I arrived in Naples after a seven hour train ride from Milan. The first portion spent conversing in “Italish” with a lovely foursome in their seventies. Meeting Michele on the platform after three months of emails and facebook posts was a delight. We were both excited about our performance adventure and seeing each other again in person after two years of only internet conversations.
I felt prepared for my first experience presenting for an audience who spoke not a word of English. I had spent over three months researching tales. I felt confident and excited, afterall I had researched story after story searching for just the right ones; a combination of repetition, physicality and humor that I was sure the students would relate to. I had worked to secure a translator who would supply the Italian language I lacked. My friend Rob Adams had lovingly sewed cat ear headbands as one of the necessary props for The Three Cats and I had in my baggage a duck hat for Quack, Quack, Stick to My Back. I was prepared!
April 15th, a bright clear morning, I was anxious to leave the house at 8:45am for a 10:30am arrival. Michele, my wonderful Italian translator , was nowhere to be found. I waited in the basement apartment, 10am, no Michele. I called his mobile and texted him, no response. At 10:30am, Michele knocked on the door, “Kri, are you ready, let us go to the school.” I greeted him with, “of course I am ready, we were supposed to be AT the school at 10:30am, and it is at least a 30 minute drive.” Michele simply smiled and said, “Kri, you are not in the US, here in Naples, we are just on time!”
I laughed and relaxed. We leisurely bought coffees and cornets. We drove 20 minutes to Vullo. We arrived at the school to the warm greeting and hearty handshake of Michele’s Uncle Enzo the Director of Collodi School. He spoke not a word of English but we communicated through smiles and laughter. He proudly introduced me to every teacher and every class of students in his small, private school. The children smiled at me, they greeted me with laughter and “Hello!” Giggle, giggle. Some of them touched me and laughed more, smiles wide on their bright cheerful faces. My heart felt to bursting and we hadn’t even started the performance yet!
The fifth graders were more refined. “Good morning, Miss. How are you?” And then peals of laughter. Director Enzo explained that I was from New York City, the Big Apple. The children’s eyes grew wider, a few whispered to each other, they pointed at me, then covered their smiling mouths with their hands. One boy stood apart from the rest tall, proud. He took in a breath and spoke, “Miss Kristin do you really come from New York City?” I responded, “Yes, I’ve lived there the past few years. It is a great city.” The Director began laughing and speaking in rapid fire Italian. Michele, my friend and translator, explained to me that the boy and Director had a made a bet, the boy had not believed that I was from New York City, he lost the bet, it’s ok, it was only 50 cents.
We then arrived at the performance space, a long rectangular room connected to the school cafeteria where the cooks were preparing pasta fagioli. It smelled delicious! The students trickled in from their classrooms, perhaps only 80 children in total but their boisterous exuberance made it seem like a multitude.
The Director introduced me and Michele and I began with one of my favorite stories collected by Joseph Bruchac, Many Frogs. “…It had not rained for many weeks and the weeks turned into months. The mighty river was dried up, only small puddles remained… in one puddle lived a Frog and in another a Locust… The Frog had an idea to make the rain come. They would sing together, the clouds would like the song, the rain would come…”
Michele translated. The children leaned forward, smiling, whispering to each other and with the slightest bit of encouragement, they enthusiastically participated. Working together we made it rain. We gently rubbed our thumbs across our fingers, then slowly snapped, then lightly rubbed hands together, followed by clapping, louder and louder, then pounding our hands upon our laps. We created a tremendous torment of rain; together! The children were now completely immersed in story; I could not get them to stop the rainstorm. Their exuberance bounced off the walls, the small room a cacophony of sound. Finally, I was able to regain their attention, explaining how by working together we had made something amazing happen; a story!
The performance continued with Quack, Quack Stick to My Back an Italian story collected by Italo Calvino in his book of 500 tales, Italian Folktales. I asked for volunteers to be the Princess who never smiled; the students were waving their hands in the air, smiles stretched across their faces, they shouted, “Me, Miss, Me, Me!” Even the boys were volunteering to be the Princess… in Italy!
In the story, a Princess who has never smiled makes a deal with her father the King, that whomever makes her smile, she will marry. But if he fails, “off with his head!” The little girl chosen as Princess was priceless. She sat, arms crossed, a somber expression mingled with false anger; she was perfect! Next several boys volunteered to be the hapless Princes who tried to make her smile, all failed and all “lost their heads” by inflatable sword.
Another boy was chosen to be the poor shoemaker with a big heart. On his journey to the Princess he meets three old women, one hungry, one thirsty and one in need of money. He helps all three. The last one transforms into a fairy (of course!) and presents the boy with a magic goose, another volunteer. Fairy explains, “Whenever the goose says, ‘Quack, Quack,’ you say, ‘stick to my back.’ And the goose will stick to whatever it touches.” A strange gift indeed. The child wearing the duck hat, Quacked with abandon, the children loved it!
The children were transfixed by the story and Michele was doing a fantastic job translating with the same energy as me. I believe we did not even need language; just the physicality of the story was enough. However, I wanted the children to hear English and Italian being spoken together; the goal to connect the languages and cultures together.
The story continues with the boy and the goose making their way to the Palace of the Princess. They stop to rest at an Inn where they meet the innkeeper’s daughter who, upon seeing the goose, thinks “dinner!” I chose another volunteer to be the girl. She pretended to sneak into the room to steal the goose, her hand touching the goose on the shoulder. With prompting, the child dressed as goose said, “Quack, Quack!” In Italian, “Qua, Qua!” And the boy responded, “Stick to my Back!” “Attaccita la!” The girl was stuck to the goose! Peals of laughter!
Another volunteer chosen to be the girl’s sister and two more, the mother and father, and two more, townspeople. Each time, the same call and response of, “Quack, Quack!” “Stick to my back!” “Qua Qua, Attaccita la!” We now had eight children all “stuck” to the goose. The visual was wonderfully comic.
Finally, all stuck together they “run” in blob-like form to the Princess who smiles, and then laughs. The girl portraying the princess did a great job; it was tough to maintain a straight face, but she did it! The children enthusiastically acted out the story with such complete abandon. By the end they were even speaking some English!
It was a delightful and successful experience using a translator. I look forward to the next time and encourage YOU to tell stories with translators as well; it is a wonderful way to connect cultures together, to demonstrate how we can work together with story.
Happy Tales to you, until we meet again!
PS I wish I had photos but my camera battery charger went MIA for a few days, so I did my best to paint a picture with words.