The diverse group of two dozen men and women who gather on a recent January evening at Borders Books in Nassau Park could easily be mistaken for just another book club, or perhaps a support group of some kind. That is, until they begin to greet each other with musical cries of "Ciao!" and "Buona sera," and other phrases that my limited Italian language skills can’t keep up with.
For the next two hours the loosely formed group, whose members range in age from high school students to white-haired nonni (grandmas and grandpas), chats amiably, mostly in Italian but also in English, as it does each month.
The program, called Conversazione e Caffe — Conversation and Coffee — was initiated last year by Mercer County CIAO, acronym for the Community of Italian American Organizations. To the organizers’ astonishment, 60 people showed up for the very first session — some of whom spoke not a word of Italian — and as many as 90 have convened since then. The conversazioni have become so popular with members and with the general public that this year the group is holding two meetings each month, at Borders in Nassau Park and at St. Joachim’s Church in Trenton.
CIAO, based in Trenton, was formed nine years ago to champion the activities of about 20 Italian-American organizations in the area, says Barry Chiorello, an event planner who coordinates the conversazioni.
Chiorello gives credit to CIAO founding member Rose Nini, dean of corporate and community programs at Mercer County Community College, for recognizing a widespread desire in the Italian-American community for occasions to speak la bella lingua.
Yet even Nini didn’t expect the overwhelming response to the first conversazione, including interest from people who have no affiliation with CIAO and who speak little or no Italian. The group believes there is a resurgence of interest not only in the Italian language but in all aspects of Italian culture, including the perennial — food — as well as art, music, and movies.
While many who attend proudly lay claim to some Italian heritage, others — including those at the January meeting at Borders Books — make no such claims. They are simply in love with all things Italian, like the student from Mercer County Community College who takes a convoluted combination of public transportation just to get to every session.
The host for tonight’s conversation is Simone Marchesi, a native of Florence, Italy, who is finishing up his doctorate at Princeton University. Although he had led three previous conversazioni, Barry Chiorello briefly introduces him (in English), since there are always newcomers such as myself in the mix. Tall, lean, and dark-haired, with twinkling eyes and an easy smile, Marchesi tells us a little about himself (in Italian) and asks the group to share (in Italian if possible) where we live and what we do for a living.
Despite my Sicilian roots and dim memories of three years’ study of Italian in high school, I quickly resolve to be an observer and not a speaker. But Marchesi’s cheerful and easy manner quickly puts an end to any such notion. Each member of the conversazioni, without exception, speaks in Italian if possible or English if necessary.
One by one we learn that our group represents Trenton, Princeton, Princeton Junction, Lawrence, and Lawrenceville, as well as Florence, New Jersey, and Florence, Italy. By far the largest contingent, we learn, comes from Hamilton Township.
In addition to the mix of ages and geography, the group evinces every level of proficiency in Italian, from Chiorello, who claims to know only four or five words (not counting his ample vocabulary of delicious food words), to several people present who were born and raised in Italy. Some learned the language from their immigrant grandmothers who never learned to speak English. Others, like Tony Garofalo of Hamilton, are planning trips to Italy and are currently taking Italian at adult schools. "Half my family lives in Italy, yet I don’t even know them. As I get older I find I want to get back to my roots," he explains.
At first, just listening to others speak Italian takes every bit of my concentration. By the time my turn comes, I have rehearsed my answer over and over in my mind. I spit it out and am greeted with enthusiastic nods, even though I know it sounds like baby talk. ("Io scrivo per i giornali e le reviste." "I write for newspapers and magazines.")
Joe Barbera of Princeton Junction is one who makes a point of attending every session, despite a grueling daily commute to Brooklyn, for which he takes the 5:45 a.m. train. "I come for the community of it," he says. "I like to keep up with what the Italian population in the area is up to, how it’s developing, and what they’re talking about."
Vivian Pepe, the group member from "Firenze" (Florence) — New Jersey, that is — has been the secretary of CIAO for the last four years, and chairs its annual Carnevale dinner.
"I was invited to their first Seven Fishes Dinner and that was it," she explains. Pepe, who is a business mentor for the Trenton Business Assistance Corporation (TBAC), grew up on New York’s Lower East Side, the daughter of a Sicilian who had left in infancy. "When I was growing up, speaking Italian wasn’t encouraged. It wasn’t American," she says. "But with CIAO, it’s another thing — it’s a cultural thing.
"I think everyone should speak more than one language. We’re such a diverse culture, and language is one way to have an understanding of each other," she says. Pepe’s own experience is typical of many in the conversazioni, and helps explain its unprecedented popularity. "For those of us who can’t speak the language, it’s still a way to be a part of it, part of the culture." She has plans to visit Italy this spring, primarily her father’s island of Sicily.
Simone Marchesi, meantime, is speaking to the group in Italian, being sure to make eye contact with each person and using lots of hand gestures as visual aids for those of us with limited vocabulary. And if the person he is addressing appears totally lost, he switches to English. Remarkably, he remembers the skill levels of those who have attended before, and admonishes them for using English ("italiano, per favore!") if he thinks they are capable of responding in his native tongue.
When the woman next to me tells Marchesi she thinks it is impossible to learn a new language after a certain age, he begs to differ. "There are two ways in which you can and will always learn a language: when everyone around you is speaking a language you don’t understand, and when you fall in love with someone who speaks that language," he says, wisely.
Both Marchesi and his wife, Ilaria, who is in the Classics department at Rutgers University, are currently seeking jobs at universities in the U.S. It is the looming possibility that the couple could find themselves with a long-distance marriage that prompts the evening’s icebreaker subject: commuting.
Eventually talk switches to relationships with in-laws and Marchesi shares — in Italian, of course — that he is spoiled by his in-laws; he knows this because he is the only person allowed to smoke in their house. From there, the subject switches to pets (e.g., who has a gatto and who a cane or two).
Meanwhile, Marchesi bounces up and down along the table, interweaving himself into conversations, checking to make sure everyone is participating. He is charming and effective and clearly knows how to engage even the most reticent among us in a non-threatening way.
When he leaves our end of the table, he puts us in the capable hands of a perky young woman with short-cropped black hair. She is Anna Maria Carella of Mercerville, a mother of four, ages two to eight, who studied for a year at the University of Florence. She describes herself to the group as a stay-at-home mom, but, in fact, for the last six years she and her husband have owned and operated a small business in the Lawrence Shopping Center — Paul’s Step by Step, which sells children’s clothing imported from Italy.
Carella, who majored in Italian at Rosemont College in Pennsylvania, is pleased that she gets to use her Italian in conducting her business. "See," she says, "you never know when and how it will be useful." Attending the CIAO conversations is another way of getting to use the language she loves.
Toward the end of the evening my group finds out that I write restaurant reviews, so we begin to discuss our favorite Italian restaurants in the area. (Marchesi diplomatically tells us he does not go to Italian restaurants in the U.S.; he prefers its Indian and Thai restaurants, the latter being his favorite.)
During the conversation I notice, to my astonishment, that parlo-ing italiano is coming much easier and more naturally to me — after a mere 90 minutes. I also note how much I love just listening to the musical quality of it all.
When the evening breaks up, Barry Chiorello takes stock. "This was a good group," he says, "very active, very engaged. We are so lucky to have Simone. It was a good mix of those who are fluent and those who are not so fluent." He also gives credit to Borders for donating space in its cafe, and is pleased that the store even lists "Conversazione e Caffe" dates in its newsletter.
By now, I already know I’ll be back next month.
Conversazione e Caffe, Mercer County CIAO, 609-695-5007. Italian language discussion group hosted by Simone Marchesi. Free; no reservations are required. Sessions start at 7 p.m. and run to 8:30 p.m.
At Borders Books, 601 Nassau Park. Wednesday, February 27; March 27; April 24.
At St. Joachim’s Church, 14 Butler Street, Trenton. Wednesday, March 13; April 10.