Written by Margo Sorenson, author of over thirty traditionally-published books for young readers. Margo Sorenson spent the first seven years of her life in Spain and Italy, devouring books and Italian food and still speaks (or tries!) her childhood languages. Her most recent Adult/Young Adult novel, SECRETS IN TRANSLATION (Fitzroy Books, October 2018), takes place in Positano, filled with vignettes of daily Italian life. www.margosorenson.com
Ah, the lilting, vibrant sounds of spoken Italian! After my U.S. Diplomatic Corps family moved from Napoli to Bari, when I was four, I was often awakened in the mornings by hearing the vendor ringing his bell outside in the street, chanting, “Pane, burro, e cioccolato!” I was so enchanted by the melodic cadence that I took to riding my two-wheeled bike, ringing its bell, and chanting the same refrain, over and over. Luckily, our neighbors never complained!
Our house was on the outskirts of Bari, sharing a driveway with two other families. We had a number of olive trees in the yard, and my Midwestern mother decided that she would learn to cure olives. She consulted with our neighbors and went at it, even burying the jars in our yard. The problem was—she couldn’t remember where she buried them!
At the time, there was no dairy in Bari, so getting fresh pasteurized milk was a problem. My parents adapted quickly, and we arranged with a neighbor’s cousin to have a liter of his cow’s milk (of course, first, my mother had us meet the cow “in person,”) delivered to us each morning, which my mother promptly boiled, in lieu of pasteurization. It was “rent-a-cow,” for sure.
In the winter, the coal chute into the basement clattered, and in the summer, the mosquitos buzzed. We slept under mosquito netting to save us, because there was no air conditioning, and we had to leave the windows open. The apricot-like fragrance of oleanders drifted in (I was horrified to learn the horse next door died from eating them!), as well as the pungent scent of our geraniums; we have geraniums on our present balcony as a remembrance.
My friends were Angelo, Aldo, Franco, Marisa, Carlo, and Enzo. We played kick-the-can (probably a San Marzano tomato can) down our long driveway. One day, I tried to talk Angelo into playing cowboys and Indians—I had just seen a Roy Rogers movie at the consulate. He wasn’t buying it! Aldo, the oldest at age ten, would sometimes lead us on bike rides down the main road almost to the Italian army barracks.
Our dog, Duke, became enamored with the Italian army men down the road, and he would frequently escape to play basketball with them. Because his collar read “American Consulate,” some of the soldiers would always bring him back, smiling, with profuse Italian apologies. Of course, they grinned when I answered them back in Italian.
When I’m lucky enough to hear spoken Italian, these are some of the precious childhood memories that come flooding back, and the refrain still plays in my mind: “Pane, burro, e cioccolato….”