This is the fourth installment of a six part series by Theresa Elliott that posts M-W-F.
January in Lucca, 2022
Post #4 of 6
‘I’m a tuna!’ I shouted.
Francesca slaps the heel of her hand to her forehead. She had asked me how old I am. In the previous days I had learned the correct response in Italian is ‘sessantuna,’ Italian for 61. But all I could hear was “tuna.” This is my first bi-lingual pun, entry level humor.
I have started my language classes at the Italian Language School here in Lucca. As COVID would have it, I am the only beginning student and am having private lessons, my favorite way to learn. It hasn’t taken me long to get to my ulterior motive: how can I make the teacher laugh?
I was not the class clown as a kid, but somewhere along the way it became my raison d’être couched in all my endeavors. Likely it developed as a coping strategy to my role as a yoga teacher for 30 years. I had found students learn better when they laughed, and I considered the role of stand up comedian secondary only to teaching functional bio-mechanical techniques in a field full of mystical bamboozling, which distressed me to no end.
I found myself on the way to the Italian Language School considering how I could ‘level up’ my jokes with Francesca. She’s a fun one, and I gotta say it’s not the smartest move trying to ‘get’ your language teacher when you are on their home turf. She has the upper hand and I have a big bullseye on my back.
We are starting to deal with pronouns and conjugations of nouns and verbs for male and female. I asked her in English how the Italians manage gender fluid concepts: the language is built on one or the other. She said it was not really an issue as the concept hasn’t gotten much traction in Italy. You have to choose, male or female. Fine to change your mind, every other day if you want, but choose you must.*
We go back to the lesson at hand and of course it’s only a matter of time before I conjugate something pertaining to me, a cis-gendered female who identifies that way, incorrectly into the masculine. Francesca looks at me wryly:
‘Are you a he today?’
It crosses my mind the Italian language, with its conjugation in male/female terms, makes it hard to be non-binary or gender fluid in Italy.
I spend a lot of time thinking about what makes people laugh, what’s funny and why. It seems to me the spark of laughter comes from the juxtaposition or close proximity of opposites. You laugh because two or more concepts have been thrown together in such a way that it surprises you.
I learned the payout for orchestrating a joke in my pre-teens. I overheard my sisters planning to sit on the couch we had in the family den. I had just enough time to hide under the 60’s style, mid-century modern sofa with 2.5 foot legs and clearance that a kid could easily roll under. Eventually they came in, sat down and started chatting. I waited, and chose my moment. I ran my fingers down the calf of sister number 1, which elicited a response made in heaven:
‘Ugh’ she said with a shiver to sister number two. ‘Ever have that feeling someone is running their fingers down your leg?’
‘Muhahahahahah!’ I bellowed while simultaneously running my fingers down both of their ankles.
Watching their feet leave the floor while wildly shrieking instilled in me the desire for more.
It’s funny that a gag is based on trust, but the practical joke, the Grand Poobah of humor, are based on forgiveness, and I only play them on good natured souls I like. The more I know someone the more daring I get; there has to be an element of risk for a great practical joke.
Enter Halloween 2004.
In those days I wore a lot of spandex, and my favorite leggings were of the boot cut variety. Looking ahead at my day, I knew I would be wearing my black boot cut favs, and a costume idea crossed my mind. Why not go as a Hermaphrodite? I already had the equipment upstairs, all I needed was the equipment downstairs. It would be a subtle costume with only the most astute noticing. I decided to fulfill the male part by virtue of men’s underwear underneath my skin tight leggings and added a sock in the pocket, and a big one at that.
Out I went into my day to see my chiropractor. John was tall, quick witted and kinda looked like Alfred E. Newman. I liked that. We had a friendly, humor based escalating tit for tat relationship that was mutually amusing. I checked in at the front desk then took a seat in the treatment room where I waited.
John came in and immediately said, ‘How do you like my Halloween tie.’
‘Ohhhh, that’s great! How do you like my costume, John?’
A quizzical look followed by a pause was the opening I needed. I slowly stood up and turned sideways.
‘What d’ ya think, John?’
His eyes looked down, and then back up to mine, no trace of emotion. I started to panic; ‘oh shit. I went too far.’ But I persevered. I had to. I was already committed so timed my words and tempo carefully. You have to give people enough time to process what is happening and catch them either right before, or right after they have come to a conclusion, then throw an alternate reality at them.
‘I’m a Hermaphrodite, John.’
My chiropractic adjustment was free that day.
I wondered what Francesca would say, if a 15 year old practical joke would be lost in language and generational translation, but it’s a Sunday and I don’t have class. I picked up my iPhone for the Google translation of hermaphrodite wondering how it would be conjugated, male or female?
Google came back with ‘female.’ Yup. It’s one or the other.
~ ~ ~ ~~
Note: This is what I understood. It is possible I missed nuances and intricacies that would point to a different conclusion. A had a new teacher today, who unprompted, told me of a movement promoting a new ending that means ‘both’ called the schwa. She underscored the difficulty of integrating it into Italian, but said it is showing up in some places of higher learning.
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