November 18, 2009 | Italian

Little Italy, Manhattan

I take a field trip to Little Italy.

This morning I tried the flashcards again. More of them are sticking, but at this point I’m not moving them into the done box until I get them right several times in a row. Certain ones I get wrong over and over and over again.

In the afternoon I went off for a field trip to Little Italy in Lower Manhattan. There is not all that much left to Little Italy; very few people actually live there now, I learned, and Chinatown has taken over blocks that were once Italian. I have been to this neighborhood before, but only a handful of times.

A Street in Little Italy

Italian American Museum, Little Italy

I started my tour with the Italian-American Museum of New York. The museum was tiny, but staffed with enthusiastic people. One of them was a man who is probably in his late twenties. He is, I was surprised to learn, a first-generation Italian-American; his father left school in Italy in third grade to be a farmer, and his grandmother barely speaks English.

The museum building used to house a bank, and the museum has, among other things, old bank correspondence, receipts, money, typewriters, safes, etc. I was pleased to find that I understood quite a lot of the Italian in the documents displayed, as well as in the introductory film clip they showed.

While I was there, the museum employees corrected my false impression (oops) that all Italians could be understood by all other Italians. They told me about various dialects that are mutually incomprehensible. One Italian woman who works there said that her grandmother speaks dialect, but that she and her friends and her generation speak more standard Italian. I asked if that was because of television. She said yes, and also because of school.

Ferrara, Little Italy

After that I went to Ferrara, a nearby café, at the museum guy’s recommendation.

There I had the most heavenly latte I can remember having in my entire life. It was also the most costly latte I can remember having. As I drank it, I worked on future tense in my Mastering Italian Grammar book.

I asked my waitress if she spoke Italian, and she said no, but pointed out a waiter who did. So, on my way to the bathroom, I had a brief conversation with him about how to pronounce certain future tense verbs. I can’t figure out where the stress goes in some of them. He helped me, then complimented me on my accent, and I thanked him.

A few minutes later, as I was leaving, he said, “In bocca al lupo,” which confused me, because it sounded to me as though that meant “in the mouth of the wolf.” He said it translates as good luck.

I laughed and said (in English) that it sounded a little scary. He was very nice to me. I said grazie about fifty times. No matter what, I’ve really got that one word down.

While I was still in Little Italy, I noticed the Jovino gun shop and went in. I knew about this shop from several years ago, when I was doing genealogical research on my family. I think I figured out at the time that it was not owned by a relative, but I can’t remember for sure. You’d think I would remember something like that.

John Jovino Gun Shop, Little Italy

Anyway, my last name, Jovin, is a truncated version of Jovino, my step-great-grandfather’s surname, and I do in fact have Jovino relatives in this area. Now, a gun shop is not my natural habitat, so merely going into it was uncomfortable for me. Adding to my discomfort was the unfriendly police officer—or maybe he was a security guard?—parked in there, who appeared to be protecting the place from crazy violent people. I don’t look particularly violent, so I focused on looking non-crazy.

A voice said, “Can I help you?” I glanced at the officer-guard, but he wasn’t speaking, and I couldn’t see anyone else.

“Can I help you?” came the disembodied voice once again.

“I can’t see who’s speaking,” I said.

A man of Asian descent came out, and I told him my family name came from Jovino and asked if that was the surname of the people whose store it was. And he said something like yes, it’s a big family, but he didn’t know whether they still owned the store. It was clear that no one was remotely interested in talking to me, so I left the shop, and the guns, behind.

Back at home, I wrote to the Italian consulate seeking unpaid Italian-related work opportunities. So far none of the other places I’ve tried have worked out, unfortunately. I also wrote to the John D. Calandra Italian American Institute, whose website states, “The overall purpose of the John D. Calandra Italian American Institute is basic to the central mission of The City University of New York. Italian-Americans represent the largest European ancestral group in New York State, New York City and at CUNY. Thus, the primary purpose of the Institute is to foster higher education among Italian-Americans.” I heard back from the institute by the end of the day: no opportunity for me, alas, since they use English there.

In the evening I took a six-mile walk in Central Park, by the end of which I had completed seven Pimsleur lessons for the day. Then I did more grammar. And more flashcards. Then I got too tired, even for Italian.

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