When the Words Fall Out

I’ve posted short pieces previously about not being a native speaker in my adopted country and that the Italian language can at times lead to hilarious circumstances or great confusion. I’m happy when Italian’s praise me on my command of their language, and do find it easier now after several years to hold more than basic conversations. Partly this is due to my working in an office where 75% of the staff don’t speak English, (apart from the few, less than glamorous English words I have taught the boys). I’m equally proud when English people comment on my language skills; however sometimes I do feel like a fraud as I’m not as accomplished as they perceive me to be. But every day brings new vocabulary and a better understanding of those pesky irregular verbs. Only last week in the office I needed a pair of scissors and Nicoletta was on hand to tell me they are called, forbici

Then there’s those pesky words that trip up foreigners, words like, pesce (fish) and pesca (peach), the amount of times I heard an English person in a restaurant ask what’s on the peach menu is innumerable. Recently I fell victim to these tricky nouns: I was offered a coffee and biscotti by a lovely couple whose house I was showing to clients, I accepted the coffee but told them I’d already had breakfast so would pass on the biscuits. The man then asked me what I’d had for breakfast, and I replied that I have the same thing everyday, an egg. However as the Italian for egg is, uova and grape is uva and my pronunciation was lacking that morning, he assumed by grape I meant I have wine for breakfast, which he and his wife found most amusing.

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The most frustrating part of learning a second language is those days when the words fall out. Some mornings it’s as if I’ve woken up and parts of my stored Italian lexicon have fallen out of my ears during the night. For example this week I had a morning when I couldn’t recall the Italian for the word, who and yesterday I’d misplaced the word for, lost.

Another moment was when out one evening in L’Aquila we stopped to get some take away food and I asked for some salad, however as we were in polite company I didn’t want onions and despite foraging through the deepest recesses of my brain the word just would not come, so I ended up with onions, and onion breath all evening.

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There’s also those other moments when the words fall out, usually after too many glasses of wine the night before or a plethora of Peroni. I’m certain that under the influence my language skills are still adequate (although this could be disputed) but the next day I seem to have left great reams of words and whole sentences on the pillow.

This said, I have come to the conclusion that on the whole people are very forgiving of foreigners who mangle their language. I’ve found all of the Italian’s I have come into contact with very helpful and polite and I’m sure this can be said of most people regardless of their country. Unlike years ago in France when I went to buy a loaf of bread. The French shop keeper huffed and puffed before pedantically telling me my pronunciation was wrong. Needless to say I didn’t buy her bread.

No doubt as I continue on my journey with the Italian language there’ll be many more moments where the words fall out or my flat Northern vowels scramble what is in essence a beautifully lyrical language.

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Confusing identity

Welcome to 2015, the first song playing on my iPod as I recount my first tale of the year here is Bitter, from the This Mortal Coil album, Blood, and for those back in the UK who think it’s all sunshine and red wine here, I’ll post you a photo of the snow we had earlier this month – needless to say it’s now gone and we’re back to red wine and sunshine.

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So for my first post of 2015 I thought I’d tell you about a conversation that occurred a few days ago. I was shopping and spotted an English acquaintance, we passed the time of day and as we did so a woman in the queue at the till kept looking over at us.

My friend left and I took up my position in the till queue, which here in Italy usually means a long wait, I put my proposed purchases onto the floor at my feet, and am waiting when the woman who had been looking over turns and says to me, “ You speak very good English for a foreigner.”

“Thanks,” I replied a tad confused but too engrossed in the sign advertising a 20% discount on bucatini: I’m not tempted as its probably the only pasta that I dislike .  

“Was it hard to learn?” I look up at her confused and reply with, “Not really, it sort of came naturally.”

She’s now at the front of the queue, her shopping is being scanned and tossed down to the bagging area to be retrieved and bagged by her friend, who has a look about her that reminds me of a spaniel that’s lost all of its toys. Before she pays, she turns and looks at me again and says, “Good for you, I’d have thought it was tricky, what with you being German.”

I look at my friend who is on the till, she mouths, ‘tedesco?’  meaning German? I shake my head and mouth back, ‘stupida’.

I don’t mind, but the woman in question had an accent that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Birds of a Feather.

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Everyone knows that the Italians are an expressive race of people who talk loudly whilst waving their hands about furiously. This isn’t a stereotype it’s true.

Now I’m also working in an Italian office I get to see documents and I noticed that there’s quite a prolific uses of exclamation marks, especially in English translations.

Seems like the Italian people write as they speak, expressive and waving their hands wildly in print form.

Raised Eyebrows

Apologies for not posting over the past few days, but I’ve been quite busy with work following the magazine re-branding. I’m now on top of my new assignments, and taking a breather from research and writing articles about mummies, salt-dried cod and the Piemonte region, to mention a selection of my current workload.

I took Olive to the vets this week as she’s been scratching quite a lot and we thought she had mange, turned out she had a problem in the bowel caused by chewing on cooked bones, I wont go into details here as it would make unpleasant reading. Suffice to say, she’s on the mend, smells of paraffin or whatever it is that’s in her twenty-two euro medication and no longer allowed to have cooked bones; and she did love it when we had sweet, sticky ribs.

I was talking to our new vet, Fiorenzo about Alf, our adopted beast, I mentioned he needs to be micro chipped and be checked over and have his vaccinations: We’ve deliberately not taken him to a vet yet as being an abandoned dog it’s taken him time to get over his fear of men. As Alf is around ten-months old and I’d like to have him castrated, so I said to Fiorenzo during our conversation, “Voglio castrante.” Fiorenzo, raised an eyebrow and the edges of his mouth turned up, did he really stifle a laugh?

He switched his computer on to Google translate and typed in what I had just said and pointed to the screen, where the translation clearly read: ‘I want castrating’… Oops!

I think he did well not laughing, I’m not sure I’d have been as composed. In broken English he said, “What you say for this, is, voglio che lui castrato.” (I want him castrated).

Oh well at least it broke the ice, and he can now his family about the new English client who asked to be castrated, there’s something to be said for making a first impression.

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At the window.

Unconscious Italian

The iPod shuffles and Canadian R&B singer, Melanie Fiona sings Watch Me Work. I’m surprised she remains mostly unknown by the UK music buying public as she’s much more talented than the likes of Kelly Rowland, Nicole Sherzinger et al, but I guess the big U.S. labels still see Canadian artists as ‘poor cousins’. There’s a knock at the door and my neighbour tells me she’s having some work on her back garden done, so there may be some cars parked at the top of the road. Moments later a tractor arrives and two short squat men jump out and begin to hand-ball bricks and wood up the stairs leading to my neighbours back garden. Now being of the nosey persuasion, I pop along to see what’s happening and before long I’m sat inside enjoying a prosecco as the two men toil in cooling early evening air.

There’s a call and Mario, one of the squat gardeners asks me if I can give him a lift to Minco di Lici to pick up his girlfriend. As it’s literally just around the corner I agree, we drive down the lane and pass a group of elderly locals all sat out chatting, each one has brought their own chair and sit in the road with no intention of moving. I see their faces that say, ‘we were here first’. As we navigate slowly around the group they look at the English car and give a half-hearted greeting, We toss a robust, “Salve tutti,” out of the window and smiles grace the ancient faces and a more robust, “Anche lei,” is called back. Mario tells me he is married but his wife didn’t like living in the country so returned to city living. I ask him what city she returned to, expecting him to say Milan, Rome or Naples. His response is, “Casoli.”  Casoli, our council town is a mere 5 km away, and by UK city standards it’s barely a town.

We arrive at the house where Mario’s girlfriend works as a carer, the elderly wife opens an electronic gate and beckons us inside. The woman chats away to us, offers us beer and when we decline she looks sad, her aged eyes, watery. We look at each other and watch her face lose years as it brightens when we agree to have a small beer. Seven cats share the terrace where we sit, but unlike the owner we are not impervious to the smell, luckily a light breeze blows it away from where I sit. Eventually a young girl in her twenties appears at the door, she’s from the Dominican Republic, a good half metre taller than Mario and I imagine at least ten years younger. I ask him how they met and he is vague, so I’m assuming over the internet.

I deliver Mario and his beau back and for regular readers of, A Life on Shuffle, here’s an update on the shed incident of a few days ago, Mario, uses his digger to push it over the edge of the ruin it was lodged on, so now out of sight, I’m very happy. It’s only after he’s put some paper down on the dirty tractor seat for his girlfriend to sit on, that i realise I have just spent a good forty-minutes in the company of Italians and not a word of English has been spoken, and I’ve not had to think about what I was saying, it just flowed naturally. Now I’m not fluent, far from it, but it was nice to actually speak another language without consciously thinking about what I’m saying.

Simpatico… Oh well it could be worse.

Simpatico. A word I’ve heard on three occasions recently but only discovered what it meant last night. The first incidence was in the supermarket, I was waiting in line at the checkout when an elderly lady joined the queue behind me. As she only had two items and I had several I asked if she’d like to go in front of me. At first she said no, she was okay to wait, but I insisted and she took my place in line. She then asked if I was English, I told her I was indeed, then she stroked my cheek and said, “Sie simpatico.” This I took to mean I’m sympathetic to her needs, so I smiled and said thank you.

The second occasion happened when I was introduced to an Italian lady by a friend, as usual the lady asked me lots of questions, the first obviously was, are you German? This was then followed with the obligatory, so why is your hair so blond? Followed by, why did you come here? I answered all the questions: in fact I’ve become quite adept at having stock answers stored in my head. She then turned to my friend and used the word simpatico, my friend looked at me and agreed. I meant to ask what she had said, but as the waitress brought us an espresso and I answered her query about which water I wanted with it, I forgot as I replied, ‘Acqua frizzante.’

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Last night was the third time the word surfaced and this time I discovered its meaning. I had met a new friend and we were chatting over a drink when he said, “Tu simpatico.” Now as my new friend speaks better English than I do Italian I seized the opportunity to ask what it meant. His reply was, “It means you’re not handsome.” I must have looked upset as he then quickly said, “My translation is bad.”

Now I know I’m not in the Pitt/Clooney league, but I’ve never had any problems throughout my life picking someone up for… Shall we say extra curricular activities. My new friend then said, “Simpatico, it means you are nice looking, have a pleasant face, you’re lovely.” I smile and think, oh well, that’ll have to do. Besides it’s much better than when someone last year told me I had a lived in face and then said, “In the nicest possible way.” (Needless to say this is a person who wont be getting an invite to come and stay in Italy.)

Simpatico (persona) Nice, pleasant, likeable. Source: Collins Italian Dictionary and Grammar.

Horsey Nonsense

It seems that every conversation I have with our builder ends up in either laughter or confusion. So why should today be any different. He had been doing some welding and being a good employer I took him a drink. As I walked in he was rolling up some electric cable, looping it over his thumb and winding it around his elbow in the same way I remember my mother taking in her washing line. I placed his drink down and the conversation went like this:

Fabrice: Barry, do you have a long one?

Me: What!

Fabrice: I need a longer one.

Me: I’m sorry to hear that.

Fabrice: What?

Me: What are you talking about?

Fabrice: I need a longer one for the electrics.

Me: A longer extension?

Fabrice: Yes, that’s what I said at the start.

Now that in itself could have led to any manner of unfortunate assumptions taking place, add to it the remainder of the conversation and you can understand why foreigners can get into trouble when restoring properties abroad. Now you have to bear in mind that as he’s half French, half Italian and quite a bit of his language is an amalgamation of the two languages, with a smattering of English inserted for good measure. This led to my misinterpreting what he said, and the words causing the confusion were Cavlo (amalgamation of cavo and cablo meaning cable) and Cavallo (horse).

Fabrice: Tomorrow, we need to get a horse

Me: A horse, whatever for?

Fabrice: We need it for the electric.

Me: Why do we need a horse for electric.

Fabrice: To make the electrics work.

Me: But a horse?

Fabrice: Yes, yes a horse.

Me: I don’t understand.

Fabrice: The electric goes around the house because of the work the horse does.

Me: Are you trying to tell me that to power the gadgets in the house we need a horse on a treadmill?

Fabrice: You really are crazy Barry.

Me: I’m crazy. You’re one saying we need a horse.

Fabrice: Tomorrow, I go to shop and buy switches and the horse to put inside the walls.

Me; Fabrice, do you mean, cable.

Fabrice: Yes, yes, tomorrow I fetch the horse.

I walk away shaking my head, as he says, Inglese molto (Italian) crazy man (English) je se (French) English very crazy man I know. No wonder things get confusing here in Casoli.

Time to Admit I’m a Linguistic Liability

Picture this, it’s a chilly morning and the rain is barely making an effort, or as Peter Kay would say, ‘it’s spitting’. I’ve just come inside from standing in the drizzle whilst eating a fried egg sandwich, the iPod shuffles and the Spandau Ballet classic, Gold, 12” remix begins to play. Our builder arrives and tells me he’s going to start on the electrics in the living room, I tell him that’s fine and make him a cup of coffee. He nips out to buy some electricity related things, telling me, if he goes he’ll get a better price because he knows the man in the store. So as his Jeep drives away his coffee cools on top of the cement mixer outside.

Twenty minutes later he returns to show us the spoils of his trip to the electrical store on the industrial estate. He’s pleased with the black fascia he’s purchased for our fuse box, telling us it’s nicer than a boring white one. We have to agree, and I ask if we can have a red light switch. He then asks for his coffee and I say it’ll be cold now, “That’s okay,” he says, and drinks the cold brown liquid. I tell him I like cold tea but not cold coffee unless it’s coffee with ice. He looks at me bemused, “Perche?” he asks, which is another of those dual meaning Italian words, meaning either why or because. I understand he’s asking me why I like iced coffee, I tell him because it’s great on a hot day, and I as I don’t know how to say it cools me down, I rub my hands over my body in a pathetic attempt to mime cooling down. He responds with more facial contortions and a louder, higher pitched, “Perche?”  I say because it tastes nice and he laughs, his face reddens and tears form in the corners of his creased eyelids. Then it dawns on me, the S-word expletive leaves my mouth and I laugh too. Once again I’ve used the wrong word, instead of saying ghiaccio (ice) I’ve said ghioco, which means play. So I ended up telling him I like to play with coffee, and my mime gave the impression I rub it all over myself. His laughing has stopped and as he wipes his eyes, he calls me a plonker. (I blame Only Fools and Horses.)

On the previous day I had another incident of brain to mouth disconnection. This time, it wasn’t so much the language that was at fault, it was the grammar. Michele was passing and looked in to see how the house restoration was coming along. As we have no windows in the bedroom, we’ve been sleeping in the living room. In The Tempest, Trinculo says, Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows. If Shakespeare was in Abruzzo and happened to pass my makeshift bedroom he’d have written, cement bags and wheelbarrows acquaint a man etc… MIchele looks into the room and says, “You English and your upstairs bedrooms.” Instead of explaining the situation, I meant to say to my friend of three weeks, No, come with me, we’ll go down to the bedroom, Instead my clumsily constructed sentence is blurted out as, “No, come with me to the bedroom and I’ll go down on you.” Yet another Italian face contorts, and the builder laughs before correcting my error. Michele’s eyebrows rise and he sighs, meanwhile I apologise for my linguistic lobotomy and the iPod shuffles and Marina and the Diamonds play, Oh No! – my words exactly.

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Being a Local and the Lost Vowels

Earlier I had my  initiation into being a local, I had gone with our builder to fetch sand and cement, I was introduced to the man selling sand, we shook hands and loudly exclaimed many buon giorni then he waved his hands in the air “Nessuna vendita, gratis,” he said and ripped up the receipt, and with a huge quantity of sand for free we left him, waving as we drove off. We then went to purchase cement and after this, I assumed we’d go back to the house. But no, we pulled into the local bar and stood with the locals at the counter as two young ladies made us thimble sized cups of dark black coffee. We swallowed our caffeine hit and left. The complete exercise of entering, purchasing and consuming before leaving taking just three or four minutes. As we left the bar, several other people took our places with the same swiftness we had adopted. “Straniero non è più.” said my builder, (You no longer foreigner), so with a quick hit of Arabica bean I became a local.

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Later, I popped down into the village below ours to do some errands for my good friend Christine who has a lovely house over here in Abruzzo, but at present is back in the UK. While I attended to the errands I bumped in Piero, one of her neighbours. I had met him once back in 2011 at a gathering on Christine’s wonderful terrace overlooking the mountains, and he remembered my name and what car I drove back then. He was chatting away, molto volecemenete (very quickly) and I did my best to keep up with him. After the 45 minutes of rapid chatter had concluded and we’d parted company I gave myself a well earned pat on the back for establishing effective communication with the old fella.

As I was driving home it suddenly occurred to me that during the conversation I’d begun to omit the vowel at the end of sentences as the locals do. Now the problem with doing this is firstly it’s the last vowel that signifies gender, typically ‘o’ for masculine and ‘a’ for feminine words. It’s also the vowel that denotes the plural of the gender, ‘i’ for masculine and ‘e’ for feminine. so a typical phrase like,  this house is old –(questa casa é vecchia) becomes quest casa vecch. It’s surprising how the Italian people can hold conversations and completely understand what is being said, of course most of the speech is down to inflection, it’s the stress used that turns a statement into a question. But I’m not sure my pigeon Italian is yet advanced enough for me to grasp the psychic ability to address gender and action, so for the time being I’ll continue using the final vowel, I don’t want to fall foul of any errors such as saying ‘pago’ (I’ll pay) rather than ‘paga’ (you pay).