at lighting fires. Not in the pyromanial sense, but in the campfire and pot-belly stove sense - a skill I mastered in my Girl Guide days, many moons ago.

We have a cozy wood-fire stove in our family room which we have lit every chilly winter's day this year. When I say "we", I don't actually mean we at all: what I mean is that Giuseppe throws the wood in and lights a match in the morning before he goes off to work and I keep it alive throughout the day while he's away.

Recently, we got into the habit of going to bed late and throwing a log on just before we do so, so that when we get up the next morning there are still enough coals to ignite a spark and keep the home-fires burning without interruption.

Unfortunately, last night was somewhat different: we were so tired by the time Annalisa was finally asleep that we collapsed into bed, neither of us remembering to stick on a log. When Giuseppe's alarm blasted intrusively into our sleep several hours later, he reached out and whacked it into silence. When he woke up again sometime later and realised the time, he bolted out of bed and fled off to work.

When I eventually dragged myself from the bedroom about half an hour later, I discovered that the fire was completely dead. This of course was a nuisance, but I didn't feel particularly worried. I was, remember, a very gifted fire-lighter in my Girl Guide days.

So after Ben was safely off to school, I set about constructing the wood the way I remember I'd been taught: the kindling at the very bottom, then the smaller pieces of wood and the big ones last of all. I couldn't find any firelighters but that didn't bother me - I'd seen Giuseppe douse a ball of newspaper with cooking oil many times to achieve the same outcome. Then I went looking for the matches and the newspaper. Usually, we have oodles of both, but this morning all I could find was half a box of matches and today's newspaper.

That didn't really bother me either because the only real thing of value in that particular daily paper is the crossword, if you want my opinion, which I rarely have time to do anyway. I'd actually like to have a cross word myself to the editor about the current state of that rag. Still, it seemed a shame to use it to start the fire when I know Giuseppe enjoys looking at it when he comes home from work.

With little other choice, I reconciled that if I started at the back and just used the sports pages (he has yet to be converted to Australian football) he couldn't possibly be upset. Besides, at least he would be coming home to a warm house.

So off I set on my mission. I screwed up some newspaper into a ball, doused it with oil, struck a match and shoved it in. It burned fiercely for about a minute then fizzled out. So I tried again. And again. Annalisa, at this point, decided it was very unfair that mummy should be giving so much attention to the fireplace and not to her. She started to bellow.

When I die and go to heaven (assuming that's where I do end up) after thanking the good Lord for my children, the first thing I am going to ask him is why, despite all his marvelous creations, he neglected to provide mothers with a third arm. It would have made the greater part of the last 8.8 years of my life considerably easier, particularly today. In between comforting baby bellows, I did my best to continue to strike matches, pour oil on newspaper and poke the wood around, experimenting with every imaginable angle.

Then I remembered being taught that oxygen fuels a fire. So I began to blow. I huffed and I puffed and I puffed and I huffed until my eyes filled with smoke, my face was burning hot and I was beginning to feel light in the head. Mercifully, by this time Annalisa had exhausted herself and fallen asleep.

A grand total of seventy-five minutes, three quarters of a newspaper and 23 matches later, I heard the first spark crack in the hearth and my little fire was finally in business.

This afternoon, when Giuseppe got home, my beautiful blaze was burning merrily. I was all set to divulge the saga of my manic morning when the phone rang. It was his mamma, calling from Italy.

Now I'm not usually into eavesdropping, but as anyone who knows a born and bred Sicilian could attest, quietness is not their forte. It's summer over there at the moment of course and I heard him ask about the weather. He listened for a moment then responded: "How nice; it's freezing over here" (a rather gross overstatement in the scheme of things). "But we're not suffering", he continued. "I light the fire every morning for Lizzy and all she has to do is throw a log on every now and then. It's so easy for her".

I'm sorry. Did I just hear the word EASY?!

I considered storming into the next room, interupting the conversation and informing them both that this particular FREEZING morning somebody FORGOT to light the fire and that the process required to amend that little problem was at the complete opposite end of the spectrum from easy, thank you very much!

I took a deep, deep breath and resigned to stay calm. Telling him that he forgot to do something is akin to a cardinal sin anyway.

Then a sneaky little smile crept onto my face. There's no need to try to even the score, I told myself ...

because any moment now, he's going to find out I've burnt his newspaper.

Sunday, 28 July 2013

Male bonding, Sicilian style

                 Silent Sunday

Thursday, 25 July 2013


I have just discovered the most beautiful word:

~ Bibliotherapy ~

Bibliotherapy is a form of therapy, useful in the treatment of depression, which uses the written word - be it fiction or non-fiction, poety, or magazine and newspaper articles - to assist a patient in gaining a deeper understanding of the emotional problems they are experiencing. Usually, a patient would participate in a bibliotherapautic program under the guidance of a bibliotherapist who selects the reading material for them and then discusses this material with them afterwards. 

The word itself comes from ancient Greek; the root word 'biblio' meaning book. In English, the word bibliography also derives from the same root, as does bibliomancy (the practice of opening a spiritual text at random and using the words on the page as a means of divination) and another beautiful word, bibliophile, meaning a lover of books.

In several other languages, the word for library also springs from' biblio':

(image courtesy of www.coxorange.de)

Italian, Spanish & Portugesebiblioteca

Romanian bibliotecă

French bibliothèque

Swedish, Norwegian & Danishbibliotek

German bibliothek

Dutch bibliotheek

Polish biblioteka 

If I were a bibliotherapist, these would be some of my recommendations: 


1. Chicken Soup for the Soul (the original). In my second last year of high school, my homeroom teacher would read aloud one of the stories in this book each morning. Each contained a message of hope, inspiration or motivation. It was a beautiful and positive way to start off each day and in doing so, she sent us all off to class feeling a little bit taller and determined to make every moment count.

2. At short Guide to a Happy Life, an essay by Anna Quindlen who, after losing her mother at the age of 19 "learned something enduring in a very short period of time about life. And that was that it was glorious and that you (have) no business taking it for granted."


1. My first thought would be Wally Lamb's  I know This Much is True. A brilliant read from beginning to end, concluding with an unforgettable lesson in forgiveness. 

2. Anything by Alexander McCall Smith simply because, as they say, 'laughter is the best medicine'. 

For children:

Have You Filled a Bucket Today? - a picture book by Carol McCloud, which explains how a person's words and actions directly impact on others. A great tool for promoting positive behaviour and attitude in children.

What about you? Do you like the word bibliotherapy? If you were a bibliotherapist, what book or books would you recommend for someone suffering depression or to encourage positive thoughts in general?

Monday, 22 July 2013

What would YOU do with 12 children?

Cheaper by the Dozen 

{what mamma read in July}

Ask most parents what they would do with a dozen children and they would no doubt tell you they’d rapidly lose whatever degree of sanity they currently possessed. This was not the case, however, for Lillian Moller Gilbreth, a respect American psychologist, and her husband Frank Bunker Gilbreth, a pioneer in the field of motion-time efficiency, who teamed up to bring a grand total of 12 children into the world between 1905 and 1922.

The story of how they not only survived, but so famously thrived, is recounted by two of the Gilbreth clan, Ernestine Gilbreth Carey and Frank B. Gilbreth Jr, in their 1948 novel Cheaper by the Dozen. Except for a house packed to the rafters with youngsters, the novel bears no resemblance whatsoever to the 2003 film of the same name, although there is an earlier film version  made in 1950 that adheres much closer to the original storyline. Exactly why the filmmakers would have wanted to defer from the novel remains a mystery to me, for while I remember the film as being well, quite unmemorable, the Gilbreth’s memoirs of their unconventional childhood under the leadership or their eccentric father and exceedingly patient mother is a hilarious account of the deliciously mischievous deeds of a dozen red-headed girls and boys. The authors narrate anecdotes from their childhood that range from amusing to side-splitting. Despite being set a century ago, the themes are also universally accessible even though the story is peppered with antiquated but endearing expressions such as “Mercy Maud!” (Mrs. Gilbreth’s favourite), “by jingo!” (Mr Gilbert’s favourite) and “snake’s hips!” (clearly quite the coolest thing for a teenager to say during the second decade of the twentieth century).

At the core of these tales is Mr Frank Gilbreth himself, a charismatic disciplinarian adored by his progeny and renowned the world over for his expertise in motion studies. He stuck fast to his belief that what worked in his factory would work in his home and thus put his motion-study theories to the test on a daily basis with his children. Using the earliest forms of technology available, he took “moving pictures” of his offspring performing tasks such as washing the dishes which he would then study to discern how he could reduce the number of motions involved in the process and teach them how to speed up the task. He also applied this method to assist in reducing the time it took his children to wash themselves in the bath and to dress themselves in the morning (for anyone interested, he proved that it is significantly faster and more efficient to button one’s shirt from bottom to top rather than top to bottom). 

In his work outside the home, Frank Gilbreth also applied motion study to surgery to reduce the time required to perform medical operations. He went to great lengths to obtain the material necessary for this research, even using his unwilling young clan as guinea pigs by filming the removal of each of their tonsils. This theatrical incident, which was executed by converting the upper floor of the Gilbreth residence into a hospital, involves two very large errors of judgement, too brilliant to describe here for fear of ruining the plot for future readers.

A natural teacher, Frank Gilbreth believed children’s capacity for learning was infinite, and he succeeded in teaching his prodigies several impressive skills. These included how to:

Communicate in Esperanto – because he believed it was “the answer to half the world’s problems”;

- comprehend French, German and Italian to an advanced level and speak all three of these languages at a conversational level - which he did by installing Victrolas in the household bathrooms which played language lessons more or less continuously in the mornings and evenings over a period of ten years;

 - touch type – which he accomplished after having helped train the fastest typist in the world. His method was to make the children memorise all the keys on the qwerty keyboard before they were even allowed to touch the typewriter. They were then taught which fingers to use via a colour-code system where their fingers were coloured with chalk to correspond with matching colours on a diagram of a keyboard drawn on paper. Finally, they were allowed to touch the treasured typewriter (the presence of which in the Gilbreth household caused just as much excitement as any form of new technology makes in most homes these days) but all the keys were covered with black caps to ensure no sneaky peeking could take place;

 - communicate in Morse code – which he achieved by painting the Morse alphabet on the back on the toilet door and on the ceilings in the bedrooms of their holiday house and then painting messages in Morse code on all the rest of the free wall space;

 - multiply two two-digit numbers in their heads – which involves memorizing the squares of all numbers up to twenty-five and yet, despite being complicated for anyone of any age to comprehend, he chipped away at this teaching challenging during mealtimes and within a couple of months the older children had learnt all the tricks involved (and for anyone keen to learn a new party trick, an example of how to do so is provided at the end of this post). 

To ensure the success of the day-to-day running of the household, the Gilbreths also organised their children into various family ‘committees’. The Purchasing Committee, for example, was responsible for deciding how the family budget would be divvied between clothes, sporting equipment, furniture and food and also for acquiring these items. The Utilities Committee issued one-cent fines for wasters of water and electricity while the Projects Committee ensured that house and garden chores were completed on time. Chores that were out of the normal schedule of work, such as painting the back garden fence, were auctioned off and the child who submitted the lowest bid for the job duly ‘won’ the chore and was paid the specified amount as extra pocket money once the task was completely to their father’s satisfaction.

An innovative manager of both machines and people, Mr Gilbreth would  whistle a self-composed ‘assembly call’ whenever he needed to gather his entire family together in one place to make an announcement or to introduce them to a guest (or whenever he was bored and just wanted all his children around him at once for some excitement). Much like the military-style scene in The Sound of Music, the call signified that the children should drop everything and congregate around their father in as minimum time possible. Although the authors recount that this assembly call, like most of their Dad’s ideas was “something more than a nuisance”, they also describe an incident which illustrates exactly how ingenious it really was: one day a bonfire of leaves on their driveway got out of control and spread rapidly around the side of the house. Noticing this, Mr Gilbreth whistled his assembly call and the entire house was evacuated in fourteen seconds flat. What the childen remembered most of that day though was the shouts that came from over their fence. Amidst the excitement, the lady in the house next door called out to her husband through the front door:

 “What’s going on?”

To which he called back: “The Gilbreth’s house is on fire. Thank God!”

“Shall I call the fire department?” they then heard the woman shout out.

To which he shouted back incredulously: “What’s the matter, are you crazy?”

In addition to the loathed assembly call, the Gilbreth parents would also ‘call the roll’ prior to departing en masse from any family excursion. While the children complained that this was a waste of time (the deadliest of sins in the Gilbreth household), it was a necessary hindrance since, on one occasion, Mr Gilbreth forgot to do a headcount when the family were departing from a restaurant where they had had lunch during a road trip and Frank Jr accidently got left behind. By the time it became obvious that he was missing and his father turned the car around to go back to the restaurant, several hours had gone past and it was now night-time. As Mr Gilbreth hurdled himself through the door to the restaurant desperate to find his son, he saw a pretty young woman “looking for business” while “drinking a highball in the second booth”. She greeted him merrily:

‘“Hello Pops … don’t be bashful. Are you looking for a naughty little girl?”

“Goodness no”, he stammered … “I’m looking for a naughty little boy”!’

It was not often that Frank Gilbrth was caught off guard at all; he was a quick-witted and jovial character who, except in the abovementioned incident, loved an audience and readily engaged in conversation with strangers. He also possessed a knack for guessing people’s nationality and would often capitalise on his extensive brood. The authors describe a time when the family were passing through a toll gate:

“Do my Irishmen come cheaper by the dozen?” he asked the man on the bridge.

“Irishmen is it? (the man replied) And I might have known it. Lord love you, and it takes the Irish to raise a crew of redheaded Irishmen like that. The Lord Jesus didn’t mean for any family like that to pay toll on my road. Drive through on the house”.

When they were safely over the other side of the bridge, Mrs Gilbreth replied: “If he knew you were a Scot he’d take a shillalah and wrap it round your tight-fisted head”.

As one might expect, having such a large family and parading them as he loved to do in his temperamental Pierce Arrow (which he affectionately nicknamed Foolish Carriage) attracted a great deal of attention. In the first decades of the last century, undoubtedly most ‘horseless carriages’ had the ability to turn heads such was their novelty, but one filled with 14 people created nothing less than a spectacle. While Mrs Gilbreth and the children squirmed upon hearing frequent remarks from pedestrians, ranging from curious to snide, Mr Gilbreth positively delighted in the attention. Once, when stopped at a traffic light, a man called out:

 “How do you grow them carrot tops, Brother?”

“These?” he bellowed. “These aren’t so much, Friend. You ought to see the ones I left at home”!

Throughout the biography, the spotlight is so frequently shone upon Mr Gilbreth and his children that one could be forgiven for thinking that Mrs Lillian Gilbreth just quietly went about her business in the background and found the task of rearing a dozen children remarkably undemanding.  Indeed, she is quoted to have never raised a hand to any one of her children, to have made a concerted effort to make as little noise as possible during her numerous homebirths so as not to scare any of the others and to have reared twelve ‘only children’. Moreover, she obtained a PhD in 1915, the first ever to be granted in the field of industrial psychology. From all accounts, she never lost her temper and left all disciplinary duties to her husband. In fact, if it were not for one documented remark, I would have finished the book under the illusion that she somehow found her domestic duties stress-free. This remark came after she returned from a prolonged journey with her first seven children (the others yet to be born) during the First World War. While her husband was working for the War Department, she and the children caught the train from New York all the way out to California where they stayed for the summer with her parents and siblings. On the train trip back, all seven children came down with whooping cough. Her husband was able to take leave from the war and surprise them by boarding the train in Chicago. When he asked her how the trip had gone, she replied:

“Next time you take the children out West, and I’ll go to war”.


Frank Bunker Gilbreth died of a heart attack in 1924 when their youngest child was just 2 years of age. Lillian outlived him by 48 years. Throughout her life she received numerous accolades, including 23 Honorary Degrees. She was at the forefront of industrial management throughout the twentieth century and was the inventor of the foot operated rubbish bin and the egg and butter refrigerator compartments. The story of how she brought up her children on her own after her husband’s death while continuing the industrial work they had started together is told in Belles on Their Toes, a sequel to Cheaper by the Dozen, published in 1950.

And now for the promised party trick:

The authors state that “the explanation of how the (mathematical) tricks are worked is too complicated to explain in detail (in the novel)” but they do provide a formula for multiplying two identical two-digit numbers both between 25 and 50.

For example, to multiply 46 by 46, you work out how much greater 46 is than 25. The answer is 21. Then you figure out how much less 46 is than 50. The answer is 4. You square the 4 and get 16. Then you put the 21 and the 16 together, arriving at the answer:  2116.

Sunday, 14 July 2013

A Zorse is a Zorse, of Course of Course!

I often like to play a memory game with Ben (otherwise known as Muddle-Headed Offspring Number One). You’ve probably played it, or a variation of it, yourself at some point, either at school or on a long car trip. The way I originally learnt it was that the person who goes first starts off by saying “I went to my grandmother’s chest and out of it I took (something starting with the letter A)”, then the next person repeats what has been said already and adds something that starts with B. If you are only playing with two people, it becomes the first person’s turn again and they repeat “I went to my grandmother’s chest and out of it I took (something that starts with the letter A), (something that starts with the letter B) and (something that starts with the letter C). If you are playing with more people, it would be the third person’s turn at that point. The game continues until everything has been taken out of grandmother’s chest-  that is, when the last person reaches Z, repeats the 25 items that have been listed beforehand and adds one final thing, starting of course, with the letter Z.

The beauty of this game is that it can be played with anywhere from two to twenty-six players (or even more if you wanted to re-commence at the beginning of the alphabet once you’ve got all the way to Z) and it requires no equipment. It’s also excellent for developing your child’s memory and concentration – and your own! Not only that, but it’s a fun way to teach your child new things. For example, rather than always listing off items that your child knows about already, after they’ve got the hang of the game, you could throw in something like this: “I went to my grandmother’s chest and out of it I took: an apple, a balloon, a cake and a dromedary”. When they ask you “what’s a dromedary?” you have the chance to teach them that it’s a one-humped camel and you know they’ll be paying attention to the answer because they’re not being lectured at since they asked the question!

To spice things up, Ben and I invent variations on this theme. These have been known to include:

inserting an adjective starting with the same letter as the noun it proceeds: I went to my grandmother’s chest and out of it I took (an angry ape, a big box, a cute cat, a delicious donut, etc)

or making the subject matter more specific, with modifications such as:

When I went to my grandmother’s house I was so ravenous I ate (an apricot, a banana, a cake, a donut, etc)

When I grow up I want to be (an actor, a baker, a chef, a dentist, etc)

When I grow up I want to travel to (Argentina, Botswana, China, Denmark, etc)

I went to the zoo and there I saw (an albatross, a baboon, a cheetah, a dingo, etc)

We were playing this ‘zoo’ version a couple of weeks ago and it was up to me to round off the game with the letter Z. As there are few words in the English language commencing with this letter and even fewer animal names, I could see him losing interest as I rattled off the previously-mentioned animals, confident that I was going to say zebra.

So I decided to add a bit of zest and zing for the occasion and said “zorse”.

“What’s a zorse?!” he demanded, eyes suddenly wide and eyebrows up around his hairline.

“It’s what you get when a daddy zebra and a mummy horse have a baby”, I answered.

“I don’t believe you!” he cried. “I’m going to look it up in the dictionary!”

Unfortunately, that wonderful word is not in the dictionary. It is a great pity, because they really are far too few Z words in the English dictionary and it really is a beautiful letter. To prove to him that a zorse does actually exist, we googled it together and not only are there many articles on zorses, there are also many photographs to prove what happens when a zebra and a mare become amorous. Why, there’s even a zorse called Zelda on facebook!

These photographs awakened his interest in hybrid offspring and so we continued to investigate what happens when a lion gets cosy with a tigress (a liger), when a tiger gets cosy with a lioness (a tigon) and when a zebra gets cozy with a donkey (a zonkey) – yah, another Z word!

He found these discoveries hilarious so we kept playing around with these words (you know, saying things to each other like “can you stop being a zonkey please?” and “a zorse is a zorse, of course of course” until we decided that, with the aid of our trusty old tiger xylophone, we would write an song for these aforementioned crossbreeds. The tune just popped into my head, but after a while I realised that it was pretty much the same tune as Squeeze’s Cool for Cats (the bits in red are the bits sung by the girls and the other parts should be sung in a male voice J) . Our adapted version repeats the melody we filmed below eight times. Apologies for the very flat yellow key ... perhaps santa's little elves are tone deaf? 

So here is our ode to hybrids – sing it loud and clear and who knows, eventually we might even help these poor fellows get their rightful place in the dictionary …

    Beeeee Yourself     

 (lyrics by Benjamin & Elizabeth Allan)

My daddy was a lion and my mummy was a tiger,
They took one look upon me and they said “We’ll call him liger!”

Heee’s a liger,
Yes heee’s a liger (x2)

The kids at school all teased me and they said that I looked funny,
So off I went a-running home a-crying to my mummy
And she said:

“Beeeee yourself, just beeeee yourself” (x2)  

My daddy was a tiger and my mummy was a lion,
They took one look upon me and they said “We’ll call him tigon!”

Heee’s a tigon,
Yes heee’s a tigon (x2)

The kids at school all teased me and they said that I looked funny,
So off I went a-running home a-crying to my mummy
And she said:

“Beeeee yourself, just beeeee yourself” (x2)   

My daddy was a zebra and my mummy was a donkey,
They took one look upon me and they said “We’ll call him zonkey!”

Heee’s a zonkey,
Yes heee’s a zonkey (x2)

The kids at school all teased me and they said that I looked funny,
So off I went a-running home a-crying to my mummy
And she said:

“Beeeee yourself, just beeeee yourself” (x2)  

My daddy was a zebra and my mummy was a horse,
They took one look upon me and they said “We’ll call him zorse!”

Heee’s a zorse,
Yes heee’s a zorse (x2)

The kids at school all teased me and they said that I looked funny,
So off I went a-running home a-crying to my mummy
And she said:

 “Beeeee yourself, just beeeee yourself” (x2)    

Yes, that's right:
 Beeeee yourself, just beeeee yourself  (x2)

Just be yourself!

Yes I know it’s silly, but didn’t someone once say that we don’t stop being silly because we grow old; we grow old because we stop being silly? Or something like that.

Monday, 8 July 2013

Why Italian?

Ever since I learnt how to read, I have been fascinated by foreign languages. I would read all the shampoo bottles, food labels and board game instructions featuring multiple languages that I could lay my hands on, with the enthusiasm most people reserve for a gourmet banquet. At first, I would try to guess which languages they were and later, when I had a more sophisticated lexical scope, I would try to learn new words in other languages by comparing the foreign paragraphs with their English equivalents.

I’m not entirely sure what intrigued me so much about languages from such an early age. Perhaps it was the air of mystery that they contained, like dozens of secret codes just waiting to be unlocked. Perhaps it was the idea that their acquisition seemed to pass on a certain sense of power; I had heard tales of men and women successfully pulling off extraordinary feats of espionage or escape during the Second World War because of their ability to speak German with native fluency. Or perhaps it was the fact that I yearned more than anything else to one day travel the world and I knew that English alone would not be enough to open the doors to all the adventures I dreamed of having. It was no coincidence that my favourite book was, and always will be, the atlas.

The more I discovered about languages, the more I realised what a vast and endlessly fascinating subject linguistics is. I love the ‘genealogy’ of languages; the way they fit into familiar clusters, many with ‘deceased’ ancestral bases, like Latin. The way in which dialects differ and linguistic circles intertwine is a subject that could be studied for a lifetime without even scratching the surface, and since languages are constantly evolving, even if you did learn everything there was to know, you would then have to start at the beginning again to acquire the new vernacular.

As an exchange student and a university student, I studied Swedish and Indonesian and discovered that the word for cinema, bioskop, was the same in both. These languages have had no influence on each other over the course of history, yet this one particular word was identical! (I believe this is because Swedish and Dutch have numerous linguistic similarities, both being northern Germanic languages. The Dutch language played a role in the evolution of the Indonesian language, due to Dutch presence on the Indonesian archipelago over a period of more than 350 years. ‘Cinema’ in Dutch is bioscoop).

I also found out that the Swedish word for cake, tårta, although spelt differently, is pronounced exactly the same as cake in Italian, torta. But, torta/ tårta is not the word for cake in any other European language – neither those related to Italian, nor those related to Swedish. I would love to known the story behind that linguistic journey: did an Italian chef fall in love with a beautiful Swedish girl long, long ago and follow his heart to Sweden where he began producing celebrated cakes, thus introducing the delicacy and the word at the same time?

{“A torta of any other name just wouldn’t taste as sweet!”}

More interesting still, why, for example, does the word ananas mean pineapple not only in Italian, but in numerous other languages as well, and not just in other Romance languages such as Portuguese and French, but also in languages that have no relationship to each other whatsoever, such as Turkish, Swedish, Greek, Croatian, Arabic, Russian, Polish and Finnish? Even in Indonesian, many thousands of miles from the countries in which these tongue are spoken, the word for pineapple is nanas (undoubtedly because of the Dutch influence since, low and behold, ananas means pineapple in Dutch too). Who first gave the ananas its name, I wondered, and why did everyone else copy?

Yes, linguistic discussions of any sort have always captured my attention, but Italian was my first, and always will be my greatest, love. I have no difficulty in explaining why: almost all Italian words end in a vowel (those that don’t are prepositions, the cardinal points and words borrowed from other languages). The effect this has is that, when spoken fluently, the words all cascade into each other in a lyrical ramble. Add to that a tongue trundling Rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr and some of those theatrical gesticulations (a language within a language) and there you have it – a melodious, melodramatic euphony; a language of love.

Similarly, Italy itself and all things Italian intrigued and allured me.  I grew up in a semi-rural suburb where many Italian migrants had settled after the Second World War and planted orchards and vineyards, opened a green grocer’s, a gelataria, a pizzeria. A couple of retired Sicilians lived down the road from us. Even after forty years, their accents were still so heavy that when they spoke English to me I thought they were speaking another language. The man used to fill his ute with fruit and vegetables he grew in his own back yard (the ‘yarda’) and drive slowly around the streets, stopping at each house, knocking at the doors, asking if you needed peaches, zucchini, pumpkins, lemons, plums. You name it. You’d have been a fool to say no. The soil was as hard as rocks up there in our nook of the Perth hills, but he knew secrets about tending the earth that nobody else did.

I went to the local Catholic school where almost half my friends had at least one parent who was either Calabrese or Sicilian. I’d listen to them discussing their families and their social lives and in comparison my own life seemed like a great big yawn. The entire time I was in primary school, I attended just one wedding, but these girls seemed to go to at least half a dozen a year. And these were weddings not just with two or three bridesmaids, but with five or six. Once, I saw pictures of someone’s cousin’s wedding with 10 bridesmaids and 10 groomsmen. Their wedding party was bigger than my family’s Christmas get-togethers. Even the words they used to describe their family get-togethers made those events seem like elusive undertakings which I knew were too far out of my reach to ever be a part of. While I would talk about going to a ‘relly bash’, for example, on the few occasions a year when we met up with our extended family, these girls would talk about going to ‘feasts’. I had six cousins on my mum’s side of the family and had never met the ones on my dad’s side, who all lived in New Zealand. If you asked one of the Italian girls how many cousins they had, they’d look at you as if you’d just asked them to multiply two two-digit numbers together in their head. Their families were enormous, vociferous micro-dynasties, their social events colossal, extravagant spectacles and as a child, from the outside looking in, I did not think of it as ostentatious at all. I longed to know what it felt like to be enveloped in such an impassioned life.

I first tasted Italian life when I was fifteen as a naïve exchange student on my very first overseas trip. Not only had I never been overseas, but I had never seen snow, never slept at someone else’s house besides my own for more than two nights in a row, never had to change schools, never been to a high school with boys and had definitely never been kissed. When I got back on the plane to come home two months later, all that had changed. And not only that, but I had seen the Pope, written on the wall under Juliet’s balcony, cruised down a Venetian canal, drank real hot chocolate and eaten rabbit. But best of all, I had conversed in that beautiful, beautiful language – genuine, comprehensible, two-way conversations. Never mind if I had a terrible Australian accent and still didn’t know how to properly conjugate a verb – I was speaking Italian.

Those two months changed me irrevocably: I itched to travel now more than ever. The last two years of high school dragged by with sloth-like lethargy. I couldn’t wait till they were over so I could go on exchange once more, but this time for 12 months. Yes, I would live in Italy for an entire year and by the end of it, I promised myself I would speak like a native and somehow I would find a way to stay there forever.

That didn’t quite happen though. The exchange organisation that I signed up with, after interviewing each candidate and reviewing a list of their country preferences, basically just allocated a country to each student. I got Sweden. I had stuck it about half way down my list after all the countries where Romance languages were spoken. It took a little while to get over the shock. In a way, it was like playing Russian Roulette with your life: sign up with us and we’ll send you anywhere in the world even if you’ve never even considered visiting the place! When you’re seventeen, a year is a long, long time.

I did have some incredible experiences in Sweden and learnt a language that I would never have had the opportunity to if it had not been for that exchange year. I also met some wonderful friends and whenever I look back down the years of my life and reflect on how dearly I wanted to go to Italy and not Sweden, I remind myself that if I had done so, I never would have met my Swedish classmates or the other exchanges students, some of whom became my friends for life.

Of course my next plan was to study Italian at university and participate in an exchange program as part of my degree. You could say that I made some poor life decisions or you could say that life just dealt me other cards, but that didn’t end up happening either. I did study Italian at university for a brief period and I was offered a scholarship to study in Milan, but I turned it down to chase a boy to the far north of Australia. That’s how I came to study Indonesian – it was the only language offered at the time at the small University in Darwin. But again, whenever I reflect on that decision and what I missed out on as a result (that boy and I have long since parted), I remember that had I not given up on that dream, I never would have had my son. So even if I could have a time machine to travel back and make that decision all over again, I’d still make the ‘wrong’ one, because that was the path that brought my little boy to me.

For all my undesirable qualities, I do have one that, although it has led me to cut off my nose to spite my face on many an occasion, it has also been my greatest ally at other times: when I decide I am going to do something, I will eventually find a way to get it done.

And so it was that in February 2010 my five year old son and I boarded an aeroplane bound for Italy. We didn’t have much money and we didn’t have much of a plan. We were headed for an organic farm in the south east of Sicily, where we were going to be WWOOFers (Willing Workers on Organic Farms). But all that is the beginning of another story. Not only did I live in Italy for a year, I lived there off and on for a total of two, and not only did I learn to speak Italian fluently (not like a native as originally planned, but I have grown quite fond of my terrible Australia accent!) but my son is now able to speak it too – and better than I do I might add.

Over the last three and a half years we have had some remarkable adventures in Italy and now that my partner lives back here with us in Australia, those adventures continue, as he learns to speak English and everyone else learns to stand clear when he starts to speak with his hands J

This is the first of what I hope will be many posts about what I have learnt about Italy and the myriad of fascinating things she has to offer: food, art, music, architecture, history, politics, religion, soccer, fashion and spectacle. Always, it comes back to spectacle.

So avanti, come on, let’s talk about all things Italian …