We Speak Italian

Roberto is Italian, it doesn’t take an Einstein to see that. His surname is Mariani. One day he flunked his diploma di maturita exams, didn’t enter university and didn’t become a lawyer. Moreover, he didn’t become a doctor, a teacher, an engineer, a journalist, nor a member of several other skilled professions whose Italian names sound like music. In Italian, as everyone knows, anything sounds like music. Even if you were to say ‘Roberto earns fuck-all’, it would still sound beautiful (the o’s are not diphthongised): Roberto non guadagna un cazzo.

Despite the fact that it wouldn’t be quite true. Half a year ago Roberto came back from the army and immediately found a job as a shop-assistant at a household appliances shop. Not much, but money nevertheless, and euros at that. For four months he walked around in a white shirt among sparkling refrigerators, and then the summer came. As Evgeny Grishkovets put it, there’s a thing about summer… One has to spend it. On the one hand, if you’re already in Italy, you don’t seem to need to go anywhere. But that’s a hopelessly Russian take on the issue. Of course the homeland palls on the Italians. The homeland palls even on the Norwegians, who have the highest standard of living in the world.

While still surrounded by refrigerators, Roberto read a translation of a fab British novel about holidaying in Ibiza. The novel described how thousands of cool young men and women drink alcoholic beverages, swallow harmless narcotic substances and spend all their time being sexually promiscuous, but always with a condom on. Afterwards, they go home, renewed. If you’re twenty-one and yet this picture hasn’t put you in a dreamy mood, you should get yourself seen to.

Roberto does not need seeing to because he had daydreams every working day and every day off. And so the summer came, but it didn’t bring any money with it. Roberto realised that he wasn’t yet up for Ibiza, at least not as a cool young holiday-maker. But you know, there are always other options. Even I, for instance, once got to work as a physical education instructor at a children’s summer camp in Anapa, on the Black Sea. The days were spent acting, and the nights living my life to the full. Without any narcotic substances though. So you see, Roberto also immediately thought of going to Ibiza as a cool young barman or lifeguard.

Enterprises of great pith and moment lose the name of action not only because of the pale cast of thought but sometimes also due to logistical difficulties. Especially if there’s an alternative without difficulties. A friend of Roberto’s, for example, has an uncle once removed who lives in Crete. Lives there and has five restaurants called Zorba, one called Zorba The Greek, and two taverns called Zorba’s Dance. As well as a Russian restaurant called Troika in Iraklio. And a few summer bars in tourist towns along the coast into the bargain.

Among others, in Malia. Malia is an embankment and a street. There are no people there, only tourists. Especially in the summer. The buildings are placed along the street in the following pattern: hotel – bar / restaurant – jewellery shop – souvenir shop – disco – hotel – bar / restaurant – jewellery shop and so on for 2 kilometres. The bar where Roberto works is permanently occupied by English people. They watch football and drink. So tonight, for instance, Fulham is playing, brace yourselves, MAAAAN!!!!!! UNAAAAAITED!!! The English people are young, not very young, noisy, some have only just been swimming – in shorts and T-shirts with the Phaistos Disk on them. So they’re just watching the game like that, soaking wet. Roberto has gone deaf, he’s sweating and just for the sake of variety rooting for Fulham, who quite unexpectedly win. Utter pandemonium breaks out while Microsoft Word informs me that the word “pandemonium” doesn’t exist in the Russian language, but we’ll just let it exist for the time being. Nice word.

The English people run out into the street, block it spontaneously and rock a passing green bus, by way of expressing their joy. Roberto and Maurizio, an additional Italian, leave the bar counter for a while. They stand in the door and admire the English people’s actions.

At two in the morning Roberto pours the last pint. To be honest, he’s really tired, but now Maurizio and he are going to go for a swim in the night sea, have a cold beach shower and bump into two girls on the way back. When I say «bump», I mean it quite literally because Maurizio was turning a corner and walked into something soft, long-haired and nice-smelling, that is to say into Veronika. Meanwhile, the other girl’s name is Lena. She also smells very nice (of summer, youth, red wine from a copper carafe, the sea and some fairly decent cosmetics), except her hair is a bit shorter and she’s not quite as soft. That’s because Veronika could do with a diet or something, it wouldn’t hurt her at all.

Here it should be noted that the girls are both eighteen and the one of greater importance to us is Lena. If Lena buys a Ronan Keating CD, Veronika goes to a nearby shopping centre and buys herself one right away, although she tries not to publicise that too much. As for boys, Lena also likes them first, not very long, and only then do they go on to be liked by Veronika. Even though they are not especially keen on Veronika. This is sad but inevitable, for not only is Lena slimmer but she’s also prettier and smarter, and she only listens to British teenage pop because there’s nothing criminal about listening to it, even if you have always believed otherwise. Criminal is all about completely different things.

Next. Now it’s August, and Lena and Veronika have their first year of the Law Faculty behind them. If Lena (and, likewise, Veronika) had been born about seven years earlier, she could have chanced to like the song by the St. Petersburg band Spleen about a girl, a world away from the people, who went out naked onto the stairs and into the street, wanted to hang herself, but the end-of-term exams and university in general got in the way. Lena would never go out naked onto the stairs, let alone into the street, but she too has wealthy parents, a difficult personality and a premature weariness of life. Throughout her first year, especially during the winter, when the hours of daylight are so few, Lena was haunted by depression, and as a result there was a twofold increase in the number of young men who fell in love with her compared to the same period of the previous year. When Lena is depressed, she stares intensely somewhere to the left, batting her eyelashes, and gives monosyllabic answers. All of which really becomes her, take my word for it.

Lena’s parents and Veronika’s parents flew to the Antilles and to Kusadasi, respectively. The girls, however, have already come of age according to Russian Law; they’ve even got the right to vote. A pretty useless right to have in Russia, but that’s just by the way. The girls didn’t fly with their parents; instead, as we have already realised, they flew to Crete.

You will remember that Maurizio bumped into Veronika, so it was quite natural that a mutual liking soon developed between the two of them. But first they introduced themselves, of course. Roberto and Lena introduced themselves to keep up the team spirit. The Italians weren’t working the following night, so everyone met up before sunset and went to one of the beach discos. There Roberto offered Lena a cigarette, but she pulled a face and said that she didn’t smoke. Maurizio and Veronika, on the other hand, each smoked three cigarettes right away, had a drink, did some dancing and soon moved on to kissing. Veronika, by the way, always maintains that she only smokes for the sake of her figure; however, as this is the only thing she ever does for the sake of her figure, it has no effect on her figure whatsoever.

The significant difference between Lena’s personality and Veronika’s was made especially clear that night. I mean, Roberto failed to just sort of get down to it and conquer Lena’s central nervous system right away (see above about her difficult personality, weariness etc.). He didn’t fail only about an hour and a half later, when Lena’s CNS had begun to relinquish control to a more peripheral system. Fish, as the saying goes, rot from the head, but a woman is no fish, let me tell you. A woman is by far and large the crown of evolution, there’s no wool you could pull over her eyes, but inside every woman there’s a fifth column which is traditionally called “heart”. This is why it’s no use trying to conquer a woman from the head. This truth is so ancient that even Roberto is aware of it. At least intuitively.

Two shifts later (Tottenham – Arsenal 1 : 2; Chelsea – Brighton 3 : 0), all four had another night, but this time mostly in different places. Veronika and Maurizio first went back to the hotel and then returned to the disco. Not too bad, on the whole, but Roberto and Lena put in a far more romantic night. Roberto had hired a moped, so they left Malia and rode eastwards. Not too far, about five kilometres. There’s an archaeological site there, of a Minoan city from which thirty-five hundred years ago something used to be shipped by donkey to Knossos. There’s a fence around the site, of course, and even a roof above it, I’m mentioning it just by the way. And behind the site – if you ride on a bit further across the rocks and bushes, there’s an eroded rock shore and – still further to the right – the beach of some holiday camp. And exactly opposite the beach there’s a small island, I mean a rock, sticking out of the water. Lena and Roberto got undressed and started swimming towards the island, and please note that the surf is quite strong there, it was dark and there were loads of potentially dangerous jagged rocks everywhere. Lena kept shrieking loudly and many times was almost on the point of drowning; Roberto swam around in circles, scaring the life out of her.

As for the holiday camp, it was having an especially boisterous entertainment fit. There were people standing and dancing on the beach, there was music, there was an illuminated yacht rocking from side to side in the harbour. And so, when Roberto and Lena, breathless from all the swimming and laughing, were only just beginning to clamber onto the jagged island, there suddenly were fireworks going off all across it. I’m not making anything up, it really honestly happened just like that, you can check with the holiday camp – they do that every year, several times. The fireworks soared very beautifully into the Aegean sky above the Aegean Sea. I deliberately won’t write anything more effusive than “very beautifully”, for if you don’t realise how beautiful this seemed to Lena, then what on earth do you realise?

When the fireworks died down, Lena and Roberto climbed onto the top of the island and discovered there a group of young people, who poured them some grape vodka and gave them some cigarettes. Later, they sat on the sharp rocks, with their backs to Crete, Lena smoked, coughed, and Roberto’s kisses tickled her neck.

Lena, as you understand, will have fairly distinct recollections of that night for the rest of her life.

But let us be transported to the inevitable autumn. Lena and Veronika are hanging out at Veronika’s, looking out of the window and smoking. Veronika’s got a very nice flat, which makes the city behind the window appear even less bearable. Today’s first and fourth university lessons were skipped due to depression. A ballad performed by Eros Ramazotti is on the stereo. There is some ineptly made coffee on the table. Half an hour later Lena gets up and goes to her Italian class.

‘Allora… Allora… Ti sono divertito… oops, ti sei divertito… oops, right, you’re feminine, so… Ti sei divertita in vacanza?’ the girl who’s her deskmate asks her.

(In complete accordance with the methodology of foreign language teaching, teacher-student work is now being followed up by further practice in pairs.)

‘Si,’ Lena says. ‘Ha fatto caldo tutto il tempo. Io e la mia amica andavamo in discoteca ogni sera. Abbiamo passato due settimane stupende. What else is there?..’

This year, besides the depression and university, she’s got cigarettes and Italian. She only smokes twice a week, at Veronika’s, so the memories don’t lose their edge. Also twice a week, she goes to her Italian class. When she’s studying Italian, she feels like she’s doing something, like she’s doing everything she possibly can. Inaction would be unbearable. Roberto has stopped writing back, but she is still planning to go to Italy in April. I’m authorized to tell you that she won’t go to Italy, either in April or any time in the next twelve years. Moreover, she will quit her Italian course in late February and soon forget almost everything she has learnt.

It is Misha who will go to Italy.

Misha’s surname is Ivanov. This is not a stereotype or my lack of imagination, there are actually plenty of Ivanovs, and Misha is one of them. Classical Russian literature would describe him as a “handsome but somewhat restless young gentleman with exceptionally lively eyes and a big head, which was in constant motion, as though eager to flee his long thin neck”. (When penned in the early XXI century, writing of this kind makes me cringe, hence the very simple trick.)

When Misha first asked Lena a question, she gave a monosyllabic answer, looking somewhere to the left. She was depressed. On the other hand, Misha wasn’t really expecting a more elaborate reply because what he asked was ‘Is your appointment with me?’, and so what he heard was ‘no’. Misha is studying design and working as a hairdresser. The conversation took place in a beauty salon and last autumn.

At the time, Lena’s permanent hairdresser was someone else. Misha hardly ever saw Lena, but by spring fate took pity on him, and Lena’s hairdresser quit in order to become a housewife (named Katya). Misha persuaded Katya to recommend him to Lena; I do hope it isn’t too confusing. Talking of Misha, there were (and still are) many things he’s keen on, for instance, ancient history and 3D modeling. Also, Misha has had two and a half girlfriends (to be more precise, two and two thirds, because he did date the fraction one for nearly three months, and one night everything just about happened; all things considered, that counts as having had a girlfriend when you’re fifteen; now Misha’s twenty-two, by the way), and he was also keen on them, sometimes very much so.

But everything paled compared to the days on which he was cutting Lena’s hair, by appointment. Lena would normally come at half past four or at five. Since early morning, Misha would successively feel all the things which Antoine de Saint-Exupery has the tamed Fox feel while waiting for the Little Prince (and which seemed so incomprehensible and improbable to me when I was a kid). He got to work at three, and before Lena he would normally have time to make a mess of one to three clients’ hair as he was too happy and excited to engage in any activity requiring skill and attention. The strange thing was, the moment Lena arrived he would calm down and assume a vaguely condescending professional look; he would make carefully planned amusing comments and, on the whole, do an excellent job. That’s what it looked like to an onlooker, that is. Inside, of course, Misha would suffer agony with each uttered word and keep thinking that he couldn’t style hair to save his pathetic life.

The first thing Lena decided to do after returning from Crete was to have her hair cut. Roberto had once mentioned casually that he liked short hair. Lena entered the salon, sat in the chair and was reflected in the mirror. Lena’s face, in its turn, was still reflecting the fireworks on the jagged island, the dark Aegean sky, the numerous orgasms and the waxing void inside. If a beautiful woman’s face reflects things like that, any sort of resistance is pointless. One had better sit down right away and write an email starting with the words “I see it all – as an affront / you will perceive my sad confession…” I mean, begin by doing the stupidest thing of them all so one can’t possibly progress any further afterwards. And so one can just go and forget everything like a bad dream.

That’s how wise I am with the wisdom of hindsight. Misha was wise in the same manner. He invited Lena to a hairdressing contest in which he was participating and even got the third prize because she agreed to come. Then he invited her three more times to three other places. Then she stopped agreeing because, at their fourth meeting, Misha announced, his face shining, that he had also taken up Italian and that he was also planning to go to Italy in spring. At first Lena felt like smacking him. This was followed by quiet disgust. And by a feeling that she had been robbed of something precious, important and unique. Her enthusiasm for Italian (but not for Roberto and cigarettes) has since been waning and, as was stated above, will have petered out by the end of February.

Misha is continuing to study Italian almost every day. He’s also attending a language class (although a different one), twice a week, and on top of that he studies quite a lot at home. When he’s studying Italian, he feels like he’s doing something, like he’s doing everything he possibly can. Inaction would be unbearable. Lena stopped coming to his salon, and so he quit hairdressing and got a job with a company trading in upmarket bathroom equipment, but he will still go to Italy in late April, and for ten days he will speak Italian to waiters and shop-assistants, and after that he will come back, meet his future wife and then give Italian up forever before he gets to the word pietoso, the four forms of Congiuntivo and even to the conjugation of regular verbs in Passato Remoto.

It is Anya who will get that far.

Anya is very obviously unattractive, without any concessions and elaborations. Not ugly, but unattractive. She’s studying at the same university as Misha except he’s one year ahead. At one all-university event she even met him. She knows some of the girls in Misha’s class, and this sometimes allows her to be not very far from him. Anya likes going to university; she likes riding the metro, walking on the ice-covered tiles along the park fence, climbing the trodden stairs, strolling up and down the corridors during breaks. He can emerge from somewhere any minute. Although, unfortunately, he doesn’t show up at the university very often. Anya feels the bad old mix of love and hate towards the girls in his class. The love component is probably more pronounced. The only sad thing is that this is Misha’s final year.

Anya learnt that Misha has taken up Italian only a few days ago, and she hasn’t found time yet to enrol in an Italian class. But she’s already bought a relatively good self-study audio course and a grammar reference book. Right after New Year she will knuckle down and study. Inaction would be unbearable. Tellingly, for quite a long time she’s not going to let anyone know that she’s learning Italian. And she will never let Misha know.

In a year and a half she will be speaking fairly fluent Italian and easily translating Celentano’s songs for her mother. However, it won’t stop there at all. In another six months she will manage to get a job as a secretary at the Italian Consulate. Thanks to her job, she will meet Elio, a forty-year-old teacher of Russian and hopeless Russophile from Pisa. Gradually, their friendship will acquire a pre-nuptial nature. After the wedding Anya will move to Italy.

As for Roberto, for the rest of his life he will remember the Russian expressions ‘ya tebya lyublyu’ and ‘zhopa’, which he learned from Lena. It won’t get any further than that.





Special thanks to Megan Case for her kind proofreading.

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