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Ciao, Madame

Italian for the compulsive

by Stephanie Piper

I page hopelessly through my grammar book, searching for clues to the past imperfect tense. "Italian in 32 Lessons," the title promises. Limping towards lesson 3, I've mastered "please," "thank you," and "I like walnut cake."

Somehow I feel this will not be enough.

We're off to Tuscany in April on a long-dreamed-of second honeymoon. We have maps and guidebooks and reservations at 15th-century monasteries. We have the names of unforgettable restaurants nestled in vineyards and directions to Etruscan ruins.

What we don't have is Italian. Not much, anyway. My traveling companion insists that a few arias from Cosi Fan Tutti are all we need.

I have more exacting standards. I refuse to be the sit-com American tourist, gesturing frantically as I try to explain how the rental (la macchina) collided with the ox cart.

I used to be good at languages. I used to gobble up foreign words and phrases like a Berlitz poster girl. I also used to be 13 and weigh 90 pounds.

And I used to be the pupil of Madame Perot.

Several decades and countless brain cells ago, I learned French from a small, terrifying woman named Juliette Perot. The widow of a Resistance hero, she dressed in perpetual mourning for her slain husband. She wore black suits with mauve chiffon scarves knotted at her throat, an old-fashioned watch pinned to her lapel. The mantle of teacher hung heavily on her frail shoulders, and she did not suffer fools, slackers, or schoolgirls with sloppy accents gladly.

There was nothing cozy or conversational about French class with Madame Perot. You learned 10 vocabulary words and two verbs every night. You learned them perfectly, because if you did not learn them perfectly, and you were called to the board to produce them, you would be treated to Madame's double-barreled stare of scorn and incredulity.

"Are you stupid," she would rap out in staccato French, "or merely lazy?"

There really wasn't a good answer to that question.

It sounds daunting, a kind of Gallic boot camp designed to inspire a life-long hatred of foreign language study. Strangely, it had the opposite effect. The liquid "R", the elusive subjunctive, became the pearls of great price I longed to possess. To know them was to inhabit the uncompromising world of Madame Perot, a world of precision, certainty, and the harmonious accord of subject and verb.

When grammar torture was over for the day, she would read to us from Verlaine or Rimbaud. All of France seemed distilled in those fluid cadences, calling to me across an ocean of irregular verbs. Each grinding drill, each memorized conjugation brought me closer. One day I would stroll through the Tuileries, chatting like a native speaker. One day I would order une Creme at a cafe in St. Germain des Pres, and no one would ever guess that I was from Chappaqua, New York.

My crash course in Italian can't hold a candle to five years with Madame, I know. And why the urgency? Even for a clueless American, the Tuscan hills will still bask in the clear April light. The ancient villages will beckon from their craggy heights. The Piero della Francescas and Giottos will still gleam on the dim church walls, and the white beans will taste the same whether I know they're called fagioli or not.

But Madame Perot haunts my dreams. Are you stupid, she asks, framed in the archway of a Renaissance palazzo, or merely lazy? I reach for the book. Her antique watch flashes on a black lapel. Eleven weeks and counting.


January 25, 2001 * Vol. 11, No. 4
© 2001 Metro Pulse