By Joel Stein
hen I lived in Rome I got to know a Bulgarian woman who spoke English with a funny accent and wore saucer-like earrings she called "round rings" — as opposed, say, to the square kind. She wanted to become a fashion designer in Milan where she was determined to make clothing from exotic fabric "like the funny red paper" and jewelry with even more round rings. She also thought she'd be a perfect fit at Bulgari because of the name, which she considered an Italian misspelling.
Anyway, my friend (I'll call her Sofia; here's looking at you, Bulgari) had an unusual vocation, given her linguistic... skills. She taught English.
When she first told me this I responded with two words, "Excuse me?" to which she replied, "Is not excuse!" Once we cleared that up, she told me the whole story.
She'd arrived in Rome without a nickel, or a euro, or even a suitcase full of Levs — not that Levs (let alone stotinkis) would have helped, then or now. She needed a job, fast. Trained as an engineer, she met a fellow engineer, a Sicilian Italian, who thought that since she was from the East she must know English ("All east speak this!"). He recommended she look for freelance work and introduced her to his friend, the head of a start-up English-language school. Suddenly, she was hired ("engaged," she said).
The language school was located on the outskirts of the city and taught mostly young women looking for secretarial work. Her boss knew of her non-English speaking nationality and encouraged her to develop a cover story ("This is story you use when you need fool people.")
When students in her English conversation class asked her where she was from, she'd smile and say Philadelphia. Why Philly? She'd seen "Rocky."
Students on tourist swings through the U.S. that included Philadelphia would invariably ask her about the main tourist attractions in her hometown. Go to the Rocky Steps, she'd tell them.
She also mentioned the Liberty Bell, which (in a nod to Bulgarian humor) she'd say had been damaged — "crackered" — by anarchist students from Holland who hadn't been served fast enough at a local restaurant. Soon, all the students knew her as Miss Filadelfia, which is the way consonant-averse Italians spell the city.
Once, one of her students wanted to start a classroom discussion about the foundation of the United States, a change of pace from more important discussions centering on boyfriends, hairstyles and earrings. Except she knew nothing about the U.S. aside from once having heard about George Washington, calling him Washington George and further confusing him with George Gershwin, because she played the piano.
As a result, a handful of young Italian secretaries are likely to tell you that the U.S. was founded by a piano player named Washington George who also composed "American Paris Song, " a famous opera — all this while he wasn't nation-building, naturally. She also called the Empire State Building, the Imperial State Tower, which might have been its name had it gone up in Moscow under the tsars.
Once in a while I curse my native language because I never learned it from a Bulgarian pro. I never got to know about the anarchist Dutch or round rings. I never looked at the Imperial State Tower from the right perspective. Washington George didn't resonate. Truth is, until I met Sofia I'd never even met anyone from Philadelphia — something I've since fixed. My wife grew up there.
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