Italian Lessons

A memoir by Elaine Greene Weisburg

When my husband’s company sent him to work in Rome for two years we only had six weeks to move ourselves and our two boys out of our apartment and summer cottage. I was so flustered by the sudden onslaught of organizational demands that when I was packing my clothes and found that a few inches of the hem were down on my favorite skirt it was too much for me to cope with. I picked it up, exited my apartment, walked down the hall, and dropped it into the incinerator.

Nevertheless, during those six frantic weeks my husband and I were taking nightly Italian lessons on our record player. All I can remember from those lessons was the voice of the male teacher sounding out names:  ElizaBAYta, SebastiAHno. There was more language instruction on our ship, the Cristoforo Colombo. They were taught in First Class but we in Cabin Class were allowed to attend. The teacher was a beautifully coifed and dressed aristocrat. She taught her class various politenesses: buon giorno, buona sera, prego. And she told us how and where to shop, the main interest of my classmates.  She taught us the all-important “Quanto costa?”  (How much costs) which I later learned can be said more elegantly: “Quanto ci vuole?” (how much is asked for this). And let me tell you, speaking Italian elegantly was a major goal of mine.

I said goal, not achievement. No adult Anglophone who lives with fellow Anglophones will ever speak Italian like an elegant native. My husband and I persisted though; we had persuaded our favorite Berlitz teacher to instruct us at home two evenings a week and kept that up until a few days before we left Italy.  I also took some classes in grammar, Dante, and art history at an academy for foreigners not far from where we lived. There I met several young women from England and Holland who were learning to speak fluent Italian in a year and I got one of them to tell me how they did it. The main rule is never to speak your native language. Go fulltime to a school that is conducted entirely in Italian. Room with an Italian family that is willing to talk with you. Socialize only with Italians, and find an Italian boyfriend.

When I heard other Americans express themselves solely in infinitives I would be filled with pity and scorn. If I wasn’t sure of the correct grammar or vocabulary, I would say nothing. Sometimes I would sit down with my grammar and my dictionary and write out what I would later say to someone like the managing agent of our apartment or the claims adjuster of a bus company. I succeeded in getting a settlement from the latter after a bus had slightly damaged our small station wagon. But I did my most serious preparatory work when I was summoned to an interview with a police commander in our quarter. This is how it happened.

When we moved into our apartment in a late fifteenth-century palazzo in Old Rome, the space had been newly refurbished. It could have been unoccupied for a hundred years, I suppose, or more. The ceilings were so high that the owners had been able to insert a partial second story over the kitchen for a maid’s room and bath accessed from a downstairs utility room. To hold open the door to the utility room we found in place a heavy old bullet-shaped metal object about 14 inches long.  We didn’t pay much attention to this door stop and rarely saw it until our second New Year’s Eve in the palazzo when Gisela, our maid, mentioned it to us.

On our first New Year’s Eve, we had learned about a surprising Roman custom. At the stroke of midnight, people threw unwanted possessions out of their windows and onto the piazza or street: a broken chair, an obsolete record player, remains of a depleted set of dishes. By morning all would have been swept up. To me it sounded like fun—like the places in Sweden I have heard about where people go to buy imperfect china and smash it on the spot.

On the second New Year’s Eve, before leaving for a night off, Gisela saw fit to tell us that the “bomba,” as she called the door stop, had always frightened her and asked whether we had to keep it. I don’t know whether she was hinting that we throw it out the window, but I think I might have done it. My husband, always blessedly sensible, firmly nixed that idea but was willing to put it outside our apartment door with the nightly garbage. This we did.

The next morning our elder son woke us urgently—we were trying to sleep in. “Two carabinieri were ringing the bell. They want to see you.” I left my drowsing husband and rushed to the door. There they were in their beautifully tailored black uniforms with the red stripe down the outer seam of their pants, white bandolier, and plumed three-cornered hat. “Do you know who put the bomb outside your door?” one of them asked. I said it was I and explained that we had found it in place when we moved in and threw it away because our maid was afraid of it. That was easy Italian. My manner was also easy, too much so. My what’s-the-big-deal attitude was displeasing to the officers and they were stern when they told me I was to appear at their headquarters in the nearby Piazza Farnese five days hence. The captain will be expecting an explanation; meanwhile the army would be testing the device.

And I would be thinking sober thoughts. This was the Sixties and it was common knowledge that random unexploded weapons from the war were still killing unlucky farmers and children who were usually the ones disturbing them. This knowledge was behind the little speech I had composed and rehearsed. Appearing before the police commander as a well-dressed young signora with my hair freshly styled, which counts in Italy, I began with words that touched on the history of my country. I said we were blessed not to have had a war on our land for a hundred years and so I never had to think of such a danger before. I said I did not know before the carabinieri spoke to me what a bomb looked like. “Non sapevo, non sapevo,” (I didn’t know, I didn’t know) said I, suddenly close to tears in my grammatically correct remorse. I ardently apologized.

The captain accepted my apology and had one more thing to say. For my information, the army had found that the bomb was carica. That word was unknown to me but I was not going to admit it, so I responded to his very serious face as he gave me the news. O Dio, che peccato !(O God, how terrible). And the interview was over. There were no smiles on either side. I looked the word up as soon as I got home and learned that it meant, as I assumed, charged, armed, loaded. This bomb that the Countess Desideria Pasolini, haughty owner of the building, left in a flat rented to a couple with young children, children whose innocent foolish American mother actually thought of flinging it to the cobblestones from a fourth floor window.


Elaine Greene Weisburg began to write personal essays only after decades of design reporting and editing. The first time she typed the word “I” she thought the roof would fall in.