Tag Archives: translation

Last Stop, New Haven?

26 Aug

For the past week, I have been one of the leaders of FOCUS on New Haven, a pre-orientation program at Yale meant for rising sophomores and incoming transfer students. I, along with my fellow leaders, organize, transport, counsel, and challenge the 60+ participants in the program through panels, discussion groups, project sites (Ronald McDonald House of Connecticut for the win!), alternative tours, and even a scavenger hunt containing some New Haven-related quests created by yours truly. As a participant, I found FOCUS to be overwhelming, thrilling, full of no sleep and instantaneous friendships. As a leader, insert all of the above, with the addition of a self-consciousness with regards to my choices and wording during my time as a conduit between these students and the city around them and the subtraction of several more hours of sleep.

This being a program about New Haven, it is something that matters a lot to me. This being a program about service, political awareness, and the dirty, time-consuming process of forming opinions about local issues, it is something that matters to me. This being a program that clashes some of the most open student minds against their surroundings with often spectacular results, it is something that matters to me. In short, in case you haven’t caught on yet (repetition alert!), FOCUS as a program matters very much to me.

Tonight, I spent some time thinking about what I would want to share with participants if given the opportunity. What do I have to say – even for just a few minutes – about New Haven? About this program? About experiencing a city from my point of view?

Here are some thoughts, in speech form, for starters. I’d better eat my Wheaties to prep for this one.

I want to take a moment, after a week of being a FOCUS leader, to tell you what scares me about New Haven.

For a lot of people, the scariest part about this city is the crime map. Where violence takes place, what might happen to them. For others, it’s the statistics, like the number of students who graduate without adequate levels of literacy. And for still others, it’s those moments of coming face to face with someone they don’t know how to deal with, like Daksha’s encounter with a homeless woman, that make them, on some level at least, afraid.

That’s not it for me. Instead, I am scared, scared beyond anything else, to leave. Scared to find a job in another city, to change my homepage from the New Haven Independent to a different local paper, to fulfill what I think is an expectation of Yale students that we haven’t talked enough about during this week: the expectation that we will not stay, that we are transitory, and that our work, however well-meant, is rooted more in our conscience than in our physical place. The expectation, in short, that despite diving into urban affairs with all of the verve of a neighborhood activist, we will eventually cut ties and move away in a way that a homeowner here never could. I don’t know when this tie-cutting might be. I don’t even know if this will be – some of us may well settle down right here. But I can’t know that for sure, and that uncertainty at my core changes me from a resident to a traveler.

This is something that I want to share with you because it is a voice in the back of my head that I don’t acknowledge very often when I am out in the community, the voice telling me, “But what about when you are gone?” Instead, I work harder with all of you each hour, each minute, to prove how committed we are in the number of questions we ask in panels or meals we serve at the Ronald McDonald House. I don’t let myself ask why I am putting all of this effort – why all of us are putting all of this effort – into a community that we may not belong to in two or three years from now, into the absorption of localized knowledge that won’t apply to any other grid of streets. But what if, for a moment, I do allow myself to ask that question: the “why?”

This is what I thought about last night, and this is what I want to talk to you about during this morning charge.

There are generalized answers, of course, reasons that are completely valid and, in many cases, very powerful. Here, I think of our innate desire for justice, our sense of reciprocity and service, and our eagerness to belong to a group and to contribute value to that community.

But the specific answer that I have settled upon, at least so far, is one that acknowledges our potential transience by stating, simply, that as much as we are students and citizens of the city, at this moment of our lives we are also travelers by nature. I don’t mean to imply that we are jetsetters, though perhaps some of us are, or that we live out of our suitcases. I merely mean that in a very concrete sense, we have not yet committed ourselves to a “home” in this world, and until we do (perhaps by buying a house, accepting a long-term job, or running for local office), we remain travelers.

Well, this is not helping, Jess, you are thinking. I was having such a nice cereal breakfast before you undermined my entire relationship with New Haven. I understand what you are saying. But bear with me on this for just a few more moments.

I choose the term “travelers” very specifically. The word actually comes from the French verb “travailler,” which, roughly translated, means, “to work.” And it is in this etymology that I find my answer about engaging with New Haven.

In this context, traveling is not merely observing. It is not just taking classes and walking by the Green every once in a while or writing cutesy blogposts about the PechaKucha nights in town (though, incidentally, the one that I attended tonight was pretty darn cool). It is, instead, the act of WORKING, of putting your own energy into your physical surroundings, of expending effort to make connections and to leave each place better, safer, happier, brighter than how you found it when you first arrived. In other words, traveling in New Haven, for us, as Yale students, ought to be seen as our job.

In this light, FOCUS and other New Haven outreach programs make all the sense in the world. Despite the fact that we can move away and leave this city – perhaps because of that fact – we, as travelers and visitors of both the physical and intellectual kind, have a responsibility to work while we are here, to earn our hospitality and our right to call ourselves members of this community for even the shortest time.

This is what I want you to have in mind during today, your final day of project sites. This idea of you having an identity in the city that does require thinking, hard work, moments of forcing yourself to go that extra step, to make the awkward introduction, to do the obvious service like tutoring but also the less obvious outreach like saying hello to everyone you pass on the street in an unfamiliar neighborhood. This whole scholar-citizen thing isn’t easy; it requires work. But that same work acts as a legitimate retort to the stereotyped  here-today-gone-tomorrow assumption about Yale students, and it is a large part of the reason why I, at least, feel responsible for and excited about doing as much as possible with the citywide community, whether it will prove relevant to my future life or not. So over the next twelve hours – our final twelve hours – see what you can do with your traveler identity. What can you give, how can you leave your site better off for the next arriving traveler or the people who live there, how can you choose to approach your day in a light that moves you from outsider to included participant? I can’t wait to see what you’ve got. CHARGE.

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I want you, I “knead” you, oh baby, oh baby

30 Jun

Friends, Romans, countrymen —

I have been wooed. Oh, yes. I have been wooed, and I have been wooed sweetly, and I have been wooed in Italiano.

(Dad, unclench your fists for one moment and keep reading. Trust me.)

It all started with my arrival in Trastevere five weeks ago as a poor, unsuspecting, supermarket-brainwashed American. I spent the first two days so overwhelmed with fruit and cheeses, wines and outdoor markets that I could barely walk straight, instead bumping into the person next to me as I craned my neck towards the closest open food shop. I began cooking, and then I began learning to trust other people’s cooking.

And then, on the seventh day, when even God was busy resting, I found it. My bakery.

I could smell it from down the sidewalk as I entered my neighborhood, exhausted from a day of traversing the city. My stomach grumbled in recognition of a friendly locale. “Pizza,” it said loudly (anyone who has ever traveled to Italy knows that here, your stomach acquires a persona of its own). “I want THAT PIZZA.” Without further discussion, I grabbed Ashley by the arm and pulled her into the open doorway. I saw cookies. I saw full loaves of bread stretched out on open wooden counters. And I saw at least fifteen different kinds of pizza, all waiting for me to devour them. And so it was that on that fateful day of June, I had my first taste of the best pizza in all of Trastevere.

Pictures can't even do this place justice

Of course I came back, at some points almost every other day. When I didn’t buy pizza, I came to buy breads in full loaves, fresh, warm bread to use as bruschetta or eat plain with cheese, apples, or honey. I let the rest of my friends in on the secret, and soon all of the girls began going to my bakery.

The best part about the place is that the workers there speak no English; neither do any of their customers. It is hidden on a side-street away from tourists, and the crowds of locals who jam it for lunch are so big that they have to use a ticketing system during the afternoon to deal with the volume of requests, like the kind we use at the deli. After our first two times of using our fumbling Italian and hilarious hand gestures to order, we began to be recognized by the people who worked there. One man in particular always lit up when we walked through the door and gave our standard greeting of, “ciao!” One night, he snuck an extra cookie into the wrapping of our bread. The next time we came in, he complimented our dresses, asked us to hang around, and gave us two free pizzettes. I had made a good find with my bakery; my bakery and I were getting along swimmingly.

And then, today, I took Frances there for lunch. We were sweaty and hot and tired and anxious for food after a morning of tracing Mussolini’s footsteps across the city. And despite the busy room, as soon as the man saw us enter, he broke into a grin. “Ciao!” he called out and helped us maneuver our way into the line. We both got sandwiches of fresh bread, tomato, arugula, and mozzerella and sat down at the bar to eat. Within minutes, I was thirsty enough to go buy a water (for the record, that was the first time I have ever bought a water bottle in Rome outside of a restaurant meal; the fountains are so plentiful that I just fill up my own bottle in the morning and bring it with me wherever I go), and when I got up to the register, our baker friend put up his finger. “Wait,” he said.

He returned from around the corner cradling the fluffiest, most incredible pastry I had ever seen. “Shhh,” he motioned with a finger over his lips. “For you,” and he slid it across to me with a smile. Never had I eaten a pastry this good — right out of the oven. It had some kind of light chocolatey cream inside and powdered sugar coating its edges. And when he saw that I had split the pastry in half to share with Frances, he ran back and got one for her, too.

Even my talkative tummy was now silent, happy beyond words.

A few minutes later, having made all kinds of inappropriate moaning noises as I inhaled my dessert, I turned back to the counter behind me. “MOLTO bene,” I said, trying as best as I could to get across the concept of heaven through hand gestures. “BENISSIMO.”

He smiled. “One minute,” he motioned again with his finger. And there it was, on the counter in front of me. Two MORE pastries, two more piping hot pastries, filled with raisins and sugar and flaky bread and who knows what other sweet sweet nectar of the gods.

I had thought I was full before I had even made it through the first pastry. How would I ever eat a second? Finally, one of my genetic inheritances kicked in for the win. Yes, Mom, you guessed it — your secret, extra stomach pocket specially evolved to hold unexpected dessert SAVED THE DAY. And oh, it was so. so. SOOOOOO. good.

Close-up.

And that's when I knew: I'd been training for this moment my whole life. Pastry, PREPARE FOR DOMINATION.

Before leaving, I had a long conversation with my friend-turned-dessert-superhero. Or at least as long of a conversation as I could have in broken Italian, French (he didn’t speak much outside of “oui, francais!” which made me temporarily very excited), and fragments of English. In fact, I’m not really sure what I actually said to him during those few minutes. However, I do know that he got very sad when I said I would be leaving on Saturday and that he called me “bella, bella, bella.” When Frances and I started to leave the store, saying “A domani!” or, “‘Til tomorrow!” he shook his head. “Venerdi, come venerdi,” (Friday). “Okay, venerdi!” I nodded back. He motioned at my camera, then at Frances for a moment. “Picture with her,” he said, pointing at me. “Happy, happy me,” I said, pointing at my stomach.

Readers, I warn you now. I am going back on Friday, and if he gives me so much as one more cannolo, I may not make it home.

(You’re all invited to the wedding.)

Caesar’s Notes: Wednesday, June 2 – Parades, pizza, poetry, pub

6 Jun

Belated and abbreviated post for this past Wednesday

Our syllabus for Wednesday reads as follows:

“June 2 – ITALIAN NATIONAL HOLIDAY: FESTA DELLA REPUBBLICA. Enjoy the parade! Think about Roman triumphs! Nationalism! The role of the military in the identity of the state! This is an assignment; you will be expected to share your astute observations as they relate to the themes of the course. Please note that stores, markets, banks, etc. will be closed.”

Okay. So. That’s our day, then. I put the assignment sheet down, roll out of bed, look at my wardrobe, and immediately wonder what I should wear to a national parade. Do I go all “Jessica-on-the-fourth-of-July” on them and smother myself in the colors of the Italian flag? Do I dress up and put on impeccable make-up to compete with the bella Italian girls who will be surrounding me? Or do I not care about any potential traditions and put on my shorter dress so I can save the longer ones for our church visits all next week?

I go with the latter option and a pair of crossed fingers and end up doing just fine. The piazza is packed by the time the ceremonies and the parade start, and the band tries to warm the crowd up with a rendition of the national anthem, but only a few of the people there know it well enough to sing along.

This is where the ceremony takes place. It is one of the biggest and newest monuments in Rome; visitors adore it, while locals call it "the birthday cake" with a complete look of disgust. As in, "tomorrow we will be meeting at - ugh - the birthday cake." Does this make anyone else's stomach growl?

Important people arrive for this parade, including Silvio Berlusconi, who walks up the gigantic steps of Italy’s memorial commemorating the republic and places a wreath in front of the tomb of the Unknown Soldier. He descends to watch the parade, which starts at that moment with tank after tank of military officials. Then the soldiers. And more soldiers. And a marching band. And more soldiers. I am beginning to see why we are supposed to think about the relationship of the military to this whole celebration. Best of all, the soldiers sing as they march, which makes a nice counterpart to the stiffness of some similar American processions. Here’s a video I took of the singing soldiers during an excerpt of the parade. And here’s a random but necessary picture of soldiers wearing pompoms:

"Timmy, what did I tell you about jousting with feather dusters? Not inside the house!"

Also part of the parade (probably one of the most famous parts) is the flyover of military planes streaming the colors of the Italian flag behind them. If that sounds crazy to you, check it out:

It's a bird! It's a plane! It's a -- no, wait. That really is a plane.

While the rest of the group leaves to grab an early lunch, Frances and I stick around for a concert of national songs sung by a children’s choir and a military band. And at that moment, I really start to ponder the assignment.

This parade began to commemorate the founding of the Italian Republic. In 1946, a referendum was held for the people of Italy to decide between a monarchy and a republic for their government, and after a (quite close) vote, they decided on a republic. This was exciting, but also meant that Italy had a ton of catching up to do; it is, in this sense, a very young nation, and one that still doesn’t have a strong sense of Italian national identity in the ways that we think are customary for patriots. For example, the flag, songs, parade, holidays, etc. all kicked in within the past 50 years, so many Italian teenagers don’t know the words to their own national anthem and instead just mouth along to the tune. From the point of view of an American, this seems strange. After all, don’t we see Italian flags all over the place? And what about “Jersey Shore”? But here, there is a much stronger sense of regional or metropolitan identity than a national one. Even the language varies so much from region to region that my professor, who is completely fluent and has been translating Italian for years, has trouble understanding some of the people she meets from the south of Italy. According to her, it is only through television that any sense of common language and traditions is shared.

So this explains the lack of little flags and some of the mumbled singing. But what about the military? Italy on the whole teeter totters on its past; it wants to diverge from the brute force of Mussolini while still maintaining its ancient tradition of battlefield valor, and so it constantly runs up against the question of how to build national pride without stepping into bad memories. When it came to the parade, this meant that the military was the focus, but no epic, battle-ready speeches were made, and it ended with a children’s choir. It meant that tanks with exposed guns rolled through the streets, but so, too, did nurses and firefighters. It meant that despite the fact that they had assigned the parade as our daily class, our professors did not go themselves; they said that no one they knew would be caught dead going to such an elaborate but empty display of state power. For me, the whole shebang felt very distant from the town parades of my youth. There were no local performers, no young children dancing, no wives or floats. Just orderly marching, and the soldiers’ songs.

A tank rolling through the parade.

After the parade and the mini-concert, Frances and I walk back to Trastevere. I haven’t gone out yet for a sit-down lunch, and she is in the mood to enjoy the afternoon, so we look around for a place to eat. Thankfully, Frances speaks Italian, so we go with my favorite method of finding food here: avoiding any place that speaks English (this includes bakeries and supermarkets, a tactic that has turned every one of my solitary shopping expeditions into an adventure and/or debacle). After darting down a few side streets, we find it, and boy, do our stomachs (and our wallets – the prices drop the farther you get from piazzas) thank us. We have bruschetta (correctly pronounced brus-KET-a in Italian) and fried artichokes for appetizers and split a pasta and a pizza dish between us. Here’s the damage done:

Before.

After.

Before.

After. And yes, we do give autographs.

Just as we are about to head out (rolling ourselves all the way home), a musician walks up and starts performing at the front of the restaurant. Watch my video to check it out. And no, Dorothy, you are not in Kansas anymore.

That night, I head out with some people from the group to my second poetry-related experience in two days. This time, Mark Strand is giving a reading of his work instead of a workshop, so I grab my notebook and go. He is phenomenal – down to earth with his phrasing and incisive with his words, and I am soaking up the language as quickly as he can release it with his tongue. After each poem he reads, his translator steps forward and delivers the translation, and that’s when I really start to get goosebumps. Since I can’t understand the Italian, I am reduced to measuring his success in sounds, in tumbles, in crispness and reverberations. I let myself be carried by the dips and curves between consonants; I am imbibing, and tucking it within me. In short, I am remembering and reawakening myself as a poet, and oh — oh, the pen feels nice between my fingers.

At the end of the reading, I buy the book. I buy it in Italian, on purpose, where the original English is on the less dominant page, and I read it aloud to myself at the reception. I roll my “r’s” into the air like a fool, and I am so resonant with that sound that I am buzzing. Mark Strand signs my book before I leave. I already know I will keep it on my permanent bookshelf.

Post-poetry-reading, we are all full, some of us with words, some with the hors d’oeuvres from the reading, so we whip up some light bruschetta, grab a quick pint at a local pub, and call it a night. And that’s what I call an inspired evening.