The Calabrian Corner

by Dominic Spano, Ph.D.

Calabria in the Western World: Its Idioms

I have recently completed a novel entitled In the Twilight of the Moon. The story was loosely inspired by the life and times of an uncle of mine, now deceased. In particular, my uncle was a jovial fellow who often concisely captured the essence of what he wanted to say by resorting to expressions he grew up with in his native Calabria. As a child, many of those phrases seemed quite colorful to me and I absorbed their meaning mainly through osmosis after hearing them over and over again.

One of those idioms, 'nta 'stu lustru di luna, eventually gave rise to the title of my novel, although not a direct translation. My uncle, who never got angry, used that particular phrase metaphorically as a means of expressing his frustration through sarcasm. Literally translated, it means 'in this light of moon', which refers to the fact that even in the dark of night the moon is there to light our way. Hence, during moments of frustration, rather than admit that it may be time to throw in the towel, my uncle always whipped out that phrase, drenched in sarcasm, to cynically state that the situation at hand did not appear to have a solution.

There were many other Calabrian idioms and expressions that I learned from my uncle, not all of which are common to all the Calabrian provinces. Indeed, some were specific to my uncle's village. For example, there is the tale (apparently true) of a paesano (let's call him Joe) who apparently went through a lengthy period of constipation, which eventually led to complications that resulted in his death. That incident gave rise to an expression that, whenever one of us resorted to an 'if only' scenario (for example, if only I were 40 pounds heavier I would have made the football team; or, if only I had been born into wealth, I would be further ahead in my goals than I currently am, etc.), my uncle retorted with a strategically placed si Peppi cacava, non moria, which translates into 'well, if only Joe had been able to poop, then he would not have died'.

Although I recount these incidents with levity, my exposure to my uncle taught me many things about Calabrian culture, most aspects of which I'm extremely proud to claim in my heritage. To be sure, I was raised and acculturated in an English–speaking western society and I would not trade that part of my upbringing for anything; but the knowledge of the rich history and traditions from whence my gene pool originated became an important cog in the understanding of who we were and what we had to offer, much of which was unique to us as culturally Calabrian among the larger group of people that the world knows as Italians. At the top of the list, perhaps, might be the sense of family that has been imparted to us, generation after generation—and that is the dynamic that inspired my novel, for with a sense of family comes a responsibility to uphold its values, a task that includes looking after our siblings and taking care of our aging parents—all admirable qualities that are valued by virtually every culture and perhaps envied by some.

The following excerpt is the beginning of my novel, which hints at the turbulent turn that Luciano's eldest son begins to explore in his quest to find a means of connecting with his father:

The first signs that my family might be veering off the proverbial beam appeared at about the time my Uncle Frankie arrived in Canada. They were hard to pinpoint, mind you, not anything that you could actually put your finger on; rather, it was the kind of thing that you became aware of only when it was happening to you—sort of like when you feel sick but the doctor can't find anything wrong with you—or when your car suddenly responds differently from what you're used to but the mechanic has no idea what you're talking about. But you do. You know something isn't quite right because you're the only one who liveswith your body all day long and you're the only one who spendds time in your care every single day. That's how I felt about what was happening to our family. On its own, each event did not draw attention to itself; but the sum total of their effect suggested that we might not be the portrait of stability that my father tried to paint.

Up until the day of Uncle Frankie's arrival we were just another family living in a downtown flat, which we shared with my mother's two sisters. But on that day, my perception of our family's dynamics received its first dent. On that day, my brother Marco, although he had never been a saint, showed the first signs of the aggression that would come to define him in a violent encounter at school. And when we got home, our father made his feelings on the matter abundantly clear. He and my mother were on our front steps, in overcoats, waiting for us. Ma, her handbag slung over her forearm, fidgeted nervously while my father, belt dangling from his hand and vengeance in his eyes, removed his fedora and pointed us into the house.

The first slap my father threw merely grazed Marco's shoulder, my brother having managed to elude it by twisting quickly away. The return backhand, however, landed full force on the side of my head, which left my ear ringing for several minutes.

"What did I do?"

My father responded by slapping me again.

"But I was with him." I pointed to my brother.

"You weren't where you were supposed to be." Then my father turned to my mother. "Did I not tell them this morning to come straight home? Now, instead, we have to go rushing all over the place just to get to the station on time. They just hold me to their ass, both of them, that's what they do."

"Luciano, please—"

"Luciano please my balls!" he countered. Then he kicked out his good leg, missing Marco but leaving himself teetering off balance on his sick leg. "Figghiu di puttana!" he growled as he struggled to retain his balance. Son of a whore!

As the story unfolds, Marco's behavior forces Luciano out of his familiar, previously safe, comfort zone and he, too, begins to struggle to keep his relationship with his sons intact. The traditional Calabrian dynamics had begun to fail Luciano and thenceforth the entire family battles to find common ground—until, one day, a traumatic event reveals that what they had all been seeking had also been under their nose the whole time. Their Calabrian upbringing had not failed them after all.

Until next time ... 'ndi vidhimu' (we'll be seeing you). ... return to previous screen ...

Please check back periodically for further musings from The Calabrian Corner. Ciao for now.

Note:If you identify with my feelings on Italian families, try checking out my new ebook, In the Twilight of the Moon, which deals with Italian family dynamics, including aggression, depression, the seeking of parental approval, unrequited love, and dementia in elderly parents. It can be previewed through Amazon Kindle.