Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

From panino and olive oil to white bread, peanut butter

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You would be surprised how much Italian you know. You can thank the Italian language for cameo, replica, volcano, scenario, vista, malaria, casino and much more. If we enter the world of song, opera and operetta, orchestra, cello, soprano, piano, forte, adagio, allegro and fortissimo have all struck a tune. Then when we enter the culinary world of spaghetti Bolognese, macaroni, lasagne, pizza marinara, salami calabrese, pasta e faggioli, cappuccino, espresso, zucchini, risotto in a lovely ristorante, you know you are speaking Italian.

Not many realize that when most Italians arrived in Canada after the Second World War, they had the culinary awakening I had -- no sun-dried tomatoes, mozzarella or prosciutto, nor eggplant in olive oil on multi-grain bread. After 11 days of crossing the Atlantic by ship, the five-day journey by train from Pier 21 to the CN Rail station in Winnipeg, my mother, brother and I were introduced to the Canadian culinary extravaganza of white, stick-to-your-palate, spongy bread covered with an even stickier concoction called peanut butter. My mother saved our tastebuds from extinction by breaking out the capocollo and biscotto bread she had lovingly brought over upon her husband's request for savoury food.

When you make your delectable gastronomic purchases at De Luca's, Di Nardi's or the Calabrese Market, as you chomp into a panino stuffed with roasted red peppers and Italian sausage, do you think back to the Winnipeg of the late 1950s and '60s where little to none of this existed for you and me?

I lived in two culinary worlds as a young girl in Manitoba. We ate Italian at home and I ate "Canadian" outside. This dichotomy existed for many of us not only in our selection of foods as newly arrived immigrants. We spoke Italian and/or a Calabrese dialect in our home and English outside. We frequented an Italian church to hear our language and meet other immigrants like ourselves. We needed the reassurance a language and its culture can bring. Linguistic transition is not pleasant when you do not know what a person is mumbling or shouting or simply saying to you when it is not in your language. It at times sounds like gibberish with a tone or attitude. Turn the radio on to a foreign station, try listening to another language and tell me what they are saying the first time you hear it.

My father, who came to Canada as an adult to work, once told me he felt like "a leaf in a tornado of sounds" sometimes when people spoke to him in a language of which he knew barely a word. How demoralizing it is for an adult to take orders from a person who sometimes knows less about the job than you do but who dominates the situation by the sounds that are emitted from his or her lips.

Have you noticed that if someone says something to you and you do not understand, they automatically repeat exactly the same statement? Not changing a word or providing any gestures for some comprehension, they just speak the words louder, two, three times -- as if you had a hearing problem. Brain research and master teachers will confirm gestures, facial expressions and body language speak loudly and cross any language barrier. Italians are incredible communicators -- they sign, gesticulate and wave those hands galore to get that message across. Interesting now, but not well-appreciated in the '50s when those 'loud' Italians came to town 'talking with their hands.' Stiff upper lip or "communication," which should the new arrival try?

There were no ESL or EAL classes when we arrived. As an adult, you were obliged to throw yourself into the deep end of incomprehensible sounds at your worksite. As a child, the laughter, jibes or smiles of the neighbourhood children, the taunts, stares and remarks of the playground and the impatience of the teaching personnel served as your encouragement to learn English ASAP.

As in many immigrant homes, we children were expected to grit our teeth and perform well at school. Were you not the reason your parents left their home, family, friends, language and culture to come to this foreign country -- this land of opportunity? Your future, through education, was your parents' life investment. No pressure, right?

The double life many of us young immigrants were asked to live when we first arrived in Manitoba, I call fence-sitting. Always on your guard, on the proverbial fence, you jumped from side to side, culture to culture, responding as required. This fence-sitting lifestyle of many young immigrants, one life in the household and one in the Canadian, caused much conflict within the individuals and with their parents. The age-old parent-child conflict that transcends ethnicity is magnified exponentially when different values and ways of life exist within two cultures.

But youth were not the only ones faced with challenges in the first few years of arrival to Canada. My father spoke of Italian men who in order to get a job changed their names to McDonald or Jones or any English-sounding name. We knew of several families who returned home to Italy rather than face isolation at work, cultural shock and frigid temperatures.

Those Italians who have remained have added much richness to the tapestry of our country, integrating effectively into the Canadian fabric. People of Italian heritage have proven to be more than pizza and gelato, cappuccino and biscotti, Little Italy and Corydon. We are bricklayers, seamstresses, educators, doctors, lawyers and corporate chiefs. As second- and third-generation Italian-Canadians, we eat as much peanut butter as fettuccine alfredo, attend as many hockey and baseball games as we cheer and parade for winning Italian soccer teams.

There are so many beautiful words in this ancient language of music and song, good food and incredible architecture and history. Expand your repertoire, learn more Italiano, make your own fabulous pasta dishes, swing those arms as you passionately engage in conversations about soccer and politics. Being a little bit Italian will do you a whole lot of good! So arrivederci; you already know ciao!


Caterina (Bueti) Sotiriadis has a master's degree in education and for years worked with the Government of Manitoba Department of Education.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 25, 2012 j6

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