Editors' Choice

Italian for Beginners

by Teresa Joseph

Something usually gets lost in the translation.

Mi scusi, dov e l’ufficio de turismo?” I said hesitantly—but rather proudly—having memorized the phrase from out of the back of the guidebook. The Milanese lady blinked at me and then as it dawned on her what I meant, sing-songed in English, “Ahhhhh, da tourist offees? Yes, yes, of corsa!” and then taking my arm gesticulated at me to go down the street. Now, as an enthusiastic linguist, I had been bursting to pick up some of the lingo, spending our precious hotel-time poring over the vocabulary pages in the guidebook and mouthing various Italian phrases at my pillow, at the wall, and at my endlessly patient friend Laura, but the need for it was slight. English, for better or worse, is everywhere. And so I made a decision: I would maneuver myself from the north of Italy all the way to Sicily with as little English as possible. I admit—rather shame-facedly—that I do have a degree in Spanish, so I was clearly at an advantage in the Latin-language arena. Not like the time in Crete, for instance, when I found myself lost in a field near the hotel wanting to buy some food, and with no idea how to pronounce anything, I resorted to bleating helplessly (in Greek) “Shop? Shop?” and then eventually showed an old woman nearby my phrase book, who, as it turned out, couldn’t read anyway.

At the start of my three-week sojourn through Italy, I caught up with some Italian friends in Milan who all speak perfect English. Sitting at a restaurant just off the Piazza Duomo, sipping wine and taking in the view of the magnificent cathedral for which Milan is rightly known, it struck me that this was neither the time nor place to start harassing my poor friends with my (very) basic Italian. It would have hindered communication no end, given that we only had two evenings and two years’ worth of gossip to catch up on. Upon learning of my plan, however, Silvia did teach me several phrases. One was, “Could you take a photo for me, please?” (which, granted, is one of those things you can get away with by just thrusting your camera at someone), but it required some practice before I could say it without asking in a peculiar Italian/Spanish hybrid, “Could you suck me a photo, please?” (I still don’t understand how I managed that one.) You can infer from this that, inevitably, it does take a while to find your feet linguistically (read: embarrassing incident in Metro station of the “I’m clearly foreign and have no idea how to buy the ticket I want” variety), during which time I contented myself with saying “ciao!”, “buonasera!” and “grazie!” in an exaggerated way to disguise fact I was, and am, foreign.

By the end of the first three days, however, I had made significant progress in asking Italians for directions, (even when I already knew the way) but I feel I triumphed with my master question, “Dov é posso comprare il biglietto di autobus?” (“Where can I buy a bus ticket?”) in Como, at the lakes, and again memorized straight from the guidebook. There was mutual comprehension, (i.e. the man said, “la” meaning “there”) there were no blank looks, no complicated answers resulting in tricky situations whereby I nod uncomprehendingly with a petrified expression plastered on my face and finally whimper, “Va bene, grazie” without actually having understood a peep. Brava! I blame the serenity of the lakes, personally. No time or cause for stress there, except perhaps if you miss the last boat back to Como. But even then there’s plenty of scope for lolling over the waterfront and taking poseur photos, so all is not lost.

It was also here that Laura and I discovered it pays to show an interest in native language and/or culture, having managed to unintentionally sweet-talk four free pieces of fruit from a café, purely by asking the waiter how to say “apple” in Italian and then pronouncing it horrendously to unintentional comedic effect. Then we discovered that the word for “banana” is, in fact, “banana.” I rather thought for a moment that he was repeating what I said in English, thus ensuing a brief conversation: “Banana?”; “Banana”; “No, no, banana en italiano?”; “Banana, banana!”; “Ohhh.” He was so amused by all this that he just handed them over the counter and waved us away, grinning. This spirit of things lasted throughout my trip. At the hostel in Naples, I asked in Italian to use the phone to call home and the very nice young man at the desk said I could do it for free. What I mean by this is that I said the two words “utilizare” and “telefono” while raising both my intonation and eyebrows maniacally. Cynics may say that a smile gets you far, but I like to think that it was because I made an effort.

On Day Six in Florence, my developing language skills came into play, thanks to an unfortunate incident at our hostel and a decidedly creepy hostel worker. Finding ourselves in an apparently empty, half-renovated apartment in the Florentine backstreets instead of in the comfortable room we had envisioned, with a man who spoke no English and had absolutely no sense of personal space, we were on red alert. Rather to my surprise, I was able to ask the man not only where on earth everyone was, but I even managed to argue with him when he told us to pay cash upfront. And rebuff his suggestion that we hook up. Suffice to say, both of us told him a big, fat “no!” (a universally understood word in any case) and pretty much legged it out of the building. Eventually, after an hour of dragging suitcases around the historical center and accidentally arriving at the famous cathedral from a side street, which we greeted with a succinct, “Wow!” as we momentarily forgot our preoccupations, we found a normal, safe hotel. It just goes to show that knowing some of the language is useful in more ways than one, and that in times of necessity, it can appear as if from nowhere.

From Florence, we got on a train that rolled across vineyards and fields and past ochre houses to Pisa. Apart from its most famous monument (you think you know what it’s going to be like, but the moment you see this squat, rather fat structure tilting madly over some houses nearby, you stop in your tracks), I remember Pisa primarily as a place where I learned all manner of rude Italian phrases from a t-shirt at a tourist stall. It’s amazing where you can pick things up. Clinging like a limpet to the railing at the very top of the tower, I almost swore in Italian; it was only the calming sunset views over distant Tuscan hills that stopped me.

With Laura’s departure from Pisa I continued to Perugia with another friend Lee whose slightly aggrieved first comment was, “Christ, have you learned Italian in a week?” Of course not, I replied smugly, but it just goes to prove that ordering something at a restaurant and asking for a room at a hotel with a degree of confidence will convince non-linguists that you are a master of the field. Perugia’s medieval, black-walled stone alleys and steep, dark steps provided just the right atmosphere for bickering over whether people should try to learn something of the native language when they go abroad. Shop owners and those who work in the service industry are perfectly prepared to spare your discomfiture by speaking English to you, and you can generally achieve your goal merely through gesturing. As a linguist, I’m naturally biased in favor of learning at least a couple phrases or words, but I know from experience that some people are just too plain embarrassed to do so. That is to say, for example, like the time I was in a café in Flemish-speaking Belgium, with the horrible realization that I was reading aloud with a terrible accent (the waiter, chin resting pensively on hand, frowned at me as he tried to decode my chirruping) and so promptly abandoned the attempt and did some classic pointing instead. So I tried to refrain from bullying my point home. Not entirely successfully, however. By the time we reached Naples, where far fewer people know English, Lee was ordering “una birra piccola ” like a true linguistic convert. Funny how everyone learns the words for “beer” first, though, isn’t it?

From the grime and chaos of Naples, I parted ways with Lee (who was returning with notable relief to London) and continued southward alone to stay with my friend Maria Carmela. Getting there was a bit of a test, too. Maria lives in a small town in the region of Calabria miles away from anywhere, my mobile battery had run out and I didn’t have change for a phone-box. From the isolated station, I began plodding along a silent road in the searing afternoon heat with only my backpack, the sound of gravel underfoot, and the amorous attentions of a mad-eyed dog until I reached the small town of Pizzo twenty minutes later. Believe me, my direction requests were much needed here and in the end a kind-hearted café owner took pity on my sweaty, coin-less person and, sympathetically cooing “poverina” at me, let me use the café phone. This was all done in a combination of gestures and developing my Italian-Spanish hybrid begun in Milan: “Mi amica…errr…no c’e…no dinero y necesito telefonare ella…err…

Maria and I had met on a course in Germany, but our memories of German have dwindled to a shameful nothingness, her English is halting and my Italian, although by this time competent in terms of restaurants, directions, and dastardly men in Florence hostels, could not cope with the demands of living in the midst of a bona-fide Italian family. They even spoke a Calabrian dialect! The extent of conversation with her brother was, “Te piace la pasta?” (sic) (“Do you like pasta?”) to which he replied, “Si.” It was here that I truly realized the importance of gestures: these and facial expressions count for a lot in the absence of a dictionary. Like the time in Milan we encountered a young man who saw Laura reading the guidebook and asked, “Eeenglish toorist? You like Milano? Milano—che brutto!” and accompanied the statement by sticking his tongue out in disfavor and making a noise of unmistakable disgust. They were then also able to conduct an agreeable five-minute conversation almost entirely in famous Italian culinary dishes and landmarks:

Man: Italia, bellisima! You know la pizza?

Laura: Si, si, pizza margarita!

Man: (flirtatiously) Ahh, e spaghetti Bolognese…

Laura: (nodding affably) Mmm, si, spaghetti Bolognese. Um, lasagne?

Man: Buonissimo. You see Roma—estupenda!

Laura: Roma, si, Roma! Err, and Pisa!

Man: (smiling, waving hands) Bellisima!

And the funny thing was, to a casual observer, from their mannerisms and facial expressions it would have looked like they were having a coherent conversation. It had seemed par for the course to me to gesture in shops and the like, but trying to explain to Maria’s grandfather why you are frightened of pigs is nigh on impossible otherwise.

It is certainly true that being immersed in a language helps you learn much quicker. By the end of the three or four days spent with Maria and her family, I had begun to put all the basic grammar rules I knew from Spanish together with Italian vocabulary. It wasn’t entirely successful, however, given my failure to engage the brother in any conversation other than the one mentioned above. Looking back, I did a lot of smiling and nodding, plus a bit of watching TV, which was, by the looks of things, as gloriously tacky as the Spanish TV of which I have such fond memories. But I emerged from the experience with confidence and a desire to talk as much as possible to anyone who would let me.

Moving south from Calabria, I arrived in Sicily to find that the stereotype of macho, vaguely leering Sicilian men borders on truth and that a lone female traveler is wont to invite comment from local males on scooters. At such times, I had to restrain myself from hurling back insults (from the vulgar t-shirt in Pisa) for fear of reprisal, but, feeling very Italian, I did mutter them under my breath with a certain degree of Mediterranean vehemence. However, in beautiful Taormina where the town is quaint and full of tree-lined squares with pink and purple blossoms and traditional musicians strumming the guitar, where there are trattorias and artisan shops galore, and more fruit stall owners who give you free grapes, it is very easy to forget all the staring.

My proudest moment came on my last day in a ceramics shop in Palermo, a Monday when, feeling both the rain and slightly lonely, I decided to try to find a cinema, preferring to pay to not understand something for two hours than visit yet another church while waiting for Mango to open. (I could only find one cinema, and that was only screening Garfield—The Movie and I wasn’t that desperate.) I was buying a gift for my mother when the shopkeeper spent a whole twenty minutes explaining the history of various ceramics, and asking me where I was from, what I was doing in Palermo, etc. My part in the conversation was still limited to half-baked phrases, monosyllables, and the unshakeable tendency to string Spanish words together to fill in the gaps, but all in all, even though I will now sound inordinately self-satisfied, bravissima! You see, I think that’s why I like languages so much; it is the essence of communication. Naturally, the importance of gestures and smiles is not to be underplayed as my companions and I discovered throughout the trip, particularly at Maria Carmela’s; they will of course get you places, they will get your food and get your shopping, but even just a few words of the language, the simplest effort, will be greeted with appreciation and warmth. Even saying something abysmally can generate goodwill and laughter (and free food). From being the foreigner, you take your first tottering steps to integration and acceptance, and arms are metaphorically outstretched to catch you. From the time and effort it takes to learn a language, there’s no greater satisfaction, no more exhilarating feeling, than finally being able to understand and be understood—even from the simplest, broken conversation. The sense that you are starting to bridge a gap is truly important.

But the real test of my theory, of course, will be when I take my next trip—to China.


After working as a personal assistant in London and deciding it wasn’t for her, Teresa Joseph decided to go back to university and study translation instead, hoping to establish a career as a freelance translator, and in the meantime enjoy traveling around Europe and meeting different people.


About Editors' Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we've received from travelers around the world and present it here as our "Editors' Choice." For more about the editors, see About Travelers' Tales Staff.


Read more from Editors' Choice, Teresa Joseph

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