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An Italian Education

Writers are always being asked to repeat themselves. I automatically say no. But about a year after declining to write a second Italian Neighbours, I was lying at the beach at Pescara, underneath our sunshade, listening to the kids fooling around and above all the woman under the next sunshade giving extraordinary instructions to her little boy, as for example, ‘Alberto, don’t sweat! No you can’t go in the sea till eleven, it’s still too cold, go and see your cousin in row 3 number 52’ etc. etc. and it occurred to me that one might write a book about how kids grow up in Italy, about how they become Italians, since clearly nationality isn’t a genetic thing, but a sort of general conditioning, a group destiny, something we do together and pass on willy nilly. I could take the reader from the mad ‘visione del bambino’ when nurse holds up the newborn to an adoring crowd the other side of a glass screen at the hospital, through the pink and blue rosettes, the initiation to marble floors and stringy pasta, right through the bizarre rhetoric of church and school functions, the bureaucracy and hedonism of Adriatic beaches (that geometry of sunshades), all the things, in short, that go to form a shared background.

Setting to work, I realised at once how important language was, and above all, everything that is untranslatable, the little things kids say, or that are said to them, that tilt the mind in a certain direction, perhaps bewildering to a foreigner. So I tried to set the book up in such a way that each chapter allowed you to savour some special corner of the language through an anecdote, and experience. That, together with a look at the way kids are taught at school, was the serious side of the book. But really (or maybe this is even more serious), I’d found a way to write about the children, my foreign children (but all kids are foreigners) without being twee, found an excuse for spending hours and hours thinking about them in an unsentimental way. The book was a great pleasure to write. When they asked me for another I said no. And this time I still haven’t found a reason for changing my mind …