Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Glimpses of an alternate history

So, I was reading John McWhorter's The Power of Babel: a natural history of language. After describing how a creole language develops (a pidgin, usually from colonialism or slavery, grows up), he follows the sentence, "Similarly, there is no Italian creole," with a wistful footnote:

In the strict sense, this is a good thing, because, the tragic truth is that most creoles have have arisen amid conditions of unthinkably stark and ineradicable social injustice. However, if we can allow ourselves to very briefly take a purely hypothetical perspective, a creole based on an encounter between Italian and West African languages would most likely be a ravishingly beautiful tongue to both Western and African ears.

It reminded me of Calvin Trillin on "The Italian West Indies," collected in Third Helpings (now part of The Tummy Trilogy).

I daydream of the Italian West Indies. On bleak winter afternoons in New York, when the wind off the Hudson has driven Alice to seek the warmth she always draws from reading the brochures of ruinously expensive Caribbean resorts, I sometimes mumble aloud, "the Italian West Indies." Alice gets cold in the winter, I yearn for fettuccine all year round.

"There is no such thing as the Italian West Indies," Alice always says.

"I know, I know," I say, shaking my head in resignation. "I know."

But why? How did Italy end up with no Caribbean islands at all? ... When I happen into one of those conversations about how easily history may have taken some other course ... I find myself with a single speculation: what if the Italians ... had emerged from the colonial era with one small Caribbean island?

I dream of that island. I am sitting in one of those simple Italian beach restaurants, and I happen to be eating fettuccine. Not always; sometimes I am eating spaghettini puttanesca. Alice and I are both having salads made with tomatoes and fresh basil and the local mozzarella. That's right — the local mozzarella. The sea below us is a clear blue. The hills above us are green with garlic plants. The chef is singing as he grills our fresh gamberos. The waiter has just asked me the question that sums up for me what I treasure most about the Italian approach to drinking wine: "You won raid or whyut?" I say "whyut," and lean back to contemplate our good fortune in being together, soaking up sunshine and olive oil, on my favorite Caribbean island, Santo Prosciutto. "Ah, Santo Prosciutto ... " I found myself saying out loud one brutal winter day.


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