Thursday 6 March 2008

Italian lessons San Gimignano

Arriving in San Gimignano in 1999 I was thrown, somewhat haphazardly, into the deep, deep waters of learning Italian. Charlie was a great help initially, having only recently graduated with a degree in Italian, and so was able to guide me in my first steps like the good TEFL teacher that she was. Quite how I ever managed to learn a single word in San Gimignano amazes me to this day, given the fact that just about everyone, even the Carabinieri (yes, really), were able to speak English. By chance we obviously fell upon the two or three haunts where no English was spoken, and so I was able to practice my barbarous lingo on them right from the start. Coinciding with this initial period of lingual inadequacy was my first foray into the world of Italian employment, when I landed a bar job at what we later discovered to be a pole-dancing club. Charlie recalls (with some glee) picking me up at the end of my first night and seeing my pleading face silently screaming to be transported away. Understanding that vodka con ghiaccio meant vodka with ice was difficult enough, but would you have known that Cubalibre meant rum and coke? A gibbering wreck does not go half way to explaining how I felt afterwards; horribly relieved and grateful to my rescuer probably goes somewhat further.

Eventually landing my first ‘proper’ Italian job in that same summer of ‘99, working in the villa rentals market, my language development was then channeled to the idiosyncrasies of a travel rep’s working day. For example, having to explain to villa owners why Brits attached such importance to electric kettles in place of the tinny, vertical saucepans that come with rental territory and into which courtesy bags of Lipton Yellow Label tea would be ritually dunked each morning to stave off the inevitable Chianti headache. I admit this was a little more advanced linguistically speaking than my initial forays into Italian, which had involved ordering coffee at the bar and usually recounting my only full sentence to anyone who cared to listen; namely that we lived in the centro storico (like anybody really cared anyway). The thing about speaking another language is that you have to start somewhere; otherwise you may as well just fall back on the thoroughly colonial pastime of simply speaking more loudly and clearly in the best Queen’s English. You just have to get over the paranoia that when you open your mouth you must sound, to any Italian within earshot, like Dante being hung, drawn and quartered. The Italians, you will soon find, are infinitely forgiving of the heresies committed upon their beautiful language.

We’ve all made mistakes when speaking Italian, but some mistakes are of course more amusing or controversial than others. Not being able to conjugate verbs properly is not exactly a stoning offence, and anyway, the Italians are the first to admit that their grammar is more complex and convoluted than the EU constitution. One has to be careful when approaching the masculine/feminine aspect of the language, as this can lead to far more embarrassing moments. The vast majority of words are safe, but there is a small handful to which attention needs to be paid. A slip between and an ‘o’ or an ‘a’ at the end of a word could mean the difference between asking after the condition of someone’s roof or enquiring rather personally about certain body parts. Hence why the buxom barmaid outside San Gimignano laughed when I informed her that our house was hot because we lived “under the roof”. Just look up tetto and tetta in a dictionary, you will see what I mean…

Pay equal attention to the (usually successful) method of trying to directly translate something that one might say in English. Picture me asking a dozen heavily armed riot police at a football match where I could find the merce, assuming I was asking after the merchandise stand, but in reality was asking where I might buy some drugs. The fact that I was a straniero stood me in good stead that time I can tell you. You can have great fun translating English slang or colloquialisms directly into Italian and then trying them out on your friends (this group is generally preferable to armed personnel) to see if they work. Don’t be surprised to find however, that they look at you blankly when you say “buon uno amico” as this literal translation of “nice one mate” really does not mean much. As for “bless his cotton socks”, I imagine that “benedica le sue calze di cotone” would cause many an old maid to make the sign of the cross and run off to the laundry room. In fact, I’ll go and try it on Antonietta right now…

No comments: