Thursday, December 02, 2010

Mimi Teaches Me Italian

Someone recently asked me to name the 10 most important people in my life - people who have taught me a life lesson or were the catalyst for a major change in my life. When I asked her if I could name animals, she laughed and said "of course!" because, like me, she knows animals can change your life in strange and wonderful ways. So, this is the story of one of the most important "people" in my life, who just happened to have four legs.

We had been married only six months when my husband received new orders and we were transferred to an air base in Sardinia, Italy. A little research revealed that our new base was a NATO base, which had very limited shopping, no medical facilities and, most importantly, no base housing. We would be living in an Italian village several miles from the base, completely surrounded by people who did not speak English, with no phones or television. Having lived all my thirtysomething years within 100 miles of where I was born, I was excited and anxious in equal measures.

What I had not anticipated was the total terror I felt at not being able to communicate with the neighbors and village shopkeepers I had to deal with every day. The few rudimentary Italian phrases I had been practicing weren’t much use when I couldn’t understand the rapid-fire responses. Trying to find and buy something as simple as a light bulb would sometimes take an entire day. And some days I simply couldn’t muster up the courage to go out the front door.

One beautiful, Mediterranean morning, I was sitting on the back terrace contemplating the long, lonely, quiet day ahead, when our Italian landlady came out her back door and started calling, “Mimi! Mimi!” As I sat there waiting for the “Mimi” to show itself, a beautiful, longhaired, snow-white cat bounded out of nowhere and flew up the back steps to the landlady’s kitchen door. Right then and there, Mimi became my mission.

My mother has always called me a “cat magnet” because cats seem to gravitate to me wherever I go. This cat was different though. Every morning I stood on the terrace and called to Mimi. I tried to entice her with tidbits from the refrigerator. But still Mimi steadfastly refused to come near me. Then, I decided to try some American cat food. I filled a dish and left it on the terrace. In short order, she was daintily devouring every last morsel, as I watched from the door. Over the next week, I moved my chair closer and closer to the dish and, eventually, she allowed me one or two quick scratches behind her ear before she scampered away.

Deciding that I must sound very strange to her because, after all, she had never heard English before, I began talking to her in Italian as she ate. I spent hours looking up words and phrases in my English/Italian dictionary, just so I could “converse” with her, and this seemed to meet with her approval, because she stayed for longer and longer periods.

After a couple of weeks, I began leaving the back door open, hoping Mimi would eventually make herself at home. When she finally did, as cats will do, she completely took over. Mimi became a permanent fixture in our household and would appear with lightning speed whenever I called. Our landlady took this all in stride but seemed to be baffled by my attachment to her cat, especially when Mimi chose to have her kittens on our balcony.

What that dear lady never understood is exactly what that cat meant to me. Mimi was a friend and companion to a scared and lonely woman in a strange and frightening place. Hours of conversing with Mimi in her native tongue, so to speak, gave me the courage to try it out in the world outside my door. Her gentle, furry friendship comforted me when my courage flagged. Her kittenish antics gave me reason to laugh out loud on days when I thought I would scream from frustration. She reminded me that life is what you make it.

One day at a time I won Mimi over, and one day at a time I faced the language barrier and the newness and wonder of living in a foreign land. Grazie, Mimi, l’amore sempre. You were my first Italian friend and, thanks to you, you were not my last.

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