Understanding idioms –and employing them correctly– is part of language learning that happens in layers over years; for non-native speakers, it could take a lifetime. In Venezia, Iole and I spent the better part of 15 minutes trying to understand perché Italians dice, “Ti va…” when they’re asking someone if they’d like to do something.
First, we debated which verb was being conjugated — volere or andare? It’s andare, we agreed, but why is it conjugated for him/her/it rather than for the familiar “you?” Aha! We realized that the idiom is asking, “Does it go for you?” (ti indicates the accusative case) or more loosely, “Could you go for…” That phrase isn’t obvious, although it makes sense and now I enjoy using it.
Idioms aside, I’ve felt confident enough in my language skills to shop in Bagnoregio without ever bringing my dictionary, which was fine until I visited the macelleria to buy chicken. When the butcher asked which part I wanted, I was stuck. The word for chicken (pollo) was familiar…but I did not know the word for ‘breast.’ I sputtered for a few seconds, watching his brows knit, then I did as the Italians do: I pantomimed, gesturing with enthusiastic open palms in front of my own breasts. He tried not to smile, but couldn’t stifle the chuckle as he nodded and said, “Petti.”
Of course. Like pectoralis. Italian isn’t that difficult…if you have enough time to use common sense before speaking. I left with pink cheeks, but felt good about giving him a story to tell his buddies at Massimo’s bar that night.
When I learned that Marco’s wife, Inge, is not a native Italian speaker, I thought perhaps I had found someone who would understand what it feels like to be a foreigner amongst natives, even though we don’t come from the same place. Plus, after five years of studying German, it’s the one foreign language that pops in my head whenever I struggle for Italian words — I’ve been ready to use it.
Tony and I met Inge, Marco, and their college-aged children, Niko and Nina, for pizza last night in Lubriano. In spite of Tony’s praise, we were unsure of the pizzeria’s credentials: the place was deserted (naturalamente, it was only 7:30 pm) and the menu featured over 101 pizzas (one with Nutella, one with mayonnaise and ketchup, and one called “Viagra”…) Curiously, rather than awards for their pizza, we noted that the owners displayed rows of trophies for accomplishments in fishing. Hm.
Tony would never dire una bugia when it comes to food, of course; when our food arrived, it was buonissimo. Digging into my pizza con funghi, I enjoyed our palimpsest of languages. Inge doesn’t speak English and Niko speaks only German, but by drawing on the multiple languages between us, we made it work — even if some sentences were spoken with a mix of two or all three. It comforted me that Inge, too, asked for proper pronunciation or for words she didn’t know in Italian just as I did, though her vocabulary is much more extensive.
While we discussed what delicious food we were enjoying, Inge also complimented Tony’s prosciutto and fig pizza, at which Marco, Tony, and Nina cracked up. Inge and I were mystified –we both knew what she was trying to say– and I agreed, his pizza was fantastic. At their laughter, she instantly cringed, asking what she said wrong. Marco explained in a mix of German and Italian, but I still didn’t understand, other than the word sbagliato — error.
Marco explained quite calmly in English, “It’s a mistake. She wanted to say figs —fichi— but the word she used was not figs. It means, how do you say in English…pussy.” Thinking back to my many sbagliati, I smiled knowingly at Inge, who turned a shade of purple as I assured her that it was not a big deal.
When we re-entered Civita after 10 o’clock, buffeted by icy winds on il ponte, I was surprised to find six men in their mid-50s hanging banners for Sunday’s donkey race in the Piazza San Donato. As we walked past them, they sang something that loosely translates to, “Good evening, Germans, we don’t speak any German here!” Inge laughed before she and her whole family sang back, “Good evening, Italians, we don’t speak any Italian here.”
Considering the questions I posed just yesterday about how to carry on the legacy of memory in Civita, I felt reassured to know that, even in the dark of night, Marco and his family are known here by the most random of people. For however long they visit each year, they make an effort to be a part of relationships and traditions — and they are teaching their children to do the same. In light of how many German tourists I hear every day, perhaps their “non-native” heritage could actually be a positive layer atop the strong Italian foundation.
So, how many “real” Civitonici are there? Each day, I’m discovering that there are more than I think, and that there are many kinds. I waved hello to the fab four as they ate lunch at Antonio’s bruschetteria this afternoon, feeling a warm wave of delight to be able to acknowledge people I know on the street — as if Civita is my own neighborhood.
Inge’s face lit up as she returned my greeting. Yes, I thought, between my chicken and her figs, we definitely understand one another.