Don’t speak the language? In Italy, that’s no reason to be shy

  • By Rick Steves
  • Friday, August 15, 2014 1:44pm
  • Life

I am terrible at foreign languages. Despite traveling to Europe four months a year, I can barely put a sentence together anywhere east or south of England. With some creative communication, I manage just fine to write guidebooks, produce TV shows and simply enjoy Europe on vacation. But nowhere do I have more fun communicating than in Italy.

Because they’re so outgoing and their language is fun, Italians are a pleasure to interact with. Italians want to connect and try harder than any other Europeans. Play with them. Even in non-touristy towns, where English is rare and Italian is the norm, showing a little warmth lets you hop right over the language barrier. Italians have an endearing habit of speaking Italian to foreigners, even if they know you don’t speak their language. If a local starts chattering at you in Italian, don’t resist. Go with it. You may find you understand more than you’d expect.

I find Italian beautiful and almost melodic. It’s fun to listen to and even more fun to speak. It has a lovely rhythm and flow to it, from “ciao” and “per favore,” to “buon giorno” and “buona sera” (good day and good evening), to “bellissima” and “La Serenissima” (Venice). Two of my favorite phrases — and sentiments — in any language are “la dolce vita” (the sweet life) and “il dolce far niente” (the sweetness of doing nothing).

Italians are animated and dramatic, communicating just as much with their bodies as they do with their mouths. You may think two people are arguing when in reality they’re agreeing enthusiastically. When I’m in Italy, I make it a point to be equally as melodramatic and exuberant. I don’t just say “Mamma mia!” I say “MAMMA MIA!” while tossing my hands and head into the air. It feels liberating to be so uninhibited. Self-consciousness kills communication.

In Italy, hand gestures can say just as much as words. For instance, the cheek screw (pressing a forefinger into the cheek and rotating it) is used to mean good, lovely, or beautiful. A chin flick with the fingers means “I’m not interested; you bore me.” The hand purse (fingers and thumb bunched together and pointed upward) is a very Italian gesture for a question, such as “What do you want?” or “What are you doing?” It can also be used as an insult to say, “You fool.”

Italians’ version of giving the finger is to clench the right fist and jerk the forearm up as they slap their bicep with the other hand. This jumbo version of “flipping the bird” says “I’m superior.” If Italians get frustrated, they might say, “Mi sono cadute le braccia!” (I throw my arms down) — sometimes literally thrusting their arms toward the floor in an “I give up” gesture.

Italians have always seemed to me very into sensuality, and that translates to their language. Rather than differentiate among the five senses and describing what they’re hearing, smelling, or tasting, Italians talk about sensing (“sentire”): “Did you sense the ambience as you walked by?” “Wow, sense this wine.” “Ooh, sense these flowers.” Instead of asking, “Are you listening?” an Italian will ask, “Do you sense me?”

One of the best ways to observe Italians interacting is to participate in the passeggiata. This ritual promenade takes place in the early evenings, when shoppers, families, and young flirts on the prowl all join the scene to stroll arm in arm and spread their wings like peacocks. In a more genteel small town, the passeggiata comes with sweet whispers of “bella” (pretty) and “bello” (handsome). In Rome, the passeggiata is a cruder, big-city version called the “struscio” (meaning “to rub”). Younger participants utter the words “buona” and “buono” — meaning, roughly, “tasty.” As my Italian friends explained, “Bella is a woman you admire — without touching. Buona is something that is good — something … consumable. Bella is too kind for this struscio.”

To really immerse yourself in the culture, it’s important to take risks and communicate. Italians appreciate your attempts. Even when I’m wrong, I usually never know it, so it doesn’t really matter. Miscommunication can happen on either side — and it’s part of the fun. Once I was eating at a restaurant in Assisi with a guide named Giuseppe and his wife, Anna. We let the chef shower us with his best work. Anna greeted each plate with unbridled enthusiasm. Suddenly, Giuseppe looked at me and said in English, “My wife’s a good fork.” Shocked, I thought I must have misheard him. Giuseppe went on to say: “Una buona forchetta … a good fork. That’s what we call someone who loves to eat.”

Rick Steves, www.ricksteves.com, writes guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at rick@ricksteves.com and follow his blog on Facebook.

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