When you least expect it.
So I get invited to this group supper in Bologna. Normally, group suppers in Italy are a big mistake: no matter where they’re held, they’re very very loud, which means I only catch about half of what anyone says to me. Somebody in audiolinguistics will understand this better than I do, but I lose what seem to be the base tones whenever there’s a lot of background noise. Italian must be one of those languages (unlike, say, Chinese) where a great deal of action takes place in the lower pitches.
In any case, except for the occasional plosive and fricative, most of the rest is simply gone, and I end up nodding and smiling a lot like I did when I was first learning Italian and really had no clue what people were saying to me. The good news is: I’ve yet to come across anyone who notices.
If you want to participate in Italian conversation, you’ve got to shove your way in—with a poleaxe if necessary. (This perhaps also explains Italian driving—and I’m not kidding, either. The most obvious metaphor for conversation seems to be the roundabout. There are rules, inscrutable rules, but the miracle is that the pavements of Italian roundabouts are not awash in blood; as a passenger, the key to my emotional survival has become to close my eyes whenever we enter one.)
Getting back to conversation: Nobody stops politely to let you express your opinion or reaction at the end of a sentence, largely because there is no end of the sentence. Italian talk is one, long, book-length emanation, and what we can only call “conversation” is essentially a series of interwoven monologues on a more-or-less mutually agreed-upon theme. It’s not for nothing that so many Italian sentences begin with “ma” (but), which gives one the sensation that the speaker views his or her expression as a construction assembled with commas and rarely with periods. The pauses—even long ones, while someone else speaks—are conjunctional, not delimitative.
I’ve spent a lot of time listening in on Italian conversations—the train is especially good for this—and what I’ve concluded is that (a) it’s virtually never considered rude to interrupt; (b) someone who starts a sentence and is interrupted is likely to pick up that same sentence exactly where s/he left off, even five or ten minutes later; (c) a great deal of repetition, restatement, and recapitulation is both allowed and, apparently, expected; (d) questions are almost entirely rhetorical—that is, they are posed not because the asker has any serious interest in your opinion, but because he wants a reason to tell you his; and (e) Italian contains many more linguistic placeholders than English—words, phrases, profanities (from humorously euphemistic to willfully vulgar), pleonasms, highly expressive non-words, and so forth, all of which allow one to keep talking, more-or-less on automatic pilot, without actually moving the topic forward, and thus provide a kind of mental pit stop where the speaker can gather her/his thoughts, consider variations on the theme, and relaunch.
The “shape” of conversation, if you follow me, is thus not rectilinear but round or cumulous. I maintain that adopting this conversational style is virtually impossible for a non-native speaker, no matter how good your formal language skills become. Of course, if you can’t hear in the first place, all hope is lost.
In any event: the group supper. I had expected—in the way these ideas are born in one’s head out of absolutely nothing—a smallish group, perhaps no more than twelve or fifteen, and a relaxed, trattoria atmosphere. Instead, the supper was held in a private, very fancy Club—like the ones in Merchant-Ivory movies—which was itself housed on one entire floor of a gorgeous, late-nineteenth-century villa.
One buzzed, announced oneself, and passed through not one but two enormous iron gates before arriving at the actual entrance, buried deep inside. The walls of The Club were decorated with wild-game trophies (with dead boar highly overrepresented); waiters wearing white coats and white gloves scurried about bearing silver trays laden with champagne flutes. The guy in the tuxedo at the coat check was English stiff (che manco Anthony Hopkins in The Remains of the Day) but perhaps he simply objected to all the fur coats and fur stoles and fur wraps he was being called upon to handle. The men were dressed in semi-formal eveningwear, and some of them were actually sporting ascots. Ascots, possums, and they weren’t even gay!
And then the class moment happened. (You might think it had already happened, but up until that point I was able to convince myself that I was watching a rich-people documentary, expecting at any moment that the narrator would begin to explain the genesis of the air kiss or the semiotics of all those evening bags so tenaciously ghastly that only drag queens at the Goodwill would pick them up. Which makes one wonder: Is fashion really just one big joke at the expense of the wealthy? But I digress.)
From across the room, I see the Anthony Hopkins manqué coat-check dude approaching me. Am I a guest at the dinner, he asks me. I say I am. (I mean, what else would I be doing there? Filming secret footage for my chilling exposé of Bologna’s haute bourgeois?) From behind his back he proffers a black dinner jacket and an equally black tie. “It’s a rule of The Club,” he explains. I’m slow to understand but, rather in the manner of a Border collie, he’s already gently herding me toward the “toilette” (pronounced à la Français) . Perhaps he’s trying to spare me embarrassment; but since people are already staring, I’ve pretty much arrived at that particular destination.
As I wander off to find the room in question, I consider simply going home. I don’t want to insult the host, who’s paying for all this, but really. I don’t do ties. I don’t own one, I don’t want to own one, I don’t go to events that require them, I look stupid in them, and, however you want to spin it, they are a classed garment and I find them, on some level, deeply offensive.
They are especially a classed garment when you’re ordered, however kindly, to wear one that isn’t yours and that you wouldn’t buy, even if you were the type to buy ties; when it’s something taken out of a closet and dusted off for those occasions when some bohunk attempts to storm the barricades.
They are even more so a classed garment when the only reason you’d even remotely consider wearing the tie that’s been put into your hands is in order not to offend the sensibilities of someone who has more money than you and/or the sensibilities of the other dinner guests who, presumably, would be rendered incapable of digestion if they were forced to dine in the presence of someone wearing a very nice pullover sweater instead of a tie. In other words, wearing it is an acknowledgement of the exigencies of wealth.
On the other hand, the fact that The Club keeps a collection of dinner jackets and ties in a closet somewhere is a complex gesture: the recognition that a guest might be unaware of the rules; an acknowledgement that a guest might well be Not Our Kind, Dear but that members sometimes do not choose their friends, relatives, or acquaintances with due care; a reinforcement of the (highly classed) notion that conforming to the semblance of middle-class membership as expressed via one’s clothing trumps whatever one may actually be; a recapitulation of the essence of class distinction: the existence of “in” and an “out” and the enforcement of rules whose arbitrariness is immaterial to the performance of the authority to enforce them.
In much simpler terms: the dinner jacket and tie aren’t “classed.” The power to make me wear them is classed.
As a more immediate consideration: It has been so long since I’ve had one of these things around my neck that I’m not sure I remember how to make the knot anymore. With luck, it’s like riding a bicycle. I’m into my second attempt when there comes a knock at the door: It’s Anthony.
“Excuse me,” he says, “but we’ve been made aware that there are four or five additional guests wearing pullovers, and so it has been decided to suspend the rule for the evening. I hope you’ll forgive me.” He whisks the jacket and tie away—it’s literally like magic because I never see them go—and he disappears.
He hopes I’ll forgive him. If he only knew how much I forgive him. I don’t think there’s a ghost of a chance that he’s a member of The Club or ever would be, and I bet he’d prefer not to work all night in a tuxedo and white gloves if he didn’t have to.
Moral of this story: If you die, and if I’m invited to your funeral, I’m not going to wear a tie. I mean, I’m not going to show up in my board shorts and the T-shirt I spilled spaghetti sauce on, but no tie. If that means you’d rather I didn’t come, I certainly understand. No hard feelings.
Meanwhile, consider this an advance directive: When I kick off, you’re welcome to come to my funeral wearing anything you want. Really. I can’t think of a thing that matters less.