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Extract from ‘An Italian Education’

Non essere fiscale

Can a child or person really have two nationalities, express the traits, that is, of two national characters? Or doesn’t one inevitably exclude the other? Or worse still, they simply destroy each other, so that rather than being English and Italian, my children with their mix of languages and habits, are neither one nor the other. These are imponderable. But there are moments when even imponderables are wonderfully incarnated. This tiny chapter remembers two of them…
It’s eight in the evening. I’ve just come into the room to send the kids to bed. Stefi is sitting on the floor playing wit her dolls and singing a song: ‘Mary had a Little Lamb’. She sings it in the well-to-do, upper-middle-class accent of the little children who made the English tape she has. Instead of her normal raucous tones, her voice is wavering and twee, as befits songs about little girls and their woolly little animal friends. Stefi loves to sing as she plays.

She took the lamb to school one day,
School one day, school one day.
She took the lamb to school one day.
It was against the rules!

But when Stefi get to this line – It was against the rules – she suddenly makes a violent gesture. Her chubby right hand becomes a fist that shoots up from the elbow as the left hand slaps down on the right forearm to stop it and give the gesture its fierce tension. Like the sign of the cross it’s another piece of behavioural bric-a-brac she’s perhaps learned watching football on TV with Dad. If you don’t want to be so rude as to actually make that gesture, an Italian can say, ‘You know where my Grandfather kept his umbrella, don’t you….’

But the funny thing is how Stefi knows to make that rebellious, disrespectful gesture at just the pint where dear little Mary breaks the rules and brings her lambkins to school come hell or high water. ‘There,’ her crooked elbow and clenched fist says, ‘see how much I care about your stupid rules.’ It’s not a sentiment I get from listening to the tape.
Then Michele comes in and says to me, in English, ‘Oh don’t be so fiscal, Daddy, Don’t be so fiscal.’
He’s complaining about my sending them to bed on time, and what he means is fiscale. Non essere fiscale, Papà. Look at a dictionary and it will tell you that the word derives from the Latin fiscus, a basket, then came in Italian to be fisco, the coffers of the state, and then, by unpleasant association, the people responsible for filling those coffers. In short, the tax collectors. So that fiscale means, as fiscal does in English: having to do with taxes. But given Italian feeling about rules in general and taxes most particularly, the etymology could hardly stop there. So what was originally a basket in the days of Caesar’s empire had come to mean, by the days of Benito’s, ‘severe’, ‘exacting’, and then, by inevitable slippage, ‘too severe’, and even ‘perversely exacting’.

‘Don’t be fiscal,’ Michele says, knowing I like him to speak English. ‘We’ll be good if you let us stay up.’ What he means is, these rules (which he doesn’t know are typically English) don’t need to be applied to the letter (a flexibility typically Italian). Then, still dealing in English institutions – this time the fact that I read to them most evenings before going to bed, something which, since they don’t actually send their children to bed but merely succumb to sleep alongside them, Italian parents hardly have the opportunity to do – Michele throws in a juicy ricatto, or blackmail: ‘If you let us stay put another half an hour, we’ll go to bed without being read to.’ Finally, with an exact perception of my obsessive protestant work ethic, which he will never share, he adds, ‘That way you can translate a bit more…’ He has thus managed to arrive at a trade by which I actually get to work more by not sending them to bed…
Meanwhile, Stefi has reached the last verse. And beyond. She has modified the English nursery rhyme.

So Mary found another lamb,
‘Nother lamb, ‘nother lamb.
Mary found another lamb,
Better than the first.

She’s very proud of this addition. What a miserable sad ending the English version has. Hers is so much sunnier.
I let them stay up. The story of my fatherhood has been that of a long strategic retreat from the systems I hoped to impose. Tristam Shandy is another book that must remain largely incomprehensible to the Italian spirit). But then my attitude to the fisco hasn’t remained as solid asit was either. If my children are inevitably acquiring an Italian education, they force me to acquire one, too. At least up to a point. And when I protest that there’s no point having rules unless they’re enforced, inventing a bedtime without imposing it, Rita says complacently, ‘Why don’t we sit out on the balcony a bit and have a drink?’ So you sit there in the late twilight with a thin cloud cover veiling the moon, a light breeze stirring the cherry blossom and a swelling chorus of frogs croaking their way to the pools at the bottom of the valley. And your wife says: ‘Miserable weather, non è vero?