PRIME ESPERIENZE IN AMERICA
The process of getting settled in the new city, in the new land, was going smoothly. We had started getting familiar with how people did things here because we needed to come and go wherever daily life took us, without being too much of a burden on our relatives who were so kind as to offer us their homes and we felt they were already doing a lot for us. We were also pushed by the curiosity of discovering this new city, which was so very different from our village.
It wasn’t a coincidence that all the paesani (countrymen) lived in the same area of town called the West Side. It was in that central part of the city that the first Italian immigrants in the area had settled in, and when we got there with the rest of the flood of post-war immigrants, we found a structured and well organized community waited for us. On the West Side, small delicatessens and grocery shops had sprung up, where the owners used to speak a strange dialect, a mix between badly pronounced English words and words taken from their own dialects which came from every region in Northern Italy. For instance, the two older sisters who had a grocery store were of Italian descent, but were born in America. However, to make it easier for the new customers, they forced themselves to speak what they called “taliane”. In the store, when they saw us coming, they used to welcome us with a “bon giorn commo sta?” (Good morning; how are you?-very poorly pronounced). We would subtly look at each other and laugh at those well-intentioned women for that dialect from nowhere.
Then immediately, to show how WE had learned English, we would answer: “gud moni”. The women laughed at our strange “good morning.” I will never forget the day that a man came to buy groceries for his aunt. He asked the women a dozen of “legs”. They did not understand and asked him to repeat his order and he said “na dozzina de legs”.Which is “a dozen of legs”. They continued to be befuddled about his order, because the man kept asking for a “dozen of legs” and they thought he was saying that on purpose to make fun of the two older sisters.
He did not realize that this was how you said the word for your lower limbs in English: legs. It was very frustrating because nobody could understand him; the man started making gestures with his hands. Gestures and signs made the situation even worse for him. His face had gotten all red with frustration, but he persisted. He couldn't come back home without the stuff for his aunt. Visibly upset, he screamed “cluck-cluck.” Finally, they understood that he wanted a dozen eggs, not a dozen legs. It was very common for such comical scenes to play out involving immigrants who were newly arrived here.
On Sunday afternoons, I used to go out with my friends for on walks to explore our new neighborhood. Guided by our high spirits, we would wander through the streets and alleys that were not at all familiar to us. Of course, we would get lost and panic. Thankfully, some person passing by would notice us and show us the way home. This is how we found a beautiful park that was not too far from our houses. Young people that were our age used to like to go there too. Immediately, that became our Sunday meeting point. We met other people, and romances and friendships started to develop. I talked about it with my aunt and she told me that it was OK to talk outside with boys with others around, but that I should not spend time alone with anyone. When we felt a little more adventurous, we would go to the movies. But we needed to have permission from our aunts to go to the movies. Our aunts were all the same and they would only give permission after they made sure that we would go and come back together, and that it was just us “girls,” and no “boys”. We would promise them it was only us going, knowing that the “boys” were waiting for us inside the theaters. At the theater, the movie was played continuously all day. We could stay as long as we wanted with the same ticket good for the whole day as long as we did not leave the theater. Each of us paid for ourselves, and then we would pool our money to buy a pack of chewing gum that we would all share. Inside, we would sit in the luxurious red and blue velvet armchairs to watch the movie, chewing gum, exactly like any American young person did.
Maybe it was looking for that sense of belonging, which was a predominant feeling needed by young people, the thing which pushed us towards becoming Americanized, even without our conscious consent. The walk, the movie, the “chewing gum’ and the “boys”: everything was new and very exciting. If it wasn't for the homesickness and the fact that I missed my mom, life would have been perfect.
Delia Socci Skidmore