La Bella Lingua: My Love Affair with Italian, the World’s Most Enchanting Language, by Dianne Hales
Dianne Hales, journalist and health author, delves deep into the history, literature, art, and language of Italy in her new book, La Bella Lingua. In Hales’s own words, it’s “my love affair with Italian, the world’s most enchanting language.”
Having no actual Italian blood, Hales has truly become Italian with her many visits to Italy, her extensive research on all things Italian, and her near quarter century of studying the language. It all started back in 1983 when she ventured to Italy for the first time with merely one Italian phrase in her lexicon, “Mi dispiace non parlo Italiano” (I’m sorry I do not speak Italian). The angst of not knowing the language and the feeling of not wanting to miss any of the goings on around her are what drove her to begin learning Italian.
She tells a story in La Bella Lingua of one of her first Italian lessons where her Italian-born instructor began the lesson with teaching her the sentence, “I am going into the corridor to smoke a cigarette.” Hales herself is not a smoker and found this phrase a bit impractical. Changing the subject, she proceeded to ask her instructor what she missed most about Italy. The instructor responded, “La piazza,” and then added, “La domenica” (Sundays). Sundays were the days when she would go to “Mamma’s.” This conversation ended in tears of nostalgia and soon thereafter her instructor moved back to Italy, proving to Hales even more that Italy is truly something special.
Hales’s Italian lessons continued with Francesca Gaspari, the director of the ItaLingua Institute on Market Street (which has just been nominated to the San Francisco Chronicle’s “Best of the Bay Area” in the Language Schools category). Here she was exposed to Italian love, life, opera, film, and history and was simply intrigued by Italian words. Learning to converse and write in Italian became a sheer pleasure.
In a meeting with her agent, Hales was asked what she wanted her next book to be about. Though she had not anticipated writing about her love of Italy, her agent recognized how she lit up with just a mention of it; Italy had become her passion.
With this idea becoming a reality, about five years ago Hales met with the then-director of the Istituto Italiano di Cultura in San Francisco. She was welcomed with open arms and surrounded by many willing and helping hands to assist with her journey.
Hales began learning to write formal letters while diving even deeper into studying the language. She wrote to linguists in Italy explaining her book proposal, and she was received very well.
On a visit to Florence, Hales went to the Società Dante Alighieri and met with a language teacher. This teacher spoke no English and Hales spent much time transcribing the tape recordings of her meeting. With this she arrived at what would become the concept of La Bella Lingua: following Italian history through opera, art, cuisine, love, and even curse words. In essence, a biography of Italy.
One necessary ingredient of studying anything Italian is the often-dreaded Dante. Hales, like many others, had avoided his study, thinking the task much too daunting. After mustering up the courage and will, she purchased an English translation of The Divine Comedy and became immediately enraptured. And so began her real immersion into Italian culture.
During the research process for La Bella Lingua, Hales was in Italy on three separate occasions, four months marking her longest stint. Through this immersion and in addition to her research, she learned many valuable life lessons from those she considers her most valuable resource, the Italian people. Italians taught Hales the importance of presenting oneself, whether through the way one looks or the way one speaks, and she found this to be true throughout the history of their country.
After uncovering layers and layers of Italian history, some have said Hales may know even more about Italy than Italians. An Italian once told her that one of the most important lessons she has taken away from her research is the ability to look at the world through Italian eyes.
In reading La Bella Lingua, even though it is from a nonnative speaker’s perspective on everything Italian, Hales really has captured the world through Italian eyes.
Whether you are studying Italian, are planning a trip to Italy, or are simply in love with Italy (as many people are), La Bella Lingua will prove to be a real asset to your collection of Italian books and undoubtedly have you dreaming of Italy.
La Bella Lingua: My Love Affair with Italian, the World’s Most Enchanting Language, by Dianne Hales (Broadway Books, $24.95).