Friday, March 6, 2009
DATING DA VINCI by Malena Lott
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How can Ramona, a young widow who teaches English to immigrants, get her groove back? Find out in the humorous and heartfelt Dating da Vinci by Malena Lott. A tale of love, longing and la dolce vita. When handsome Leonardo da Vinci walks in to her classroom, she helps him find his way in America while he helps her on her journey to find la vita allegro, joyful living. Publisher's Weekly raves, "written smartly...satisfying and uplifting."
EXCERPT FROM DATING DA VINCI:
I NEVER INTENDED TO take home da Vinci. I don't mean "a da Vinci" as in a reproduction of the man's art, best known for his Mona Lisa and Last Supper paintings. I mean to say I took home Leonardo da Vinci, the living, breathing man; only not that man, the genius from the fifteenth century, but a young Italian immigrant who shared his name in modern day Austin, Texas.
It is far more accurate to say I took home Italian for dinner.
It began innocently enough, with me breaking my rule yet again not to get involved with a student, but I assure you I had never gotten this involved before.
My students, all adults ranging in age from their twenties to their sixties, shuffled into the cramped classroom with the wide-eyed wonder of children on the first day of school. I smoothed my blonde hair behind my ear and reviewed the student roster on my clipboard: eight students, five languages. Of the 6,912 known living languages in the world, I had personally encountered more than fifty in my role as an English language instructor to immigrants (including those speaking languages most Americans have never heard of, like Balochi, Dari, Pashto, and Tajik). But it wasn't an unfamiliar language that caused me to catch my breath. It was a name, jumping off the page like a typo or emblazoned in lights on a marquee. The usual: Miguel, Margarita, Jesús-Spanish; Helena-Swahili; Jayesh-Farsi; Pénélope-French. And lastly, the one that caused the hair on the back of my neck to stand: Leonardo da Vinci-Italian.
My best friend says that funny tickle is the breeze of fate telling you your life is about to change, but I'd been walking around in a fog so long I barely noticed.
I surveyed the students-none remotely resembling an Italian. I'd encountered people with famous names before: a homely grade-school friend named Elizabeth Taylor, a high-school boyfriend named Bill Clinton, even a wiry bank teller with the macho moniker of John Wayne, but someone named after perhaps the greatest genius of all time? This I had to see. I imagined he would resemble the only sketch I'd ever seen of the artist da Vinci: a self-portrait he'd made in his old age, with a crazy long beard and deep wrinkles. I wondered if Cecelia, my friend in admissions, was playing some kind of joke on me.
I watched my students take their places, smiles plastered on their faces as they exchanged pleasant nods to their classmates. A smile was the universal hello, even if it wasn't genuine, but it soon would be. I wished Americans could see how well the students got along: people from vastly different areas of the world, from all walks of life, from peasants in remote villages to descendants of royalty. My students shared one distinct characteristic that bonded them for life: they were outsiders desperately wanting in.
I could typically tell who was whom from their appearances. Their skin colors ranged from the very fair, belonging to a lanky French woman to the rich ebony of an African. Their dress was the second cultural marker, though you could tell how quickly they planned to assimilate if they wore American-style clothing.
I passed out the workbooks, noting that da Vinci was still missing, if he existed at all. Getting lost in America was common, something that we concentrated on heavily in the first six weeks-how to get from point A to point B was critical for survival. Each student carried a map with color-coded instructions. My building, the Panchal Cultural Center of Austin, was in orange. I noticed the map was the one item all my students carried in their hands. I waited a few minutes longer for da Vinci to show, but when he didn't, I started my class as I did each semester, with a welcome in my students' languages.
"Karibu! ¡Hola! Bonjour! Xosh amadid!" I welcomed them with a smile, my hands clasped together then widening in a warm gesture.
My students replied back in their native tongues, pleased that we had made a verbal connection. I knew the word welcome in a hundred languages, but was only fluent in four: German, French, Spanish, and English. As a linguist, I knew enough to get around in dozens of foreign countries though I'd never traveled anywhere outside of the United States, except for Mexico where I went with my husband every year for vacation. My heart paused as I thought of him, but soon resumed its normal rhythm. I'm not certain how long it takes a broken heart to mend, but I hadn't done anything to speed along its recovery.
In fact, my life had become so simple and routine that I began to believe survival mode was the only mode, or at least the only mode for me. My only source of adventure lay before me, the seven students who would hang on my every word, unlike my two sons, who grew more belligerent with each passing year, especially with their father gone. After Joel died, I wanted nothing more than to stop communicating altogether, yet finances forced me to work right through my grief. In the almost two years since Joel's passing, I found myself more comfortable with complete strangers from around the globe than I did with my friends and family.
I liked that each semester began with a blank slate-I did not know them, and they did not know me. They were floundering to make it in America, I was floundering to make it through another day. I had never had so much in common with my students. For the first time in my thirty-six years, I didn't fit in, either.
Answer the following question for a chance to win a free copy of DATING DA VINCI:
What's your favorite story about your childhood friend, PeeWee Herman? (Not the PeeWee, of course, but that kid who unfortunately shared the famous name.)
Stop by and hang out with Malena! Maybe we can even break out a few languages. Go nuts!