Editors' Choice

Learning to Speak Italian

by Annette Jarvie

Wilma is tall and blond, with a square jaw and a big, strong body even now that she’s in her seventies. She talks with a thick Florentine accent, peppered with local colloquialisms.

I love to accompany Wilma on her shopping rounds to listen to her banter with the fornaio, the fruttivendolo, the pollaiolo. I pick up more than just the language. For example, I learned that to make carpaccio, the Florentine specialty with raw beef, it’s best to call the butcher the day before so he puts the meat in the freezer. Then when you go to pick it up, the beef can be sliced paper thin.

Wilma’s butcher looks like a Gary Larson character: his hands are plump and red from handling frozen and raw meat, he walks hunched over and one eye rolls around in its socket. While Wilma small talks with him I stare at the strange entrails in the case in front of me.

The butcher wraps up the frozen beef and sets it on the counter.
"Altro?" he askes Wilma. (Literally, "more?")

"Altro," she replies. For some reason this is the common call and response when you are through with your requests. "More?" "More." Meaning, "no more." We take the small package of sliced, raw beef and continue on.

Wilma, and most Italians, shop each morning for that day’s meals. We pick up salad greens at the ortolano, then stop in the fornaio for bread and oven-baked white beans, a Tuscan specialty. You buy them at the baker’s because they are set into a pot (traditionally it was a glass flask) and baked in the corner of the wood-burning oven along with the bread.

Bread is called by a different name in every town. A long, flat loaf of pane casalinghe, plain, white, and unsalted, is called a ciabatta in Florence, meaning a slipper. Not a dainty slipper, as Cinderella would wear, but a scruffy old slipper that one shuffles around the house in. Nowhere outside of Tuscany is a long, flat loaf called a ciabatta.

"Give me one of those slippers!" the housewife next to us yells at the baker, and he picks up what looks more like a club than a loaf of bread for her to see. "Half of it!" she says, and he whacks it in two with a large knife, then wraps it in rough brown paper.

When it is our turn Wilma asks him for some "smashed" bread, schiacciata. Known also as focaccia, and by other names, too, in Florence it is "smashed." You can buy a piece of schiacciata plain, with oil and coarse salt, or topped with onions, or with boiled potatoes, or even tomato sauce. It is a great mid-morning snack to keep you going while shopping, or even a quick lunch.

Back at home, Wilma lays the thin beef slices out carefully on a large platter, then sprinkles them with lemon juice.

"See," she points out, defensively, "they are not raw, now they are marinated." She wraps plastic-wrap around the platter and puts it in the refrigerator until evening. She will serve the carpaccio with thin slices of raw artichoke, salt, and olive oil. It is heavenly.

I’ve picked up many sayings from Wilma, even though it is her daughter, Francesca, who is my Italian teacher. If Francesca complains about not being sure whether she should do one thing or another, her mother will say "Tu sei peggio del Giovedi!" (You’re worse than Thursday!)

"Because," Wilma explains, "Thursday isn’t at the beginning of the week, it’s not at the end of the week, and it’s not in the middle of the week, so it doesn’t know where it is!"

There’s usually a good story behind a local saying. "Cosa centra il culo con le quarant’ore?" — usually shortened to "Cosa centra il culo?" —is used to express "What’s that got to do with this?" It’s been repeated since the Renaissance, when a young woman, praying at Santa Maria del Fiore (the Duomo) for the forty hours, a period of devotional prayer, felt a young man pinch her butt.

"What are you doing?" she asked, turning on him with anger.
"I’m here for the forty hours," he replied.
"What’s my butt got to do with the forty hours?!" she admonished him.

Another common expression is "Un bischero!" said after someone does something foolish. I assumed bischero was ‘fool’ in Italian, but Stefano, a Florentine friend, explained to me the story: the Bischeri family used to own a big palazzo in the center of Florence (and here we’re talking about the Renaissance again, even if he makes it sound like it was last year), and during hard times they sold the place, when they probably could have hung onto it longer.

Italians never sell property, not unless they’re forced to. The Bischeri couldn’t ever afford to buy back into town, and ‘Bischero’ has been synonymous with ‘fool’ ever since.

It is very Florentine to tease, to affectionately make fun of things. Or people. I used to be Wilma’s favorite target before I spoke the language well, plus I’m gullible, so she picked on me. It took a while to see that it was being done with love, and I spent many evenings near tears as she laughed whole-heartedly at my fumbling attempts to make myself understood. Now that I am fluent in Italian, I return the teasing by imitating her thick Florentine brogue whenever I am in her company. She loves it.

The first book I ever read in Italian was Pinocchio, the story of a marionette. What a surprise to find out that it wasn’t written by Disney! And that there is no Jiminy Cricket! It was written as chapters in a magazine for children published in 1882, and later it became a book.

Written by the Carlo Collodi, from the town of Collodi in Tuscany, the book carries the lilting, lightly sarcastic tone characteristic of Tuscan speech. Maestro Ciliege and Maestro Antonio bite and kick and hurl insults at each other during a fight, then make up and swear to be friends forever — so Italian! The children in the story are children, including the impish Pinocchio, and they make mistakes and fight and are not fair.

This story is a microcosm of Italian culture, right down to the carabinieri and the monkey judge, and helped me to understand Italians from their own point of view. It is a sort of reverse-cautionary tale, too: instead of preaching to children that they must be good or terrible things will happen to them, it shows a childish marionette, Pinocchio, trying hard to be good and never quite being able to resist temptation, getting into trouble repeatedly and always being saved by the fairy. Then, at the end, without having overcome his natural inclination to do as he pleases, he is turned into a boy anyway. Not because he deserves to be, but because he is loved. Because all children are loved, just because they are children. This is so Italian.

Before I rented an apartment on my own in Florence, Francesca and I shared a large, three-bedroom apartment with Stefano, who had lived there since he was a child. His parents had moved out years before, but Stefano stayed on, exercising Italian renter’s rights: you can stay in a rented apartment pretty much forever. With rent control.

Landlords find ingenious ways to remove long-term tenants. The easiest, of course, is to offer financial incentive. It is not surprising to be offered ten or twenty thousand dollars to leave an apartment. Stefano’s landlord was furbo, very clever: he asked Stefano to move out so that his daughter, who was getting married, could move in.

"No, don’t do it!" we counseled him. "He’s lying, he doesn’t need this apartment. He just wants to rent it for more money to foreign students." But big-hearted Stefano believed him, and we all moved out. The landlord was soon renting the house to foreign students.

"Stefano e’ un bischero," Wilma commented.

The first apartment I actually rented on my own was during the winter that I had to move out of Stefano’s. I placed an ad in the Florence paper that I was a foreigner looking to rent an apartment. The first answer to my ad was for a beautiful penthouse apartment with enormous terraces. It was expensive, by Italian standards, but reasonable for "foreigners." I took it.

The back terrace made a perfect launching spot that year for the "throwing away of the old" on New Years Eve, a quaint Italian tradition. For good luck, at midnight on New Year’s Eve, you throw out the window any old stuff that you don’t want anymore — dishes, appliances, even washing machines. And to have good luck the thing has to break!

Some friends and I had a long, relaxed New Year’s Eve dinner, talking and drinking wine. At midnight they grabbed the plates and cups they had each brought, I found something old in the cupboard, and we all went out onto the terrace and threw them over the edge to the driveway three floors below — smash! smash! smash! It was great fun.

My friend Paola didn’t hear her plate break. It must have landed on grass. She was superstitious and insisted that it had to break or it would mean bad luck, so she went downstairs in the dark and searched around until she found it. She picked it up and crash! smashed it to the ground. She had her good luck that year, too — she became pregnant with her first son.

One Easter I was invited to a family gathering at Wilma’s house, and brought a basket of meringue mushrooms. They’re easy to make, and when placed in a basket with fake grass, they are almost indistinguishable from real mushrooms.

When I arrived at the brunch, I put the basket on the kitchen table. Francesca’s grandmother, Nonna Ida, looked surprised that I would bring a basket of raw mushrooms to a brunch. She looked even more amazed when I told her they were really meringues.

"Sputa di Monache!" she exclaimed, "Nun’s Spit!" I burst out laughing, thinking this was some Florentine expression I hadn’t heard yet — like "shiver me timbers!" or something. Then she told me that’s what Florentines call meringues.

One of the fringe benefits of learning Italian in Wilma’s shadow is that I have a slight Florentine accent, so when I travel within Italy people are amused as they slowly realize, first, that I am not Florentine, though I sound it, and then, that I’m not even Italian! I like to try and get people to guess where I am from.

I was in a butcher’s shop buying ground meat for pasta sauce. I began chatting with the butcher and his wife, who were friendly folks, and after some minutes he remarked on my accent and wondered where I was from. "You’re not Italian!" he said, with sudden surprise.

"No," I answered, "I’m not."
"Where are you from?" he asked.
"Guess!" I replied.
"From Holland?" (This is usually everyone’s first guess, because my accent and dress are not clearly anything else).
"No."

He didn’t guess English, because they never lose their English accent; neither do the French. "German?" he asked, though I don’t look German.

It’s amazing how noone ever guesses American! He gave up and I told him. The butcher was delighted that I am American.

I was delighted that he is Tuscan. He gave me my ground meat, and threw in a couple of his homemade sausages as a bonus, "because pasta sauce is better with a little sausage."

Francesca and I were driving in downtown Florence around the Fortezza da Basso in heavy traffic, five or six constantly redefined lanes weaving in and around each other, Italian style. As we drove through an underpass we saw an older woman ahead of us on a bicycle, her blue coat flapping in the wind of the passing cars, staying as close to the wall of the tunnel as she could with the cars pressing against her.

"Look at that pazza!" (crazy person), Francesca said, pointing to the woman on the bike. As we passed the woman we saw that it was Wilma! We pulled over up ahead and Francesca got out of the car.

"Mamma, are you crazy? That’s so dangerous!" she chided, as Wilma stopped her bike and they exchanged kisses on the cheek. Wilma had the reckless air of a teenager. Like many Italian women of her age, she has never learned to drive. Florence is flat, and easy to get around by bike.

"Eh, the traffic..." she said, erasing it with a wave of her hand. She was thrilled to see Francesca, her only child, anytime, and everytime, they met. An Italian mother. They made plans to meet for lunch the next day, and she pedalled off, oblivious to the traffic, coat flapping and blond hair bobbing as she disappeared down the Viale.

Annette Jarvie is a writer living in Mendocino, CA. This piece is an excerpt from a forthcoming book on her travels through Italy. © 2003 all rights retained by the author.


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