An American Beach
July 16, 2010

Here is a story from my 2006 visit to Sicily:

One afternoon I drove my cugine [cousins] Rossella [age 15] and Sabrina [age 16] to Gangi so they could meet some of their teenage friends, hang out, and kill some time before dinner that night. While walking thru the piazza, Rosella said to me in English, “Michele, look a LEEON”. I turned and saw a bronze statue of a lion. Since she was practicing her English and I was doing my Italian, I said to her, “Rosella, remember it is L-I-O-N, the ‘I’ is not pronounced EE”.

We eventually ran into about 6 of their friends, all age 14-17, and once they realized I was an American, and from California, they began talking to me in English to show off what they were learning in school.

( I need to digress here a bit to tell you the most popular TV show imported from America right now is something called ‘Orange County’. I watched it one night with the family and it was strange to see a bunch of Californians speaking Italian without subtitles. I guess the best way to describe this soap-opera show is that it is like Melrose Place meets 90210. But EVERYONE in Sicily follows the show and it’s the main topic of discussion the next day.)

So anyways, one of my cousin’s friends, named Giuseppe, in his best English says to me, “My teacher, you know, when she speaks English in class, you know, she is like an American BEE-CH!”

I was like totally shocked! To be honest I have been in Sicily four times and in all sorts of groups, from guys, to kids, to adults, old men in the piazza, in bars, and to date I have not heard one bad word [mal parole], not one! Not even an argument, a loud voice, a gesture, nothing. Even when with some guys, if a woman walked by, I never got a nudge, a poke in the ribs to look, or even a raised eyebrow of approval…nothing.

So when everyone laughed and Rosella saw my look of shock she said, “You understand? On Orange County, when a ragazzo [boy] likes a girl [rigazza] he always says….You are an American BEE-CH.”

I just shook my head and said, NO, no, no…..

They all said, ‘You don’t understand? A BEE-CH, you know where you go to swim, the sand, near the sea. A BEE-CH. It is pretty. Like our teacher!”

Trying to keep from laughing, and obviously trying not to introduce some bad vernacular to the Madonie region of Sicily, I tried to explain the ragazzo [boy] was not saying B-E-A-C-H…..he was saying B-I-T-C-H. And it was a molto mal parole [very bad word]. It was a [cane femminile] female dog. A girl will slap your face if you said that to her in America.

They all got very quiet. My cugine Sabrina and Rossella got very embarrassed. But once they all saw I wasn’t insulted and I was trying to keep from laughing, they relaxed and it was all ok..

Later that night at the dinner table, I am sitting there with Rossella, her older sister Mariella [age 18], her mother Franca, father Leonardo, and grandmother Maria Santa [age 75]. Suddenly Rossella remembers the conversation in Gangi and begins to tell the family…everything.. Franca doesn’t understand something and asks Rossella to explain, and when unable to she turns to me and says in English. “Michele you tell what is an American BEECH or is it BITCH, ok?”

She then hands me the English/Italian dictionary.

Oh Geeze, I say to myself…and again I go into the explaination that it’s a bad word. I explain the literal translation and begin to look up the various descriptions of women that seem to fit the meaning: angry [arrabbiato], nag [brontola] mean tempered [il tempermental medio].

I look up and Rossella is once again red-faced and embarrassed. Mariella is trying to stifle a giggle, eyes darting at her mother and father, obviously tomorrow half of Petralia Soprana will have a new word to use. I look over at Franca and she is staring at me like in half shock and half realizing most of the past conversations on Orange County NOW make sense. I look at Maria Santa and she has the amused look on her face like she was enjoying the fact I was struggling to make the meanings less vulgar.

Then I look at Leonardo, who I should tell you, is the Master of the Sicilian non-verbal communications skills. He looks at me, draws his face down long, his mouth turns into a frown. He extends his right index finger, pointing straight out, thumb up like a gun and turns it 90 degrees while shrugging his shoulders and raising his eyebrows…

It is the classic Sicilian……I don’t know

He says MANGIA MICHELE….Mangia!

And we all go back to eating…