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English In Italy

English in Italy? In a couple of words: Practically non-existent! However as the local English speaker par excellence, I must ever try.

We live in the Val di Non of northern Italy where the English language is largely just a mere rumor. Our local languages are Nonese (ancient vulgar Latin), Italian, German and Tirolean (low German dialect). English is at best an afterthought hereabouts. It is a curiosity that is practically never explored by local residents.

However English is our native language and as such, we speak it together most of the time. Locals are amazed. They often ask (with a straight face), “What language do you speak together at home?” English of course! Although we do speak a bit of Nonese, Italian and German within our abode just to keep each other on their toes.

When we speak to one another in English in public, heads whirl about. It is probably not that our neighbors dislike our language. It is just that most have never heard it leaving the lips of another person. Occasionally we are asked, “Siete di Ingleterra? (Are you from England?) I almost always respond, “Ma no. Abbiamo denti e menti! (Oh no, we have teeth and chins!) The poor joke is rarely appreciated. Like English itself, there is not a lot of curiosity where we live and little humor as well.

We have a satellite TV system which brings us little bits of our native tongue via broadcasts. However this English is of the isles version and takes some getting used to. There are no Ts and all ending As are pronounced as Rs. “So ‘ats ‘he ‘hing. isn’ i in Americer.” An English teacher friend of ours in Italy used to call while preparing her lesson plans for the following week. A frequent question was, ” Is is I have or I have got?” My answer, also a tired joke, was always, “It depends on whether you are teaching modern American English or the medieval variety still used in Britain.” In the end, she always went with the latter.

While most of Europe’s population speaks at least some English, Italy is the notable exception. The volanta’ (will) just isn’t there. English is offered in schools here and there is some hope for the younger generation to learn the language. However, as with any new language, one must speak it regularly to retain it. Children go to school, learn English for an hour and return home to where their parents and friends don’t speak English. It is not a supporting system. Aah, but necessity is indeed the mother of invention. Once these same students understand that the majority of the internet is presented in English, a new motivation is found.

There is a small paper-thin minority who have taken the time to learn other languages including English. However, without much support, it has been difficult for them. Some have gone abroad to learn and practice the language. These same people almost always relish the opportunity to practice their English and often admonish me not to speak their native Italian. They value the practice. They are the exception and never the rule in Italy.

English in Italy? Probably not in this century. Things are slow to change here. But who knows? C’e sempre la speranza….

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The Actor’s Ring

I have had a 77-year-old mystery in my jewelry box for years and for years I’ve often pondered on looking into this teaser from the past in earnest. My quest actually started some 40 years ago when my father gave me a ring that he no longer wanted. Here’s a brief history:

Sterling Silver Ring With Theater Mask With Steps To Success at Left.
Engraved: “B.B. To E.R. 3-1-39”
Jeweler’s Mark: Paval Sterling

This ring was given to my father Gene Rizzi by Ben Bard as a graduation present after my father graduated Ben Bard’s acting school, Ben Bard Drama, and landed his first motion picture part in 1939. Research indicates that this ring was made by Philip Kran Paval (1899-1971), a noted sculptor and jeweler that worked with Hollywood actors and celebrities in the 1930’s and 1940’s. Ben Bard had several of these rings made as presents for students graduating his acting school in Hollywood, California and landing their first motion picture part. The theater group The Ben Bard Players developed out of this school and was considered one of the top “small theaters” in the country.


My father, Gene Rizzi, was an actor in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s. He appeared in many movie serials such as The Green Hornet and Junior G-Men as wells as feature films including, The Outlaw, To Be or Not To Be, Crash Dive, Ten Gentlemen From Westpoint and several others. His beginnings as an actor are a bit vague, as he came to the United States from what was Austria in the early 1930’s as a concert violinist. He had played with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra before moving to San Francisco and playing with the Oakland Philharmonic Orchestra. After playing violin with the Warner Brother’s studio orchestra, he began doing radio announcing due to his distinctive voice. Sometime between 1937 and 1939, my father became associated with both the Pasadena Playhouse and the Palos Verdes Playhouse, both acting in and directing local theater productions.

A little bit about the ring’s designer: Philip Paval was well known as a colorful metal smith in Los Angeles, born in Denmark in 1899. In the 1920’s he opened his own studio/shop first on Hollywood Blvd. and then Wilshire Blvd. He became a self proclaimed Hollywood artist catering to celebrities such as Rudolph Valentino for whom he designed a slave bracelet, and Elizabeth Taylor, whose father, gallery owner Francis Taylor was his close friend. Known to be a frequent guest at San Simeon Castle, the retreat of William Randolph Hearst and Marion Daives, Paval created candlesticks for the couple as a house gift. He exhibited in art galleries in Los Angeles and Pasadena California. He was well known for his modernist and cubist styles in his jewelry pieces.

By my estimation, there should be about twenty or more of these rings in circulation. However, only a very few have surfaced publicly. I have been given to believe that Gig Young (real name Byron Barr), Dana Andrews, Mickey Rooney, Olivia de Havilland and Tyron Power all had these rings as they were all associated with the Ben Bard Acting School and later with the Pasadena Playhouse. An actress I believed at the time to be either Olivia de Havilland or Helen Hayes told me personally that she had the same ring in her possession, although I don’t know how she acquired it. This actress saw me wearing the ring in 1971 and inquired if I wanted to sell it.

One identical ring surfaced a few years ago. It was inscribed “B.B. to D.C. 12-1-1939” I have not been able to precisely identify this individual, although I have located a couple of names from the right period with the right initials, namely David Cavendish, David Clyde, Don Castle and Donald Curtis. More research is needed to properly identify the individual. I suspect the ring belonged to Donald Curtis, as he was in Ben Bard’s Acting School during the same period as my father. Another identical ring sold online and bore the inscription: “BB to JC 10.6.38”. This was sized 3 1/2 and belonged to a female actress as yet unidentified.

As I am trying to develop a full documentation of this ring and its history, any comments or help would be immensely appreciated.

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Coming To America

We are a nation of immigrants and my family is no exception. My family originated in the small village of Cloz in the Val di Non of Northern Italy (then Austria). It is a tightly knit place of ancient people and ancient ways. During the 1860’s, the economy became so bad that many families were literally starving to death. Like other Europeans, they looked to America for comfort and salvation.

My family was certainly not the first to pick-up and go to America. Many others had gone before. Instead, my great-grandfather tried to earn a living in Germany as an eisemponieri (railroad laborer) constructing tunnels in Bavaria. When he returned to his native Cloz, he died of appendicitis at age 40. His son, my grandfather Eugenio, decided he did not want to share the same fate and boarded a ship for America in 1891.

The 19 year old Eugenio went to Rock Springs, Wyoming where other fellow Tiroleans had gone to seek their fortune. Like most others, he started as a dollar a day coal miner. However, he saved his money and bought into a local bar and then later into a large sheep ranching concern. He had built a stable life but lacked a wife. In the fashion of the day, he sent a letter to a family friend and asked if she would like to come to America to be his wife. Would she? As soon as the ticket arrived, she was on the next ship.

That ship turned out to be the SS Bretagne (pictured above). She made the long trip to Havre, France and then the longer passage to Ellis Island, finally heading west by train into an unknown future in the high desert of Rock Springs. Arriving after over a month of travel, she was relieved to be in her new home. Unlike today’s immigrants, she was required, like her husband, to learn English, get a job and contribute fully to her new country. She did all of that and then some.

The following video was posted to Youtube to honor my grandparents and the thousands like them who risked so much to leave their native Val di Non come to America. After they arrived, they were forever grateful to be Americans. We should all be that grateful.

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Now That’s A Corker

We have a large demijohn (damigiana) bottle made for bulk wine that sits in our dining room. It’s size is that of about 100 liters. I bought it as a lark while visiting the town of Malcesine on Italy’s Lake Garda. Years ago in our home in Italy, I started filling it with corks from various bottles of wine that graced our table. When we moved back to the United States in 2010, the giant bottle came with us. It’s been like a family member for years. However, it has reached retirement age. This year was its last in terms of housing my used corks as it is now completely full. How many corks are in there? At full capacity, there are 2,250 corks from all varieties of wine.

People who come to dinner at our house often stare at this giant bottle and then at the corks inside. Their query is always the same: “You didn’t really drink that many bottles, did you?” Our answer, in unison, is always a simple yes, although we admit we had a little help from dinner guests along the way. (You know who you are!)

It’s really not that big of feat. We have been collecting corks since 2006. That’s 11 years or 4,015 days. If you divide 2,250 corks by 4,015 days you come up with roughly one half a cork per day. It means that we drink a half a bottle of wine a day. That’s not a lot, especially if you factor in the fact that our last name ends with a vowel and we have more than a few wine drinking friends.

We are now looking for another large vessel to store our future corks. The Hindenburg would have worked well. However, our original full bottle will stand in our dining room for years to come. Although we will continue to collect our corks, our original demijohn will always be a corker.

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Better Late Than Never

I am a bit slow to change. It’s what a lot of people of my generation do. It’s not because I’m lazy or stupid. I’m just comfortable in a world where Tuesday is pretty much like the Monday before it. It makes me feel good.

However after years of procrastination, I recently made a foray into the world of Twitter. This was, at least for me, a major change which I reluctantly embraced.  I’m not one who is big on social media; most of it seems to be a waste of time for me. However I am also a person with strong opinions who likes engaging others. Ta-dah! Twitter!

My Twitter experience has thus far gone pretty much as expected. I endured the general election back and forth and was able to connect with others who share some of my background, experience and opinions. It has also been a good platform to connect with colleagues who are not on my other sites such as LinkedIn. This aspect of a fuller range of contact even prompted me to ask mt wife to re-open the Facebook account she cancelled several years ago. There are some people who only use Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn or other social media programs. I don’t pretend to agree to the importance of social media but I’be finally learned to accept it.

Better late than never. I am a latecomer to the party for sure. Things have gone so well that I am seriously thinking of getting a smart phone – NOT.

Tweet me here: @allen_rizzi

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Just One More Cast

Just one more cast! It’s the lament that has been borne by every fisherman’s wife. They usually have heard it for way too many years. And yet these patient women seem to be ever hopeful that what they are hearing is at last the truth.

What makes all of us fly fishermen so intent on not giving up? If the day has been unproductive, we feel we must keep going until the light runs out just in case the tide turns. We fiddle with different flies and keep casting. If the day has been great, we seem to always want to make it greater by casting into the dusk and beyond. Why not just walk away and go home to a waiting wife?

Fly fishermen are by nature creatures of perfection and as such they seem to count every second on a stream as others would count freshly minted gold coins. Is it passion or disease? There seems always to be the urge to try one more pattern if the fish have quit. The fading light brings only hope for another strike. There seems to always be one more cast to hang a hope onto and that hope is replaced by another and another until at last darkness has come.

One more cast! My wife has heard it for over 36 years and she’s learned to patiently wait until the sun has well set. God bless her, she’s a good woman! Happy Birthday Sweetheart!

Photo: The author making one more cast. Photo credit: The patient wife.

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Catch And Release

Fly fishing…. it’s been the backbone of my family for many generations. But unlike many fishermen who were reared in the 1950’s, I was taught from an early age the concept of catch and release. Simply put, it is fishing for sport and not for the meat.

That is not to say there’s anything inherently wrong with the catch and kill approach to fishing. There is certainly room for that aspect of fishing as well with some limitations. I’m pretty sure the Native-Americans of the 1700’s and 1800’s weren’t fishing just for sport. However, as the decades have passed, we have learned that nothing is forever and that includes healthy fish populations as well. Fish hatcheries alone can not reclaim healthy fisheries. We all need to do a little of our own share as well. It is largely a question of balance. When I lived in Oregon for example, I caught over 1,300 trout every year and released them all. If I had killed all of those fish over the 16 years I lived there, the streams would be missing some 20,800 trout. That’s the equivalent of a small fish hatchery in of itself. I usually caught only 6 to 12 salmon every year and kept just one to eat.

There are right and wrong ways of handling fish for their release. Here’s a condensed guide:

Always use barbless hooks. If a net needs to be used, use a newer model that is recommended for catch and release. Keep the fish in the water as much as possible and handle it as little as possible. Too much handling causes the fish to loose scales and that in turn can kill the fish. To release a tired-out fish, gently hold its tail lightly with the fish facing upstream in quiet water and pump it a few times back and forth until it can swim away strongly on its own. Never “throw” or “dump” a fish back into the water; the shock could kill it.

Catch and Release is a mentality not a golden rule. It is an acquired behavior and as such needs to be learned from an early stage in one’s fishing life. If you are new to fishing in general or fly fishing in particular, I urge you to adopt this mentality and pass it on to your children and their children so that there will be fishing opportunities for generations to come.

The trout thank you, the salmon thank you and most assuredly I thank you!

The photo is of one of my friends heading back home many years ago on the North Mills River, North Carolina. (Before Catch and Release nets were on the market.) Photo by Rachel Rizzi.

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Thank You San Fernando

San Fernando, California was my home in the early 1950’s. My parents had moved there from North Hollywood, after several failed attempts at a life in the states of Utah and Iowa. They purchased a new home in 1952 on North Orange Grove Avenue when I was only four years old. This was one of many tract homes built among old orange groves for the burgeoning population that would soon become known as commuters. Thus, in the fragrant orange blossoms, began my San Fernando experience.

The town of San Fernando is named for a saint and somewhat unbelievably many people in the 1950’s and 1960’s did not know that the San Fernando Valley was named for the town and not the other way around. My father constantly explained this to his out-of-state relatives and informed them as to where our home was exactly. Nevertheless, at the end of the day, most people had never heard of San Fernando; that it was north of Los Angeles seemed to serve as explanation enough for most people. It was an anonymous place in those days and that fact proved to have its good points as well as it bad points.

I attended Dyer Street elementary school and Olive Vista Junior High School, both located in bordering Sylmar. There was always a bit of rancor in those days about which school you attended if you lived “on the border,” as we did. We technically had the choice of attending schools in either Sylmar or San Fernando. I went to the Sylmar schools and my brother went to those in San Fernando. In a gentle twist of irony, I wound up teaching school years later at San Fernando High School although I had graduated from Sylmar High.

San Fernando was a small world with borders of city blocks not miles when I was a child. My early life was lived primarily between Glenoaks Blvd. and 1st Street and between the confines of Hubbard and Maclay. The world outside these names was blurry and for practical purposes did not exist for many years in my early youth. And so as a child, I got to know this tiny piece of real estate pretty well. I can still smell the freshly cut summer grass on our street and I can still hear the mockingbirds that seemed to inhabit every tree. In the summer, I would catch butterflies with a homemade net, invading all of our neighbors’ yards without ever hearing a complaint from any of them. Saturdays were spent at the Crest Theater watching the double feature two times through for the price of 25 cents. DeMelice’s Market on Maclay Avenue was another favorite haunt, where a nickel would get you an enormous pickle and a friendly smile. As a young coin collector, I was allowed to freely go through the till unsupervised at the Atlantic Richfield service station on Maclay looking for old pennies. When I found the ones I was seeking, I would replace the face value into the till with my own pocket money. I remember pleasant things and I cannot recall the ugly days at all, although I am sure they were present somewhere in my youth.

As I stumbled awkwardly though my early years, my childhood enthusiasm for my hometown gave way to a comfortable kind of reassurance. I took a job with the San Fernando Sun as a paperboy. My four-block route included everything from 1st Street to 5th Street between Orange Grove and Maclay. After being a paperboy for what seemed like a lifetime, I moved on to high school and more serious pursuits. Still, I remembered all of my route customers fondly until I was well past my teens. My strongest recollections of my high school years are what I would collectively call stability. San Fernando never seemed to change substantially or in ways that upset the psyche. This allowed us time to grow up without the additional encumbrance of too much change thrust at us all at one time. The Hat was always there between Sepulveda Blvd. and San Fernando Road and JC Penney was always close at hand, a stone’s throw from Castell’s Records. It was a life lived largely by memory and the knowledge that everything had its place. Everything did have its place, as did we. Life as a teenager was comfortable in San Fernando. In this easy environment, I went through high school with the same kids I had known all my life and we encountered very few problems. Sure, we were “carded” every so often by the San Fernando Police for having a beer in our possession, but there seemed always to appear a firm guiding hand from the night rather than the butt end of a nightstick.

Life’s rhythms were constant, strong and reassuring as the years went by on Orange Grove Avenue. Family, friends and the common notion that we shared in being “from San Fernando” set these rhythms. However, as the seasons counted out my youth, I would stop in our front yard, gaze toward the San Gabriel Mountains, and wonder what was beyond them. As I grew up in, I gradually learned what was beyond those mountains and much more. We often traveled to the Sierra Mountains for vacations and these trips provoked a curiosity deep within me to see more, do more and be more. Gradually, I began to wish that I could leave San Fernando and its small confines. This wish turned into a strong desire by the time I finished high school. I was convinced that San Fernando was not for me and I yearned to leave for greener pastures well before those pastures had yet been found. Travels and college followed and my desire to leave San Fernando became stronger every year. I began attending college at what was then called San Fernando Valley State College in September of 1966. The campus took me away from San Fernando and I found that I had not been prepared to deal with the realities of the world outside my hometown. The Vietnam War, for instance, seemed so much more horrific and real just a few miles away in Northridge. In the end, born of frustration and stubborn beliefs I chose to live Jimmy Stewart’s wish in It’s a Wonderful Life as I attempted to “shake off the crummy dust” of my hometown and move out into life’s full current.

After a short time, I reached that point of departure, moving first to Granada Hills, then Agoura, then Oregon and finally, many, many years later, to my current home high in the Italian Alps. I had come back to my family’s roots and at last, it seemed that I had escaped the grasp of my upbringing. But here in my non-native Italy I have reflected much about that past and in these thoughts I have often found the whispered word, “San Fernando.”

Appreciation is often that last human emotion that we experience although it should perhaps be the first. It is unfortunately that way with parents, friends and life itself. I look back now to the black and white days of San Fernando some sixty-five years ago and I take in a deep, deep breath and I smile. It is a full smile, brought forth by the knowledge of a youth well spent and the pride I now belatedly feel in being from a little town named San Fernando. Gone are the old Empire phone prefixes but the goodness and richness of my youth will be with me for all of my days. I look at it now as a gracious gift. Perhaps the only best thing that I can do today is say to you from the heart, “Thank you San Fernando.”

Photo: Orange Grove Avenue in San Fernando circa 1958.

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The Ten Commandments

The Ten Commandments – They just don’t make movies like this anymore. I’m talking about the 1956 American biblical epic film produced and directed by Cecil B. DeMille not to be confused with the horrible Exodus: Gods and Kings film of 2014.

As one of my favorite films, I deeply appreciate the dramatized biblical story of the life of Moses, an adopted Egyptian prince who becomes the deliverer of his real brethren, the enslaved Hebrews. It is a classic and I can’t image anyone else playing Moses than Charlton Heston or anyone other than Yul Brynner as Rameses. Yvonne De Carlo as Sephora was sensitive if not a bit over-acted. Even Anne Baxter as Nefretiri (definitely over-acted) seems an integral part of the movie that could never be replaced by another actress. The only sketchy casting was Edward G. Robinson as Dathan. I always expect him to say: “What do you think of your Moses now?” in a gangster like threatening voice. There’s just so much great stuff in this movie that the small flaws are overlooked.

This movie is from the day when “cast of thousands” really meant it and was not just a foley edited piece of digitized nonsense. The special effects were pretty good for 1956 but they were achieved chiefly through the use of much reality. When you saw the chariots rushing into the Red Sea, they were the real McCoy. The long line of Hebrews leaving in the Exodus was composed of real actors and they were many. Every aspect of the film was large, literally taking on biblical proportions. The special photographic effects in The Ten Commandments were created by John P. Fulton, A.S.C. who received an Academy Award for his effects in the film.

Historically, DeMille was a stickler of accuracy. History was meticulously researched, resulting in such small details as the two different helmets that Ramses wears. Pharaoh is usually shown wearing the red-and-white crown of Upper and Lower Egypt or the nemes royal headdress. For his pursuit of the Israelites, he wears the blue Khepresh helmet-crown which the pharaohs wore for battle. The movie is full of other historically accurate details which lend warmth and genuineness to the production. Of course decades later, it is now generally acknowledged that Ramses was not the pharaoh of the Exodus but rather Thutmose II (1493 or 1492 to 1479 BC). But remember, this film was made over 60 years ago.

My wife and I always watch this film at Easter/Passover. But with a running time of 220 minutes (3 hours, 40 minutes for you millennials), we find we need to start early. Invariably I nod off shortly before Moses tosses the tablets and re-awake minutes later when he is on top of Mount Nebo gazing at the promised land. With the film’s final line from Moses, “Go, proclaim liberty throughout the land, onto all the inhabitants thereof!,” I feel a bit and restored as I shuffle off to bed. Movies just don’t get much better than this!

If you haven’t seen this movie (Is that possible?), I recommend it very much. If you have seen it, watch it again because it never seems to get old. Watching it during Passover will give it a bit more special meaning.

Photo: Original movie poster for The Ten Commandments.

By the way, can you name all of the Ten Commandments? Most people can not. How many do you know?

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The Talking Toilet At Tret

A flush always beats a straight but a flush can also beat your neighbor, or so I thought.

It was early in the morning and I slowly stumbled out of bed and into the bathroom. I was weary from the grappa onslaught of the night before and was trying to talk myself into beginning another day here in Northern Italy. The bathroom was warm from the wall heater and the pine toilet seat was also warm and comfortable. It is those little things in life that we learn to appreciate the most as we get older.

I sat down and readied myself slowly for one of life’s nominal tasks. After a few moments, there came a thunderous noise from beneath my ass. I thought it a good fart at first. But is sounded like someone blowing their nose; then something jabbered in Italian, the precise content of which I could not immediately make out. Odd though, that this discourse should issue forth from the very bowl upon which I was perched. I pitched forward a bit, craning my neck to listen more closely. Yep, sure enough, it was Italian punctuated by a great occasional honking of someone blowing a very large nose.

When you move from the United States to Italy, one of the first things you learn to accept is the concept of communal living. Owing to the high cost of real estate here, most people opt for apartment living. The other perhaps more imploring reason to live in an apartment here though is the fact that people here have been living on top of one another for centuries. It is simply the way things are done in this part of the world and most people here follow their ancestry in every nuance.

Our initial first-hand experience with this type of living reminded my wife of her childhood days in an apartment in Brooklyn. One evening, long ago, her father came home exhausted from a day’s work as a city fireman. Listening to the ruckus through the paper-thin walls, he grimaced and bleated out his summation in New Yorkese, “We’se live like mice!” My wife remembered this tale and shared it with me shortly after we moved to Tret and discovered that the walls and floors here are actually a great deal less sound proof than those of New York are.

Undaunted, we grudgingly accepted the concept of mouse house living. But like so many things here, our acceptance found its limits. Bad neighbors do not help this happenstance in the least and so it was with us when the creatures arrived downstairs. They were a couple from a big nearby city and at first glance they exuded a white trash quality that I had previously only thought to be available in the rural butt haired lands of far off America. Big city folks often tolerate more noise and more disrespect because they are both the recipients and givers of such. These people, however, seemed to take a special delight in being extra noisy, extra vulgar and extra insensitive.

The first morning of the talking toilet at Tret proved to be just the initiation of a long process without end. Invariably, sound issued forth from between my legs at every appointment with the cabineto and I was treated to a wide variety of foreign language learning experiences as I sat wiping my butt. These ranged from the simple expletives shouted from beneath me to whole discourses that echoed up from the pipes below. I did not previously know in fact that water was such a good conductor of sound.

I pondered on what to do about all of this noisy Italian springing up from beneath me. Should I speak to my neighbors? But could I speak on such a subject in a land where talking about the weather borders on the personal? No, I thought it better to remain zitto and so I said nothing for many months. But the sound continued and echoed through by bathroom like Poe’s Raven. In life, immaturity often becomes one’s only last-ditch defense and so I too was drawn to the dark side. I found a response to the racket below me. When I heard the nose blowing of the Canada Goose below me, I leaned into the wall and gagged like a dying old geezer complete with the sound effects of atomized sputum. I then would greet each new line of Italian with a curt flush; a small flush for a sentence or two and a really big one for a major argument ensuing beneath by bottom. Tit for tat, flush for flush, I continued until I was finally convinced that one of the creatures below had indeed noticed. They had indeed noticed but in their boorish world, it mattered not. The clatter continued like a bad impression from the film The Godfather.

Yes, here too we’se live like mice. Viviamo come i topolini! But, alas, in our mouse house the talking toilet of Tret continues to verbalize beneath my gluteus maximus and it seems that I am destined to forcibly listen. Another lesson learned as one of Italy’s latest (legal) immigrants.

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