Cops and salsa

Adventures in raising bicultural children

Elizabeth Petrosian
July 12, 2012

When you call a foreign country home and summer rolls around and you find yourself planning a vacation to the old place you used to call home, you realize how strange your life has become. You are now, in many ways, a tourist in your own land. You find yourself gawking like a bumpkin at utter commonplaces-at the colossal dental hygiene aisle in Safeway, say. It's especially weird when you have children who straddle both cultures, in my case children who speak perfect Florentine-wherein c's morph into h's and all that-and who also speak perfect English (well, near-perfect American, at any rate). Children have an uncanny way of demonstrating that, while they don't quite fit in like born-and-bred Little Leaguers, geographical borders are indeed fluid things.


Any trip back to the States, then, is fun and educational in many aspects, but as an opportunity for language enrichment, it's the cat's pajamas. My kids pick up all manner of essential American slang, proving they can adapt in no time. For instance, once when my Italian husband was gleefully doing 85 in a 65 mph zone in a borrowed extended-cab pick-up, I hissed, ‘Slow down for Chrissake! American cops aren't like Italian cops-here they actually pull people over for speeding and give them ginormous tickets!' (And I needed all funds available for mega-shopping at Target). A little voice piped up from the back seat: ‘Mommy, what are cops?'

A mere hour of American television provides a pirate's hoard of little nuggets of linguistic treasure, usually requiring urgent explication: ‘What's a dufus?' ‘What's a geek?' ‘What's a pimp?' (Ok, time to change channels).


Of course, many of their shiny new words have to do with food and certain aspects of the culture that we just don't come across here in Florence. Like kiteboarding-something apparently everybody in Portland, Oregon, does. Or IPA-something apparently everybody in Portland, Oregon, drinks. The wonderful world of Mexican food needed in-depth tutorials for my two intrepid travelers: extended exegesis of tortillas, enchiladas, chile rellenos, tamales, guacamole (ah, to be a kid again and discover this ambrosia for the very first time!) and salsa.

‘Is salsa like tomato sauce, Mommy?' ‘No, not exactly. It's a kind of tomato, onion and chili pepper dip you usually eat with tortilla chips.' ‘What's a dip?' ‘You know, something you, er, plunge something into, like a pinzimonio, only not with olive oil and raw vegetables but this kind of tomatoey stuff in which you place triangular corn chips and to which it adheres.' Little brows furrowed. I could see the cultural lesson was spiraling out of control.


One thing you have to remember is that kids are delightful little sponges when it comes to language. When you least expect-or desire it-they're soaking up words like a drunkard soaks up carbohydrates. One night, after we were sure the kids were asleep, we watched a few episodes of Family Guy with friends. I don't really remember what the premise of each was-it seemed like just a lot of pre-apocalyptic, cynical American humor involving farting and Chinese food-but the next morning my fresh-faced, cherub-cheeked offspring greeted me with the maniacal laughter of two feral hyenas and the words of Brian, the show's anthropomorphic dog: ‘Right now, all I can smell is your !' And they kept on chanting this colorful and apparently indelible phrase like some lunatic mantra for the rest of the trip, much to my chagrin. (This charming bit of acquired Americana has an insidious way of cropping up to this very day, here in Florence, usually in the most unexpected and embarrassing moments).

So, as we depart once again for her richly colloquial and star-spangled shores, I say, heartily, ‘Bless you, America! Give us your idioms, your jargon, your rainbow lexicon yearning to breathe free. And pass the salsa.'



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