Some of you may wrongly assume that I can speak Italian based on the fact that I have not only been here a few times, but have managed to find my way back – in one piece. If you have not gathered from my previous blogs how incompetent I am in Italian, let me spell it out for you now. M-y I-t-a-l-i-a-n s-t-i-n-k-s! It is better than nothing, I have taken multiple classes and I can read cookbooks without the aid of the dictionary, but really, how many times do you get to use the phrases, “beat the egg whites until they are mountains of snow” or “put it in the pan with the garlic” in a sentence? Also, reading is easier, since I have time and visual recognition going for me, speech is less good, but at least I get to put the phrases together using the nouns I know and keeping verbs in the infinite. Listening, on the other hand, is a high speed cluster.
First of all, they speak fast, perhaps not faster than I speak in English, but to me it is impossible to get every word, more like 2 -3 per sentence, maybe. Also, they don’t use just a subject and a verb and add tense, gender and direct objects with hand gestures the way I do. They actually conjugate their verbs, and, frankly, I don’t recognize them.
Having been the recipient of the behavior described below, I rehearse how I will not do this to foreign speakers when I get the chance. It goes like this. They babble something, I screw up my face in a special way that means, I don’t know what you’re talking about, perhaps, shake my head slowly and add, “no capito”. In response to that, the Italian, anxious to have me understand them, repeats the same words again. Then, receiving no visual clues that I am getting it, they hone down their sentence to one or two key words which they then repeat several times in rapid succession. This does not actually help in much the same way it does not help a deaf person hear if you shout at the top of your lungs. If it is a gentleman, the older he is, the greater the likelihood he will quit on the conversation adding both a particular hand gesture (one hand only) and a particular grunt which both translate to, “It’s hopeless, I give up.”
My experience with women has been different. Often they speak to me in line at the bread bakery, or in fruit market, not usually in the supermarket as they all seem a little out of sorts and in a big hurry there. It is an idyll comment, like you might say to someone in line at the grocery store. However, I rarely know what the heck they have said (again, facial expression, head shaking). They don’t seem to care at all that I don’t understand them, they get it, they look at me, and then go right on ahead talking to me as though I did. I think it is a social interaction that does not really require comprehension, just acknowledgement.
Now, with my landloard, who is old and male, it is an entirely different story. We have a bond that cannot be waved off with a grunt; I am his tenant, for the second time. He speaks the Calabrian dialect, see below, he has teeth, although they are not all next to each other and they are predominantly gathered on the top. I say this for two reasons, one – I suspect this may be part of my difficultly in understanding him, and two – due to his particular way of communicating I have had ample opportunity to have a really close look at them. Mr. Landlord, dear soul that he is, is very hard to understand, and a request to slow down does absolutely no good whatsoever. His method is similar to the typical older male, repetition, but not with truncated sentences. He repeats the entire thing, over and over. Since we are not on the street somewhere, but rather I am in his apartment, sitting in a chair, at his kitchen table (where all discussions take place), with his wife across from me observing intently, leaning in, and occasionally repeating the sentence for him, as if a feminine voice might crack the code, the dynamics are different. He is persistent and I am captive. He is not a particularly tall man, but he remains standing and as he repeats his sentence, over and over and over, he leans in just a bit more than the time before. This is how I became so informed of his dental pattern. I think he somehow hopes I will get it if he just – gets – close – enough. I, on the other hand, am more and more aware of my incapabilities which in turn switch my brain to mush mode. I am sweating slightly and praying that he will use one new word, just one word that I can grab hold of, swing on it and fly through the air of verbal discourse grasping the next trapeze and getting myself the heck out of there. After a particularly long session, Mrs. Landlord announces, “No capite” She doesn’t understand.
And a word about dialects. They have dialects here, seriously, dialects – NOT accents. Yaw’ll might be a strictly southern contraction, but it is the same language. Buhjularu is not guanciale. They are two completely different words, from different languages, for the same thing – pig jowls. For now, don’t focus on why this came up. I was schooled up last night by Romina, on the significant differences between Calabrian and Italian, with a multitude of examples. The whole thing got started because I asked Rosetta, the cook, what she was making and she said brasciolini, which, according to Romina, they were not. Brasciole was from meat, and these were from rice and that makes them polpettini, not brasciolini. I chose not to bring up the seemingly obvious fact that a polpetini is a meatball, but in case I was wrong on this translation, I let it lie. Besides, she was on a roll. I have seen this in action before, between my mother and my father.
My Dad was always full of Italian expressions. I am guessing they are Neapolitan, as that is where his family hails from. The scenario unfolds like this – every time. Dad says something in Italian that is rhyme-y or sing-songy. I know it is an expression begging for translation. I say, “Dad, what does that mean?” He says, “I don’t know, ask your mother.” Now, first of all, of course he knows, he said it, so, why bring my mother into this. But, since I have been down this road before, I ask my mother, who is eternally in the kitchen. “Mom,” I barely have to raise my voice because Dad is eternally at the dining room table, a meatball’s toss from the kitchen, “what does that mean.” Mom’s response, “I don’t know that’s your father’s language.” That much of the scenario is always identical. It is then followed by a translation, “in his language” followed by a translation in real Italian with the regular footnote that that’s the way it is supposed to be said, but then it wouldn’t rhyme. This is capped by a brief, third person chastisement of the Neapolitan dialect and a reminder that she speaks PURE Italian. My father utters no words throughout this diatribe and I never noticed before, but I bet he was smiling to himself.
When it comes to dialect, the difference are real. The same word in dialect is unrecognizable to me and also to many Italians who don’t speak that particular dialect. Romina pointed out, in much the same tone as my mother, that Giando speaks Calabrian, a little like it was a case of herpes – not curable, but manageable. And this is why I depend so heavily on Google Translate!
While in the US, I subscribe to several Italian websites and try to dope them out myself. I go to Italian conversation meetings on Saturday mornings and read my Italian cookbooks, even rent an occasional Italian film. However, this is like going to Lamaze class, all fun and touchy feely but bears as much resemblance to actual childbirth as Tang does to orange juice. Here, in the vaginal canal of verbal intercourse, it hurts. Giving birth to a sentence with five words is a major contraction and a conversation that absolutely must happen is the definite of transition. Nothing feels better than when it is over.
Here, I can only take so much Italian before I yearn for English, or at least American. Here, I turn on Google Translate and let it decipher all my websites for me. It is enough that I have to learn how to ship olive oil from Italy to Alaska while taking into account Italian law as well as the FDA, USDA and the IRS, I don’t have the energy to do it in Italian. Since I have an Italian internet connection it assumes I want Google.it, no matter what I want. It translates everything, English to Italian, Italian to English, until I tell it to stop. Sometimes it gets into a loop from one language to another and I can’t keep up. Such a thing happened last week when my friend and I were checking how much baggage British Air would allow us to check for free. I was sure it was two bags, so civilized of them, but we wanted to be sure.
While we had BA.com up, we were approaching from an Italian ISP, apparently that matters, because it was in Italian. I clicked the translate button and it would shift in a lazy, delayed fashion to English, just before it translated English back again to my supposed native tongue, I tried to find the correct button to push to get us to Baggage FAQ’s. We really tried to stay ahead of the translator so we could fine hone our question down to how many bags if you are flying cattle status. Unfortunately, between not being completely sure if we were World Travellers Y, or World Travellers Eco, and because we did not recognize the Italian translation of those categories, we simply has to trust the in Y class you get two hills, but in Eco you only get a neck.
Ciao for now,