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Kelly Krater "Latin or Italian?"


"Latin or Italian?"


    While going to graduate school at Princeton, Feynman came home to his town of Far Rockaway for a vacation. He found his little sister near tears because it was the father-daughter event for her Girl Scouts and their dad was out of town for business. Feeling his brotherly responsibility, Feynman said he would take her instead.

Ever since childhood, Feynman had loved the sound of the Italian language. He used to listen to the Italian radio station just to hear it.  One day, he was riding his bike and a truck driver yelled an insult at him in Italian. Distraught, he went to an Italian friend at school who told him next time just to say “A te! A te!” – meaning, “Same to you! Same to you!” As his skills and confidence developed further, he began simply yelling fake Italian insults back, essentially gibberish in an Italian accent. Most often, a true Italian speaker would simply mistake it as a different dialect. There was one particular Italian gardener  outside of Palmer Laboratory at Princeton with whom he happily had a conversation.

Feynman’s experience in gibberish-Italian brings us back to the father daughter girl-scout event. Feynman soon realizes, once there, that none of the fathers know how to relate to their daughters. After the girls perform a talent show, it is the fathers’ turn. None of the other dads know what to do and perform awkwardly. Feynman, however, gets onstage and recites a gibberish-Italian poem. The girls roll around with laughter and recognize it immediately for the true language that it is. Afterwards, the troupe leader and a schoolteacher come up to him after debating whether his poem was Latin or Italian. He said to ask the girls.

Through this recollection Feynman teaches us not to take ourselves too seriously and to precede with confidence whatever the situation. If you act like you know what you are doing, most of the time, people will not question you. All of the other dads could not drop their guard and put themselves back in a child-like state of mind. Completely unpretentious Feynman, however,  is able to easily laugh at himself.