I never learned Italian, and I sometimes wish I had. It is, I think, a language of song, or at least, it is always in songs and music that I associated this romance language.
A week or so ago, Mary invited me to a Christmas event that was being held in a local club, about a mile away. And as I never refuse invitations from adorable women, that was an appointment that went straight into my diary. When the Wednesday came, I put my walking shoes on and set off into the night air, cold and frosty under an icy black sky. Mary met me just after I arrived, and introduced me to some people she thought I’d make a good team member with during the quiz scheduled for later in the evening. With a mix of English, Scottish, and Italian, our team name had to be Cosmopolitan.
George was pretty hot on historical topics, I figured I’d be able to field the science and nature type questions, Anna proved good in the geography and politics, and between us, we reckoned we’d be able to make a strong showing during the music rounds. Anna’s elderly father was silent. She whispered to me, “He used to like to socialise, but now he’s, you know, a little …” and she pointed to her head. Age was beginning to tell. But Anna knew that keeping her father involved in socialising with other people would help keep his mind active. “Now, when I take him out, he wants to go home. But he is happy to be here.” Although Anna had lived here many years, it was obvious that great grandfather was still immersed in the Old Country, and sat quietly, his hands resting together on his walking stick and his hat still perched squarely on his head.
When she started the quiz, Sue told us the questions would be easy. Well, they were for those I knew the answers to, but I have to differ on the level of sophistication that was required for some of the mathematical questions. (OK then, at the end of the twelve days of Christmas, how many gifts did my true love give to me?)
There was, in the background, a little light music, played live (oh, do keep music live), from an able musician with a trumpet and a black hat (he had the black hat, not the trumpet), and a musician with an accordion in a broad white hat (same clarification). Tony was, it didn’t take long to determine, something of a virtuoso on the squeezebox, and given the slightest encouragement, would dazzle with magical and insanely fast fingerwork on the keyboard. And just how do they know which of the scores and scores of tiny chord buttons to push without ever looking?
On Sue’s signal, Tony played the first tune. I recognised it straight away and Anna’s eyes twinkled to show that she knew it too. Volare! One down, four to go. Tune number two. I recognised it as instantly as Volare, but could not put a name to it, or even a word from the lyrics. Anna caught my attention. “Tequila”, she said, “it’s called Tequila”. Two down.
When Tony started the third, I began to detect a theme. As before, I knew the tune, and could not get the words to surface, and even Anna had it only on the tip of her tongue, so that I feared we’d miss it before the next piece started. Then Anna snapped her fingers and began to sing as some of the words suddenly came back to her …
#Jammo, jammo ‘ncoppa, jammo ja,
#Jammo, jammo ‘ncoppa, jammo ja!
Now I remembered! And in an instant, I was back with Frances on a trip many years ago to the Amalfi Coast, in a little theatre in Sorrento listening to an evening of Neapolitan music and song, on a warm Mediterranean evening. The sound was infectious, and now, as then, there was a tingling of the blood, a quickening of the pulse, an elation of the spirit. And I could hear the words all over again from that night.
#’ncoppa jammo ja,
Three down, two to go.
Number four. Only two notes played, and Anna had it instantly. “Like the first! Like the first!” she urged. I didn’t get it. It didn’t sound at all like Volare. “Like the first!” she said again, “Come Prima! Come Prima!” I thrust the answer sheet at her and she scribbled the answer. Ah, Come Prima, that’s what it’s called. Like the first time.
With tune number five, the accordionist started to play and as he played, he strode towards us, his intention clear. He was going to serenade Anna. Playing a long opening chord he knelt flamboyantly before her, and began to play. You could tell he was having to restrain himself from breaking into song and giving the answer away, but everyone already knew it and Anna began to sing … “Arrivederci Roma”. There was definitely an Italian Connexion going on here. Anna looked up at me and twinkled.
“The accordionist, he’s-a my son!”
Ah, of course. Tony. Antonio. And I’m with all the Italians, listening to Italian music in the quiz, played by the accordionist from Italy. And I’m sitting opposite his mother.
Time came to go home. I leaned over to shake hands with Anna, and wish her a Merry Christmas and a Happy New year. Taking my hand, she grinned and said something to me I didn’t catch. She said it again. Then she said it a third time, and this time with a look that said ‘You’re not just to listen, you’re to say after me’. She was teaching me to say something in Italian, and I instinctively knew what it would be. I tried to repeat it.
— Bonataly felich ana.
No, not quite, said ‘the look’.
— Bon atally felichy nova.
Not much better, try again after me, ‘the look’ continued. Third time lucky.
— Buon natale e felice anno nuovo!
The smile told me I’d got it at last. As she turned to leave, she helped Great Granddad to his feet. Catching his eye, I leaned over and held out my hand, and wished him “Buon Natale e Felice Anno Nuovo.”
The old man stopped, took my hand, and said nothing, but looked straight into my eyes and the brightest beaming smile crossed his face, and he nodded. I could tell from the wry smile on her face that this had been Anna’s purpose, and I had passed the test.
I wrapped up and stepped out into the chill night. The road ahead was empty, and the frosted grass crunched under foot as I walked the last mile home. High over the horizon, Orion climbed into the black sky, huge and silent. I remembered the first time I ever saw Orion. It was fifty years ago, and I was walking home from the house of my old schoolboy friend Lawrence Winfield, about a mile away. On the way, I’d turned to look back, and there it was, high in the near-midnight sky over his house. Here, fifty years on, on this near-midnight road, there was the Hunter again, sword in hand and the great giant stars Rigel and Betelgeuse. Come Prima.
Antonio’s tunes were still buzzing in my head, and among them, one that was new the first Christmas with Frances, in 1972.
#So this is Christmas,
#And what have you done,
#Another year over
#And a new one just begun
I’d never cared for it at the time, but somehow, over the years, it became a kind of constant, and each time I’d hear it, wherever we were living, I’d remember that first Christmas, in her little flat in Paisley. That was forty Christmasses ago, and this is the second Christmas without her. Yet for all we are without her, there is something of her with me all the time. Not just the lock of her hair that is always with me wherever I go, but the spirit of her, the thousands of memories that are stirred afresh every day. For the rest of the walk home, I found myself remembering that first Christmas, with all the Christmasses that followed, and smiling again. Come Prima.
Buon Natale, e Felice Anno Nuovo.