Biancheria del Vino: An Underwear of Wine
Letting go of perfection in language—and life.
It was 2005. Together with my three sisters and husband, I made my first foray into Italy with my Italian American father who had last visited in 1960 and my Italian American mother who had never been. Mark and I borrowed a set of Pimsler language CDs and plugged headphones into our ears for the better part of 3 months as the instructor droned into our psyches the proper way to order an espresso in Italian—we would use that often.
Nearing the end of a long evening stroll in Venezia, we decided on a last glass of wine. It’s always that “one last” that lands you in trouble.
We were seated around a table for eight, mandolin music harping in the background. The waiter jotted down our orders. Resolute in expanding my repertoire from a simple request of “del vino,” I eked out, “Il vorrei una biancheria del vino.” A complete sentence with a new word. The server mercilessly laughed. “Biancheria” is underwear. Instead of “bicchiere del vino”, ordering a glass, I had asked for underwear! An underwear of wine!
After an extended and necessary absence from the language, I’ve returned to my studies comfortable with the mess I make of stating my wants and needs in a foreign language. This is in part thanks to mentors who have shown me the ease with which we all slip into our fleece-lined mistakes.
Why do we shrink from view, faces as flushed red as a tart Chianti, when faced with the choice to shout out the correct answer or muddle in a mistaken one?
Deeply rooted, this tendency always pushes up through the surface in the most inopportune moments, such as the one described above. For instance, in first grade, I stood trembling at a chalkboard in Power’s Elementary blue pod classroom, determined to correctly answer a math question, ignoring how I had peed my pants in the excitement and anxiety of the moment. Pride and foolishness landed me in the corner later that day at home.
These traits trail us in our school years, especially into our teens. In ninth grade, I skipped a day of Spanish class. Another classmate—who boasted of the same initials as mine—also played hooky that day. We were found out. Our teacher, Mr. Marino, informed me I would take detention that day. The other unnamed person was not “offered” the same punishment. I complained and asked why. “Because you should know better,” he said.
This was sexist. And given that I was younger, this was wrong. Our teenage brains don’t always know better. They make mistakes.
The cementing of embarrassment over mistakes continued throughout my early computer science days. I wasn’t an astute scientist. My programs often contained errors that needed fixing (which is why the government never hired me). Unbeknownst to me, I would later watch as Microsoft developed operating systems or Playstation marketed video games with plenty of bugs in them. They rolled out their software and provided the fix later.
About the time I hit my thirties, I began to practice what the Japanese call Wabi-Sabi, the art of imperfection.
How? Certainly not through the art of mending broken pottery or celebrating happy accidents (there was nothing to celebrate during my accident in first grade). But in the art of opening to the grace of others, such as allowing my stylist to slyly have fun with my haircuts. I was opening to the grace of me.
Stuck without the wavy locks my sisters flaunted or hated, I had weird cowlicks and springy hair strands that were incorrigible as I could be on some days. I allowed my stylist to apply many of her newly-acquired skills on uneven cuts and blown out coifs—until the dreaded day my mother yanked at my loose wisps. “Do something about that hair”, “What is this, these stringy things?” were her words, the best she could do in her dementia to remind me of my imperfections.
Was my haphazard style cultivated to spite her? I refuse to answer.
My favorite podcast host, Dan Pashman, took three years to create a new pasta shape called cascatelli. His next quest was to develop the same shape in a gluten-free product. On this journey, he worked with a food scientist and their first run produced a batch where 70% of the little ruffles fell off the main trough of the pasta. At the time of launch this winter, that number had been adjusted to 20%. They sent the shipment out. Over time, they would overcorrect.
We all have time to overcorrect for our mistakes. Worksheets assigned in my Italian language class are proof. I’ve written and rewritten my responses (we’re provided an answer key) and still get a few wrong. My instructor, Antonio, says the language is tricky because Italians talk so much and throw in extra words. For instance, they will place a definite article and a possessive adjective before a noun (with exceptions of course). Think, the my car. Or the our teacher.
The pandemic has demonstrated how few of us got it right when it came to the future, let alone the present moment. As of late, I’m using that as my measuring stick.
After posting my blog about cheering for the Bengals, I re-read it while seated in my car and found two grammatical errors. TWO. With the overhead mirror flipped down, I messed up my hair a little (in memory of Mom) and drove on.
I had more underwear of wine to order and consume.
What mistakes you have made that are unforgettable, I’m curious to know. As always, thanks for reading! If you’re not already subscribed, please consider doing so. This post is also publicly accessible, so feel free to share!