Travel Stories: In Italy, visiting Nigerian students asked Lenore Greiner to explain a classic American song
06.27.12 | 10:15 AM ET
“Signorina, per piacere?”
I looked up into the ebony face of a young Nigerian man, perhaps 20 years old, both of us students at the University of Foreigners in Perugia, Italy. His earnest, round face towered over me and he wore two sweaters, since Italy is far chillier than his home. In his clipped Italian, David haltingly asked me to translate an American song for him and his fellow Nigerian students. The group watched expectantly from across our dormitory’s dayroom.
Then I heard the song from his battered cassette player: the unmistakable strains of Aretha Franklin’s earthy, volcanic, “Respect.”
I couldn’t help but smile.
“Certo,” I replied.
I crossed the stone-tiled floor, which smelled vaguely of floor cleaner, to join them under a flickering and buzzing fluorescent light.
It felt so delightfully wrong.
Here in this student dormitory run by nuns, where heavy, fortified doors secured the men’s and women’s areas, separated by this uncomfortable room, I was being asked to translate an anthem of the feminist movement that oozed with sexuality. But that wasn’t all.
In our school’s Italian immersion program, our international student body consisted of South Americans and Japanese, Danes and Iranians, Americans and Nigerians. Outside our school’s palazzo, the Perugini impatiently put up with our slow, sometimes nonsensical Italian. The locals barely endured most of us, but they despised the Nigerian students most of all.
“Whenever there’s a drug case in the newspaper, it’s always the Nigerians. The Nigerians!” spat one storekeeper. This wasn’t true; plenty of Americans ended up as guests in Italian prisons as well.
I had seen groups of Nigerian students, Othellos in well-cut Italian overcoats, crossing the Piazza Quattro Novembre, the public drawing room of this Umbrian hill town. I had wondered how they wound up here. I learned later that Italy was exploiting the gas fields of the Niger Delta and needed translators.
As these Nigerian students leaned toward me, I began scribbling each heated lyric in English, singing along as David stopped and reversed the tape. The Nigerians grinned and laughed as I sang, crowding their knees toward me as we sat on the stiff furniture. Then dictionaries came out: English and Italian, Nigerian and Italian.
But right at the top of the song, I hit a wall.
What you want,
Baby, I got
David looked confused. “What does she have that I want?” he said.
How to translate Aretha’s innuendo? How to translate a molten, sexual African-American soul song in a windowless dayroom in a nuns’ dormitory? To Africans?
“Well, she has what you want…”
“Yes?” Those earnest faces.
“But all she needs from you is respect.” This sounded so chaste in Italian.
Trading glances, their expressions slowly changed, some forming sly grins as others averted their eyes with embarrassment.
They got it.
Aretha was singing “I’m giving you everything so leave the attitude at the door.” She was demanding respect for her sexual needs as her back-up singers chanted behind her, backing the sister up.
Aretha continued to drive it home as her girls chanted “Just a little bit” over and over.
“Ah…un po’ di piu,” I said, frustrated. “Just a little bit” was coming off as much too dainty; I was not conquering the Italian divide as I wished. I plowed on.
Take care, TCB
Ah, yes, how to explain TCB? Where did it come from? During the ‘60s, on the streets of black neighborhoods, TCB meant “takin’ care of business.” Later, Elvis brought TCB to white America. Was Aretha singing about getting this respect question settled pronto so that other “business” could get taken care of?
In spite of dictionaries and my efforts, I couldn’t do justice to Aretha. Our dorm’s curfew fast approached. I soldiered on, cursing my habit of late-night clubbing instead of memorizing Italian vocabulary and verb conjugations.
Now Aretha was ecstatically swooning about her lover’s kisses, sweeter than honey but, hey, so is her money. At this, the Nigerians roared and slapped each other, bent with laughter. Oh yeah, Aretha’s sassy.
Finally, my Waterloo: “Sock it to me.” And it was almost curfew time.
“Like hit?” asked David. “She wants to be hit.”
“No, no, American…” I raced through the dictionary for the right word. “Gergo, slang.”
Now long brown fingers spun the pages of the Nigerian dictionary.
“It’s like, it’s like she wants him to love her, right now,” I said, avoiding the temptation to do any pantomiming, leaving that image to their imagination.
“American slang,” said David. “OK.” They got that, too.
With little time left, I watched my new Nigerian comrades puzzle over my lyrics and Aretha’s manifesto, going through each line, helping one another understand. Then David rewound the tape and we sang the entire song together, loudly, “R-E-S-P-E-C-T,” finding out what it means to me and taking care of TCB.
And at that moment, it hit me: I was a white girl teaching Africans a history lesson on the African-American experience during my country’s time of great upheaval, when women and blacks battled sexism and racism. In this Italian provincial town, these Africans might have been experiencing racism for the first time. No wonder they chose Aretha, who knew a thing or two about battling for respect. Aretha represented.
And there, as our curfew arrived, we all sang along together: Aretha, this American girl and these Nigerians getting their first introduction to R-E-S-P-E-C-T.