“Mangiato Tutto!” exclaimed a little blond-haired boy as he flipped his plastic yellow plate over and slapped it on the table with pride. He then proceeded to snatch the plate of a younger, more timid boy seated across from him. He dumped his neighbor’s uneaten pasta shells on the tabletop. Then, with his hands behind his back like an Apple Bobber, he put his face to the table to consume the shells, licking clean the olive oil residue that was left behind. The boy whose food was taken looked on with an expression I know too well. This food thievery happens to me on a nightly basis when Kevin’s fork sneaks onto my plate five seconds after we’ve started eating because his serving is already gone. The pasta-deprived observer looked surprised, forlorn, and impressed simultaneously as his older playmate slurped up the remaining contents of his lunch from the table top. Just another pranzo spent in the company of toddlers…
When I started volunteering at the day care in Luserna, I felt like I was walking into alien territory. Babies, let alone Italian ones, were unfamiliar creatures and so I entered the play area as one would a distant planet… cautiously, reservedly. I did not want to unsettle the controlled chaos of the playscape, a colorful spread of toys amongst a collection of chubby-cheeked, runny-nosed mini humans. No fewer than 14 pairs of eyes registered the presence of their new visitor before returning to their respective agendas. It was a continuum of human development in the first 36 months of life captured in one room, and I was coincidentally fascinated and terrified.
In previous encounters with babies in this age group, I was always intrigued by their adorableness. But beyond oohing and ahhing on their behalf, I simply didn’t know what to do with them. I held them, and pretended I was comfortable doing so until my cover was inevitably blown when the baby sensed my deceit and started crying in response. I wasn’t overly concerned by my confusion on the baby front. I reasoned that secret codes to understanding their needs and wants were distributed exclusively to members of Club Motherhood. I am not a member, and so I dismissed my bewilderment as a normal affinity to the little bundles of joy. But even considering this rationality, my apparent lack of baby skills was somewhat baffling. I had endured 25 years of exposure to social norms for females in society. I had spent 18 years under the same roof as a Super Mom. Despite it all, my “motherly instincts” seemed about as developed as my criminal ones. And anyone whose read about the Rosemary incident knows that isn’t saying a lot.
Considering I’m a high school teacher, there is a definite inconsistency here. How is it that a classroom of thirty teenagers is less intimidating than a circle of a dozen waddling babies? How can I instinctively interpret complex emotions of my students, but cannot distinguish between the smaller spectrum of basic emotional needs maintained by a baby? I think it all comes down to two factors. The first is fragility. Babies are physically helpless. So, I’m not going to deny that the fear of accidentally hurting one is an inhibitor to my growth in the baby-whisperer department. The second factor is relatability. Though I wasn’t a melo-dramatic adolescent myself, I can atleast empathize with a teen that has a broken heart or an aversion to mathematics. I cannot, however, relate to a baby that has a dirty diaper or a non-verbalized longing for a certain tangible object.
Judging by these aforementioned preconceptions, a daycare seems like the last place you would find me volunteering my time. But when the opportunity presented itself through one of the Italian girlfriends who works there, I gratefully accepted. Afterall, I’d scoured the entire northwest region of Italy for everything from English teaching positions to gelato making jobs, all of which turned up dry. Helping out with the bambini of Luserna seemed like a fulfilling option for my weekly schedule. And so, I go downtown twice a week to help out with the feeding, holding, entertaining and nose-wiping of Italian toddlers. And, as it turns out, babies aren’t intimidating after all!
Beyond teaching me about the early stages of human development, my time at the daycare has another unanticipated educational benefit… vocabulary. The babies are just learning how to talk and, technically, so am I! As such, I’ve acquired from the friendly staffers very important baby-appropriate terminology such as piano, mettere a posto, vieni qui, and siedeti, commands which mean, careful, put away, come here, and sit down respectively. (Please excuse any spelling errors… the curriculum doesn’t cover that for a few more years). From children’s books we read together at the local library, I’ve learned about colors and animals and opposites. Even the babies themselves are teaching me new and important phrases. They are perhaps my favorite educators seeing as baby talk is absolutely precious, especially when it is delivered in a different language. The most popular phrases from the babies in the group that can talk are the following:
Mangio tutto io ~ I am eating everything
Let’s just say that italians learn young that food is an important part of the culture. Pranzo, even for the babies, is a three course meal. At 11:30, the toddlers retrieve their bibs and take their seats around the large rectangular tables while the babies are situated in high chairs. Meals commence with a meat plate served with a vegetable. The second plate is a pasta dish whether it be buttered shells or miestra, a delicious soupy pasta alternative. The final element of daily lunches is a slice of fresh pane. The babies take great pride in their abilities to consume the entire contents of their consecutive dishes. Enter the mangio tutto io phrase, delivered between bites with nothing less than sheer pride. The meal lasts about 45 minutes from start to clean-up where the babies put their spoons in a bin and return their plates to the food cart. As impressive at it is watching the kids clean up after themselves, it is even more so astonishing that they can sit through a 45 minute meal without getting restless! Like I said, they learn young.
Prende mi ~ Take me
I’m a sucker for this one. Picture a knee high, wide-eyed two-year old looking up at you with arms reaching for yours and a little voice beckoning for you to pick him up. Prende mi, Prende mi. Do I even have to tell you how this scenario plays out?
e mio ~ it’s mine
Whether it be the toy of the millisecond or the sock of a playmate, the little children will grab at anything that anyone else has with the justification “e mio”. The book is mine, the rocker horse is mine, the boob of the daycare worker that is changing my diaper is mine. Mine. Mine. Mine.
Guarda! ~ Look at
Look at this! Look at that! Look at me jump! To provide a more specific application of this phrase, allow me to elaborate on a situation from last week. I was helping to herd the bunch towards the tables for pranzo. I had one of the seven-month olds on my right hip and was looking for his chu cha, or pacifier, on one of the shelves. I felt an urgent tap on my leg and heard a tiny voice say “Sarah, Guarda”. I turned to see the blond-haired boy from the opening passage with his eyes fixed on his pointer finger which was raised up for my inspection. And there it was. A booger. An impressively large booger, I might add, considering it originated in such a little nose. I shifted the baby to my other hip, grabbed a Kleenex and snatched the mucousy orb from the other boy’s finger. I even complimented him on coming to see me. Sometimes the kids take the mangio tutto io phrase a little too far if you catch my drift. I think I will conclude my vocabulary lesson with that.
All in all, despite my former discomfort with babies and their runny noses, I have come to find their company increasingly enjoyable. I look forward to discovering the unpredictable ways they'll find to make me smile as I continue absorbing an important piece of toddler culture... simplicity. In their wonderment of bubbles, story-time, and the jack-o-lantern we carved for Halloween, they remind me to relish in the little things that life has to offer. But I guess that’s a piece of Italian culture too.