Posted by: Mark Nielsen | June 25, 2009

Di Italia #1 – My Pre-Trip Reading


A few little stacks of heaven, including travel, linguistic, poetical, and devotional books.

A few little stacks of heaven, including travel, linguistic, poetical, and devotional books.


In Italian, the word for “left”, as in left hand, is sinistro. From which apparently we get the English word sinister. Anyone out there still think language and translation are morally neutral and non-political?

On the plus side, I also learned today that the modern version of Italian is based on master poet (and divine comedian) Dante Alighieri’s beautiful 14th century Florentine dialect. So nice to know that for once, the people with the biggest guns didn’t get to make the rules.

I’ve had my head buried in books this morning, a combination of last year’s big Oprah-assisted hit Eat, Pray, Love (by Elizabeth Gilbert, set partly in Italy, and recommended by Mom… Thanks Mom!), plus various Italian language-learning texts and travel books (that fat one in the photo near the bottom is from Lonely Planet, the Brits’ slightly hipper version of Fodor’s) .

The language books are all from our great friend Donna, who had to cancel a trip there several years ago. (No rush, baby. Before you die will be soon enough.)  Last weekend she asked if we could pack her into one of our larger suitcases. We’re not too good at packing light, and we do really love her, so we were tempted, but we had to say no.

I’m trying my best to firm up in my head some of the trickier differences between Spanish, which I speak at an intermediate level, and Italian, for which I’ve been hearing only expletives, strange idioms and ethnic slurs since I was two years old… as in “Baffa Nabula” (for you non-Sicilians, that’s a bad transliteration of “Go to Naples!” — which was comparable to saying “go to hell” for some strange reason, when shouted by my maternal grandparents). But I know that only 10% of my reading — on both language and history –will stick. Sue and I, senza (without) Graham, will still mostly stumble clumsily through Switzerland and Italy for a couple weeks, like every other cheerfully ignorant American who’s ever been there.

Which is okay. I’m getting over my need to be special, and graceful, and brilliant, and perfect, and the center of attention. Really, I am. No really!

More importantly, I simply trust all these stranieros (foreigners) to be friendly, accept me, even take care of my wife and I, in the warm way that Italian hospitality has been practiced for hundreds of years. These are, after all, MY people. Maybe a little moreso than the smart but bland Danes and creative but depressive Irishmen on my father’s side of the family. (There I go with those ethnic slurs again… sorry, Dad.) I’m half Italian –or Italian-American, more accurately– but the way my sisters and I were raised, it was more like a 75/25 split in terms of what we were exposed to and encouraged in.

Which explains why I’ve always been slightly obese, given the wide and deep Italian palate. As Dad often teased, most people eat to live, but Mark “lives to eat”.

The Swiss front end of our trip will be great, too. A bit more laid  back, and full of surprises, partly because I don’t know much at all about Switzerland. Except –amateur linguist that I am– that they speak practically ALL of the southern European languages (they have a French section, a German section, an Italian section, and a genuinely Swiss section… not to mention speaking English pretty well in many cases).

We’ll be visiting and traveling with Sue’s Swiss godmother, Aunt Barbara, one of the sweetest and most grounded beings on the planet. So we’ll be taken care of there, too. Besides, she’s the one that’s been beating the “come to Europe” drum most consistently, in her infrequent but highly-valued communication with us all through our marriage. We want to see her on her home turf finally, and learn a few travel tips from one of the masters. Plus she thinks I already speak Italian, bless her cosmopolitan heart.

And then there’s the prospect of hiking in the Alps, with someone who can probably even name most of the wildflowers that we’ll see… though only in German, I suspect. Having lived in the U.S. for 10+ years, Barbara’s English is excellent, but not that good.

But alas, there are still some preparations to make before we depart. So I have to resist for now my temptation to blather on, giddily explaining how much I’m loving Eat, Pray, Love already, or telling about the Native American folktale of Raven bringing us the sun (a buried book in the photo above, one that I will re-tell for a men’s spirituality event this Saturday), or discussing the kiddie picture book featuring St. Francis’ Canticle of the Sun (not pictured… neither sun nor book).

No more. For now, basta. This is more than enough. Except to say that any commenters who know me or Sue, and who drop your address in the Comments slot below, will most certainly receive a postcard from faraway lands. Because I wish I could pack you ALL in my suitcase, but I can’t. Ecco e’ basta.



  1. you’re alive! I thought you’d died and gone to Obama-heaven. 😉 Oh wait, just the latter. I started reading some of your other blog posts, then decided I’d better not. For growing up as bestestes buddies, we certainly took different paths in beliefs, eh?! 🙂

    So, Italy?! kewl! Haven’t been there yet. I’m from NE Sicily (Altavilla Milicia, Sicily, to be exact), Lisa’s from northern Italy. If they make anything exciting or unique there, take a picture and send it to us!

    Have fun! Say hi to Sue for me!


  2. Thanks Mark for this post, Great blog. Very inspirational! This blog have such a nice information about Italian language. Its really good to know that You have such a good knowledge about Italian language. I liked the content of your blog and the points which you have mentioned. Keep Going.

  3. Very entertaining Mark. As you know, Janalee and I (along with the Heinrichs) fell in love with l’Italia in 2003. Hope you get to see the fields of Umbria and have a bella time!

    (Oh, and Janalee just finished the Eat, Pray, Love book a short time ago and enjoyed it.)

  4. Mark you use a lot of words to say your excited about your trip! Your remarks about getting over being special (too late,you are special) wordy but special, graceful (not so much), perfect (almost), the center of attention(when we’re lucky), oh,yes and brilliant (definitely) Praise the Lord! Love Mom

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