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#WeAreWithItaly // Eric Haywood



#WeAreWithItaly // Eric Haywood

We received this lovely contribution by Eric Haywood - a message of solidarity and a hilarious account of his experience of learning Italian.

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Learning to love Italian

Throughout my career as a university lecturer, whenever I went to Italy to give a talk or present a paper at a conference, my audience would shower me with compliments. “Your Italian is amazing,” they’d say, “better than a native speaker’s.” Part of me was quite offended. “Yes but,” I felt like replying, “did you not notice what I said?” It made me feel like a dancing bear at a circus. Though naturally the other part of me was tickled pink.

Yet somehow I never thought that being fluent in Italian, or in the other languages I speak, was such a great achievement. I owed it either to my genes or to the environment in which I grew up.

As well as her native Swiss German, my maternal grandmother spoke high German with a flawless accent (which not many Swiss Germans can master), French like a Parisienne (having spent a year at a finishing school in France), English as though she’d grown up in Britain (being married to an Anglophile, who used English for his business), and more than passable Italian. My mother too was an accomplished linguist. People could never tell if her native tongue was Swiss German, French or English, and in the course of her life she acquired a fair knowledge of Italian, Danish and Greek.

At home we spoke English, with my friends I spoke French, in my francophone school I was the star performer in German, when visiting my grandparents I could lapse into Swiss German, and when I married a Greek I learnt Greek. So why make such a fuss about my mastery of Italian?

Still a language is not absorbed by osmosis; somehow it must be learnt. There are many ways of doing so of course, and every learner has his favourite. This is mine.


One day, when I was about eleven or twelve, an unknown gentleman suddenly appeared on our doorstep. He was in his forties or fifties, I’d say, soft spoken, thin, almost gaunt, with jet black hair, thick-rimmed glasses, a black suit and a black tie. And he was looking for Quakers. Because Quakers are “good people.”

My mother was the top Quaker (Clerk of the Monthly Meeting) in the part of Switzerland where we lived — and where Quakers were as thin on the ground as daffodils in winter — and someone had told him that she was the person to get in touch with.

He was a defrocked priest from northern Italy, who had fallen in love with one of his young parishoners, and she with him. Quite how such a pretty young woman could fall for such a plain-looking gentleman past his prime, I was never able to figure out. She came from a well-to-do family, and when the scandal broke not only was he defrocked but she was shunned by her nearest and dearest, so they had to flee. To add insult to injury, the Church, in whose bosom he had received his university education and which, in an age predating photocopies and scans, was in possession of his degree parchments, had refused to hand them back to him. The couple was therefore without means in a foreign country and needed help. Enter the Quakers!

Being among the inventors of the Protestant work ethic, Quakers believe that salvation cannot be handed to you on a platter. It must be earned. My parents therefore decided that, rather than simply help the couple out financially (which in any case would have been embarrassing for all concerned), they would offer him a form of gainful employment. In return for assistance, he was to teach their son Italian!

I do not remember ever being consulted on the matter and Italy had certainly never figured on our radar — with the exception of our beloved Italian cleaning woman — but my parents must have had a sense of things to come and I was presumably happy enough to go along with the idea. It certainly did not leave me traumatised, and in any case school was very boring. A bit more boredom was neither here nor there.

Nowadays one would of course think twice before inviting a defrocked priest, or any priest for that matter, into one’s son’s bedroom — that is where the lessons took place — but I had no complaints whatsoever in that regard. I quite liked the man, though he too was rather boring, and, with the help of the then fashionable Assimil method, he must have taught me quite a bit, though I was always loathe to do the homework he would set me. A natural genius, some might say! Yet even geniuses need a helping hand.

Among my parents’ Quaker friends was a charming but eccentric couple. She was a poet, of German Jewish origin, like my mother (our family’s confessional history defies rational explanation), and he was a teacher from Italy, twenty years her junior and almost twice as tall as her. Was it they, I wonder, who suggested that, now I had Assimilated Italian, I should go and stay with his mother in Bergamo, to put it into practice? I cannot imagine that off my own bat I would have begged my parents to allow me to be locked up in a small flat for ten days in the company of a 70-year old lady with whom I had nothing in common. But that is what I ended up doing. And by any standards that was close enough to traumatic.

Initially I think I was quite excited to be going abroad on my own — I cannot have been older than thirteen — but once I got there, there was absolutely nothing to do. Nothing to talk about, nothing to watch on television (it was election time and TV consisted of wall-to-wall political programmes), nothing to read, and nothing much to see, as I was not encouraged to go out on my own and my host was too old to chaperone me for very long. All I remember from the visit, apart from the excruciating and oppressive boredom in dull weather, was being invited to lunch by my host’s two sisters. My host lived in the new city, Bergamo bassa, and they lived in the old city, Bergamo alta. We took the bus and got there fifteen minutes early, and in my mind’s eye I can still see one of the sisters appearing at an upstairs window, dressed to the nines, and in her shrill voice shooing us off. It was far too early! We should go for a stroll and not return before twelve thirty!

But the story had a happy end. I became an Italian teacher myself, having picked the language up again at university — at secondary school Italian was “for girls” — and my defrocked teacher and his wife, when they had children of their own and Vatican II had mitigated the church’s intransigence, were welcomed back to Italy and in due course, I believe, put in charge of her family’s business. But I doubt he remained a Quaker. Neither did I, for that matter.


She would phone us every few months. From Florence. The voice was unmistakable: deep, rasping, punctuated by coughs. A heavy smoker’s voice. Those were the days when international calls were still an exciting event, lasting only a few seconds and demanding the awed and reverent silence of everyone in the household. Sometimes one of us would answer on one of our two phones while the rest of us would listen in on the other. The conversation, in German, always began with the same question: “How is Mr Nestlé? Hasn’t he had the accident yet?” The answer too was always the same: “Not yet, but soon perhaps.”

She was one of my mother’s closest friends, a formidable lady with a fascinating life story, who would live to a ripe old age. Thanks to her genes and strength of character, I presume, rather than her diet. Unusually for an Italian she had no interest in food whatsoever and survived on cigarettes, red wine (or plonk, rather) and Nescafé. My father worked for Nestlé’s and she had once told him that her dream had always been that “Mr Nestlé” would have a serious accident, that she would save him, and that the reward for her bravery would be a lifelong supply of free Nescafé. So when the calls came through we knew they were a cry for help, and sure enough within a couple of days “Mr Nestlé” would dutifully dispatch a generous supply of her elixir of youth. At a time when sending parcels abroad was just as uncommon as making international phone calls.

As a result when in the summer of 1967 I announced my intention of going to Florence in order to help in the rescue effort following the previous year’s devastating flood of the Arno, our family’s credit stood high and I was invited to go and stay with her for a month. That is when I fell in love with Italy. It was the beauty of the city of course — what is there not to love? — but it was the enveloping warmth of the summer heat I remember above all, so different from anything I’d ever experienced before, on our holidays in the Swiss Alps or by the sea in Devon. A warmth that reconciles you with your body and makes you well disposed towards yourself and life. Above all a warmth that only abates but never disappears at night. What greater pleasure can there be than to sit on a terrace surrounded by olive trees on a balmy night, with a glass of red wine in your hand (or even plonk) and gazing at the stars? And curiously I have no recollection of any mosquitos making war on me, as they would do so relentlessly ten years later, when we lived in Florence.

That summer I’d spend every day at the National Library on the banks of the Arno, helping to wash and dry the books that had been damaged by the flood. Judging by the number of books that were still catalogued as alluvionati [flood-damaged] ten years later, when I was carrying out research in the Library for my Ph.D., I doubt we did a very good job, but it was great fun. We were a team of volunteers from all over the world, who worked and played together. I particularly remember the Yugoslavs, as they were then called, who spoke Italian fluently and faultlessly. When I grow up, I’d say to myself, that’s what I want to do too! And I have fond recollections of our team leader, a read-haired and red-bearded Florentine, who looked like a leprachaun and cried a lot, because of the ups and downs (mostly downs) of his love life.

What sticks in my mind above all, however, is the time I spent in the company of my mother’s friend and her guests, in the beautiful house where she lived, just outside the city centre, on a hill surrounded by an olive grove. We’d eat together and spend long hours together in conversation. The food was appalling of course. It was prepared in the morning by a maid and always served re-heated. Re-heated pasta and melanzane parmigiano swimming in lukewarm olive oil is not what floats my boat. But the conversation — in Italian, German and English — quite made up for it.

That year the guests included an American professor, who specialized in the Medici, and a German baroness, who had been my host’s best friend when she’d lived in Germany before the war. No longer in the flower of youth, you could still see she must once have been a stunning beauty. She was tall, with wavy silvery hair, and stood as erect as befitted her august name and ancestry. She came from a family of generals, who continued to serve under Hitler, out of patriotism, while yet despising him. Our host, who had been married to a Jew, recounted how on one occasion, in the German city where they lived, a Nazi officer had got on a bus and loudly and disdainfully refused the seat a Jewish young lady had offered him. The baroness, who was also on the bus, immediately got up and said: “Here, officer, please have my seat! I trust my arse is sufficiently aryan for your liking!”. And she stormed off the bus.

That was my introduction to the history of Italy: the Medici and Resistance. Broadly speaking it is the line I have stuck with ever since.


In those days learning to speak or even write a language was almost an optional extra at university. The point of a degree in modern languages was not of course to learn how to find your way to the post office or order a cup of coffee. It was to study the literature. And what counted as “the” literature, especially in Italian, was on the whole what we students called “ancient stuff.” Modern started and ended in the nineteenth century, lectures were generally given in English, and the result could often be quite baffling. One could sit at the feet of eminent scholars, who gave fascinating lectures but pronounced Italian as though they themselves might struggle to ask for directions to the post office. And of course there was no way students could become proficient in sustaining an argument in the language they were learning. Our essays too were in English.

But the system suited me down to the ground. The language I could manage on my own. What really interested me was indeed the “ancient stuff.” So I never once regretted my decision to take Italian, nor once wished I had stayed in bed instead of going to my lectures. Not even the one time I was all alone in the class, the lecturer marched in clad in full regalia, did not acknowledge me, proceeded to give his lecture as though he were addressing an audience of a thousand, and marched out at the end without saying good-bye or thank you. But that did not stop me from returning the following week, although in the meantime I had duly berated the other member of the class for not turning up. She never let me down again!

Of course among our lecturers we had star performers. My favourite was Patrick Boyde, now Emeritus Professor of Italian at Cambridge University and Fellow Borderer at St John’s College, my own college. It was he who fired my enthusiasm for Italian literature, and to him I am eternally grateful.


Every morning, as I was having breakfast in the warm and friendly kitchen on the piano nobile of the country villa outside Verona, he’d walk in and ask me who I was. When I’d satisfied his curiosity, explaining that I came from Switzerland, he’d say: “oh Switzerland! I have cousins there!” That was my grandparents, thanks to whom I’d come to spend the summer with these Italian relatives.

We didn’t know about Alzheimer’s in those days. We simply called it “going potty.” But he was going potty in a very cheerful way. All day long he’d walk around with a smile on his face, never raised his voice and never complained. He would only become agitated when he went to bed, getting up at least four or five times before dozing off, in order to check that all the doors were locked. The villa was cruciform, in a neo-Palladian kind of fashion, and there were four main entrances, plus the entrance to the basement. And the only thing that fanned his temper was my driving. When I took him into town — to their city apartment, to the bank or to the doctor’s — he’d keep upbraiding me. “Vai sotto, vai sotto!” [“Go under, go under”], he’d say. He wanted me to hug the bumper of the car in front, so nobody could come between.

Apart from that we got on well and, I must confess, “pottiness” has its advantages if you’re trying to improve your knowledge of a language. There is a lot of repetition and never any attempt at circumlocution or foreign-friendly pidgin-speak. What you get is what you get. In a way it was not unlike the Assimil method on which I’d first cut my Italian teeth. Or the ascoltate-e-ripetete exercises I’d later put my students through in the language lab, with phrases that could often be equally as baffling, like “Ha Lei due braccia?” What are the chances of your ever being able to say that on your holidays? “Excuse me, Madam, hath ye two arms?”

With his wife however the practice was of an altogether different order. She was going deaf and blind, found the condition of her husband hard to cope with, was in a permanewnt war of attrition with their mezzadri, the share-croppers who looked after the property and lived on the top floor of the villa, and the past was coming back to haunt her. They were Jewish and well-to-do, and in the old days had shone in high society. Considering themselves assimilated, like many Jews of means they had embraced the interests of their class and sympathised with Mussolini. But then the racial laws were passed and all at once they mutated into outcasts. Luckily they were able to escape, to Switzerland, and in due course to return home, but still she slept with a pistol and a coffer of gold coins by her bedside. You never knew who might come for you or when you’d have to flee again!

So every evening after her husband had retired she’d summon me to the open-plan salone which stood at the heart of the villa, get me to sit down on the sofa next to her and, like all people who are hard of hearing, at the top of her voice she would launch into endless jeremiads. Inevitably just as she’d start to complain about her husband he’d emerge from their bedroom on his round of inspections. He was as sharp-eared as they come and I’d try frantically to get her to change the subject, but she neither noticed my hand signals nor picked up my sottovoce entreaties and continued with her train of thought. Not that it really mattered. By the next morning he had forgotten everything.

The nightly sessions on the sofa did not offer many ripetete opportunities, but there was plenty of chance to ascoltare, and my passive knowledge of Italian improved no end that summer, also aided by the maid who, as I ate my breakfast in the kitchen, would explain the dishes she was preparing and taught me how to make gnocchi di patate. The understanding had been that in return for board and lodging and having my Italian burnished, I’d act as gardener and chauffeur. But every time I attempted to do some work in the garden, I was told the mezzadri would look after that, and the opportunities for stare sotto were few and far between. Essentially I was there to lend a friendly ear to the troubled lady of the house, to act as “man-in-waiting” to my grandmother’s long-lost cousin. Beneath her cold exterior she was a warm-hearted person and I was fond of her. There is no doubt that it was my stay in Verona that gave me the confidence to pursue a career in Italian.

The days were long and lonely, but I spent them in the company of Ariosto, Manzoni and Boccaccio, reading Orlando furioso, I promessi sposi and the Decameron from cover to cover, taking copious notes, writing detailed summaries as I went along, and making sure I understood every single word. Thereafter I never again had any problem with “old” Italian. Which is of course the best way to come to grips with “modern” Italian. It makes you alert to the many possibilities of language and forces you to wonder why. If it is no longer possible to speak or write like Boccaccio, how then should one speak and write? If, in the age of Coronavirus, you can turn the following into italiano standard, you are not doing too badly: “Umana cosa è l’avere compassione agli afflitti; e come che a ciascuna persona stea bene, a coloro è massimamente richiesto li quali già hanno di conforto avuto mestiere ed hannol trovato in alcuni” [“It is a human thing to show compassion for those who are in distress; and though it behoves everyone to do so, it is especially demanded of those who have had need of compassion in the past and have found it in a few”].

But my progress did not stop there. Following the Verona stage, I went on a memorable camping holiday to Calabria and back, with two Italian friends in a Mini Minor. I found out only recently that the friends still refer to it as the “Swiss franc holiday.” Apparently every time I learnt of the price of something, I would say, with faultless regard for the sensitivites of others: “gosh — caspita, I presume — in Swiss Francs that’s nothing!” But we are still good friends. And thanks to them I learnt to speak Italian “properly” rather than alla Boccaccio. And I also learnt another valuable lesson. The Greeks say: put two Greeks together and you’ll have at least three political parties. With the Italians you could say: put two Italians together and you’ll have at least three different ways of saying the same thing. One of my friends would occasionaly complain: “ho il mal di testa oggi” [“I have the headache today”]. And the other would invariably reply: “ah, hai IL mal di testa!” [“ah! you have THE headache”]. I still don’t know which is correct. Ho il mal di testa or ho mal di testa? Or both?


There is no better way of learning than to teach. At school, when we garbled answers to his questions or produced half-baked essays, our French teacher would say to us: “ce qui se conçoit bien, s’énonce clairement” [“what is understood well can be expounded clearly”]. And nothing acts as a better spur to understanding well than facing a class of eager students — or worse, of incurious students — who think you know it all. You do not want to let them down. Above all, you do not want to let yourself down.

Italian though does not always make things easy. Why on earth does it have seven ways of saying “the”? And how is it that eggs are masculine in the singular but feminine in the plural? Not to mention arms, and if you have due bracci you’re not a human but a candelabra (or should that be candelabrum?). And why, when you have drummed it into your students that they must say della nostra vita [of our life], can Dante come along and get away with saying “di nostra vita”?

Still, we love it all and wouldn’t want it to be any different. If historical precedent did not advise against it, we would almost be tempted to say: forza Italia!

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Eric Haywood (1969), BA, MA, PhD, is Associate Professor of Italian Studies (emeritus) at University College Dublin, where he taught Italian language and literature, specializing in the Renaissance, for close on 40 years. He was born and brought up in French Switzerland, and after Cambridge/St John’s, he completed his further education at the University of Edinburgh and the European University Institute in Florence. For a number of years he served as president of Ireland’s Association of Teachers of Italian, successfully promoting the teaching of Italian in secondary schools, and was involved in the design of the second-level Italian curriculum and examinations. In 2014 he was knighted (Cavaliere dell’Ordine della Stella d’Italia) for his services to Italy and Italian. He writes occasional articles for The Irish Times (, search: Eric Haywood), and a selection of his academic publications can be accessed at

PHOTO 1. Eric Haywood in full flight at an event in UCD on 22 October 2019 (with author Paul Martin)
PHOTO 2. Montreux, Switzerland: The “Quaker school on the hill” where Eric first learnt Italian, and (foreground) the state school where Italian was “for girls”


A few weeks ago we launched #WeAreWithItaly, an open call to collect messages of solidarity to be shared on the IIC social media channels, for Italy and indeed all parts of the world confronting the Covid-19 emergency. Anybody with an existing connection to Italy, or who wishes to join the tributes that have been pouring from all over as means to breach the distance in this time of separation, is welcome to follow these simple steps:• Make a video recording with their smartphone OR write a message and choose a picture to go with it;
• Send the material to, using the platform WeTransfer if necessary.

We believe it is extremely important to foster unity in the extraordinary situation that we all have to confront right now and we would be happy to receive your contribution, which will be uploaded to our social media to endorse a powerful message of social cohesion.


Data: Da Mar 21 Apr 2020 a Mar 28 Apr 2020

Ingresso : Libero

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