The chubby girl with the paisley smock and the crinkly-eyed smile, as good as her word, gives her little sister an enthusiastic round of applause. The two girls are playing beside the restaurant outside which my friend Davide and I are waiting for the rest of our group to arrive, and there’s an n-shaped metal bar stopping vehicles from driving up the narrow side street behind them. In childish adventurous style, they’re taking turns to swing off the bar: the applause is because Little Sis has just done an excellent monkey hang, knees tucked up to her chest with her arms stretched up past her ears and her hands clinging to the bar with tenacious glee.
“OK, now me!” Big Sis takes hold of the bar with both hands and jumps up so that she’s hanging over the top of it, her round stomach resting in the middle. Little Sis is gratifyingly impressed. Pleased, Big Sis pushes away from the bar and thuds back down to ground level, before hauling the spaghetti straps of her dress back over her shoulders and yanking the tiered skirt back down towards her knees. “OK, now your turn again. Go! Go!” Little Sis doesn’t need asking twice. She grabs hold of the bar a second time, tucks up her feet and hangs underneath it, swinging gently back and forth with her mouth wide open in a happy grin and a giggle bubbling up her throat. Big Sis claps her hands enthusiastically. “Brava! Applauso!”
It’s too much for me to resist. I join in the clapping. “Brava!” Big Sis’s eyes go wide and she looks at me as an astonished smile spreads over her face. She pokes her sister. “Look how good you are! The signora’s clapping you, too!” Big Sis and I grin at each other and she leaps into action. “Watch this!” She hangs over the bar again, loving the fact that she’s now got a proper audience. Little Sis, momentarily stunned into silence by the strange lady’s approbation, regains her poise. “Applauso!” she squeaks, clapping her sister with mad abandonment while peeking at me shyly from the corner of her eye. I laugh and join in: “Brava!”
Ice broken, both sisters now start doing tricks for the tall, friendly signora and her mortally embarrassed Italian companion, who is doing an excellent impression of someone praying for the ground to swallow him whole. There’s another metal bar next to the one the girls have been using thus far, so plenty of space for double trouble. I grin and clap and giggle for all I’m worth as Big Sis babbles away to me in rapid Italian about whatever comes into her head. “Our mum’s inside, by the way. We’ve already eaten so we’re out playing. Are you eating inside? What, you’re still waiting for your friends? At this hour? You must be starving!” She clutches her stomach and mugs for all she’s worth, a tiny, rotund comedian. A moment later, lightning-fast, her brain changes direction. She pulls herself up straight and proud, standing in front of the metal bar. “I used to do rhythmic gymnastics, you know. Ages ago.” I wink at her. “Me too!” I flick my hand back over my shoulder, in the universal EFL teacher’s indicator for the past. “Aaaaaaaages ago.” Big Sis – who can’t be more than seven or eight years old – gapes at me in disbelieving admiration of our shared experiences; beside me, Davide snorts in adult complicity of the differing understanding of what time means to children and to grown-ups.
Little Sis, who as yet hasn’t joined in the conversation, choosing instead to do ever more complex acrobatic tricks, now interrupts. “Come ti chiami?” She’s young enough not to be bothered with the formal ‘Lei’ form – as far as she’s concerned I’m just a rather taller kid. I tell her my name is Kate and Big Sis erupts into bubbling giggles. “Noooo! She asked what your *name* was!” I laugh and nod – “I know!” I repeat more slowly. “Mi chiamo Kate.” They repeat, italianising the pronunciation and giving it two distinct syllables. “Ke-it.” The unfamiliarity of the sound chewed around their mouths seems to throw them – I don’t think it’s occurred to them so far that I might not be Sicilian.
Little Sis recovers her equilibrium quicker than her sister. She cocks her head to one side, then says in a squeaky whisper, “I’m Miriam.” I smile back at her and repeat, her name’s pronunciation as strange to me as mine is to her. “Meer-yam?” Big Sis nods. “Yes! Miriam!” I smile down at Little Sis, who’s hanging half upside-down, her legs wrapped around the side of the metal barricade, looking at me out of the corner of her eye. She twists away, saying something as she goes. I don’t catch it, but Big Sis does and falls about laughing. She turns to her sister, half-prostrate with giggles. “Ti voglio bene?! You can’t say you love her! You don’t even know her!” Little Sis shrugs, uncaring, and repeats louder: “Ti voglio bene, Ke-it!” She grins at me as, laughing, I clutch my hands to my heart in acknowledgment of the compliment. Who am I to argue with the unconditional instant adoration of a three-year-old?