We No Speak Italiano: When My Parents Came to Italy

Just over a week ago, my childhood officially ended and I turned 21. I’m living in Italy at the moment, in a seaside town called Bari. My parents flew out to celebrate with me and naturally, when more than one Eccles family member manifests in the same place, all manner of mayhem ensued…

I’d booked a table in the evening at 8pm with some friends. It was at my favourite restaurant in Bari and I was so excited to take my folks there. During the day, however, I had classes to go to, so my parents were left to their own devices for a couple of hours. I equipped them with the bog-standard greeting and “Do you speak English?” vocabulary that is essential when your family spokesperson is not available. They then took it upon themselves to venture out to the restaurant and attempt a spot of communication.

Now, as I said, I was not present, so I don’t know exactly how it went down. But my guess is that it was a lot louder and with more arm gestures than either of them let on when they recounted the tale…

“Shouldn’t we check it’s the right restaurant first?” There they are, my parents, squinting uncertainly through the frosted glass of the restaurant windows.

“Oh, don’t be silly, Christine. Go on, then. In you go.”
“Me? I got 8 percent in my school German test!” Mum protests.
“Good job we’re not in Germany then!” Dad replies. She thumps him on the arm.
“Fine then, I’ll do the talking. Can’t be that hard, can it?” That’s my dad, learn by doing.

He strides purposefully and confidently through the door and comes face to face with a waiter clad in a waistcoat, shirt and trousers.
“BUONGIORNO!” He yells, giving the word a million Rs and overjoyed at their presence. His eyebrows shoot so far up his forehead they disappear beneath his hairline. He looks between them, a switch clicks and it’s obvious. They’re English.

“Bon-joor-no”, my dad replies. “Um, English?” My dad asks, pointing an optimistic finger at the waiter.
“A little,” responds the waiter, making the first hand gesture of the exchange. “Um, tonight? Birthday?” Dad ventures, putting his thumbs up and smiling hopefully.
“No, my birthday… January! Ha ha!” He has clearly misunderstood. Dad tries again.
“Ah, no, what I mean is, tonight, TONIGHT, is my daughter’s birthday and we are having a meal here, we have booked?”
“A Book? Si!” The waiter hands him a menu. Wait, what? What’s happening?
The waiter begins to explain all the dishes of the antipasti menu to my bemused father. Mum interjects.

“No, I’m sorry. We are eating HERE, TONIGHT. For a BIRTHDAY.” Mum points to the floor with both hands.
The waiter tilts his head to one side, like a confused puppy. He’s still not getting it.
Mum turns to Dad. “This looked a lot easier when Em was here.”
My dad thinks for a moment.
“There’s only one thing for it, Chris. We must resort to the medium of song!” He proclaims, and begins, to my absent horror, to belt out the happy birthday song.

“Haaaaappppy Biiiiirtttthdaaaaaaay toooo yooooooou….” He looks to my mother for accompaniment. “Are you gonna help me or what?” She joins in.
“Haaaaaapppy Biiiiirtttthdaaaaaaay toooo yooooooou…” They both swing their arms around as if conducting the fifth symphony and together they end on a harmony, complete with jazz hands, bent knees and toothy-grins.
“Bravo! Magnifico!” The waiter applauds, clapping vigorously and very entertained indeed. Suddenly, my folks realise that the entire restaurant is applauding their musical number. Then, the light bulb finally flickers on, and the message is received.

“Aaaaaah! A berf-dei!” The waiter proclaims, mirroring their toothy-grins.
Of a-whoo iz di berf-dei?” He asks.
“EM-ILY. Our DAUGHTER!”  Mum speaks slowly and loudly, nodding. The jazz hands are abandoned as she makes a whooshing arm gesture, the famous, international hand gesture for “daughter”. He nods slowly, obviously not having completely understood but does not wish to subject himself to another melody.
“Ah, a-verry good!” He seems to approve.
“Yes! Do you have a cake? CAKE?” The waiter looks uncertain again. There is no word resembling “cake” in Italian. My dad attempts several other languages with their respective accent.“Gateaux? Strudel? Tiramisù?” Nothing. He tries a more physically expressive approach, his hands forming a circle as the base of the cake and wriggling his fingers to show the candles aflame.
“Si Si! Of-a-course! A-why-a-not?” The waiter nods approvingly and it seems they have succeeded. Relieved, they exhale loudly, head back to the flat and have another nap. More than enough action for one day.


And sure enough, that very evening, as a complete surprise at the end of my birthday meal, the lights went out in the entire restaurant and a cake was placed in front of me, complete with candles. Oh, the lengths my parents go to for my happiness. One only wishes they could do so without such chaos!

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