Category Archives: Main thread

Two days of hiking in Abruzzo National Park

We’ve just done a couple of days of hiking in Abruzzo National Park, in the central Apennines of Italy. We stayed at the small town of Pescasseroli, a very friendly place located in the centre of the park and at an elevation of around 1150m.

We followed a couple of routes from the Lonely Planet book Hiking in Italy by Brendan Sainsbury. We caught a bus direct from Rome to Pescasseroli, then just started our walks in the town.

Day 1 – short walk above Pescasseroli

We headed out of the town into a valley to the west. This is path B3, which climbs from pasture and into pine forest on the hillside. On the map we used, the hill and ridge are called Bocca di Forno – “The Oven’s Mouth”.

The path curved around the hillside, continuing through pine forest, with some clearings that were full of flowers and butterflies.

The path then descended into the ruins of Castel Mancino, a mysterious 10th-11th century fortress that fell into disuse then became a source of building stones for the village below. Seeing the first ruined tower among the pine trees was like something out of Skyrim. Fab.

And here’s Fran.

Day 2 – Rocca Ridge

This was our main walk. Sainsbury gives his route at 19.5km, but we finished it by looping back onto part of the path we followed yesterday, heading for a bar by a more scenic route, so we did around 22km (about 13.5 miles).

We headed up a valley due south of Pescasseroli, onto path C1, then, leaving behind a farm, onto path C3. The whole landscape here is shaped by transhumance, and we immediately encounterd a herd of white cows grazing among the beech trees by Rifugio della Difesa. There were guarded by a very professional Maremmano who barked at us until we were a decent distance beyong the herd.

Path C3 takes you up through beatiful beech forest, which reminded me of the Amon Hen woodland where Frodo separates himself from the Fellowship in the denouement the first film in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. New Zealand beech (Nothofagus) is in an entirely different botanical family to European beech (Fagus) though.

Although most of these trails are fairly well blazed, especially in the woods, occasionally the markings can be baffling, never mind the fact that the colour coding changes and the route names seem to be being revised. (This pic is probably out of order, can’t remember specifically where it was.)

We continued on, past the slightly sorry church of Santa Maria di Monte Tranquillo (at around 1600m), then up to a high pasture at the fairly derelict, private Rifugio (shelter) di Monte Tranquillo. There, four people on horses passed us, with the leader going all cowboy and chasing a grazing herd higher up the mountainside.

Although it’s hard to capture with a photograph, things got a bit steeper here as we climbed up around Monte Pietroso (1876m).

Fran, who has a kind of steep-slopes-vertigo, suddenly found herself facing one of her worst fears. Even though she’d chosen the route… clearly named “Rocca Ridge” in the book. (Another of her worst fears is formidable dogs. She’s even quite nervous around cows. So, so far, the walk was going well, challenging her fears and phobias!). The path up round Pietroso isn’t clear, but soon you reach the ridge itself.

Shortly after we got up to the highest point of the walk, La Rocca itself, with the 1924m summit marked by a cairn.

We continued along the ridge, heading north along path C5. Fran pushed the pace here as she wanted off. Steep slopes on both sides weren’t an ideal birthday present. (I won’t even mention her anxiety about thunder storms.) It was a fabulous walk though, with flowers everywhere,  including several types of geranium, greater celandine, wild thymes, several types of euphorbia, viper’s bugloss (love that name; it’s great in Italian too – viperina azzurra. Nicer thatn Echium vulgare) and many many others, like wild chives. I never realised chives liked mountaintops that are covered in snow and ice for several months of the year.

And gentians. Such an amazing colour.

There were even the remants of some snow. If you look at one of the pics above, the beech forest seems to be tinged in Autumnal red, but this is actually withered and dying leaves – I suspect the spring growth was hit by some late snow-fall.

And some more rugged mountain horses. I’ve never seen horses as sure-footed and mountain goat-like as these.

Although there are a few dozen brown bears left in the area, wolves, golden eagles, and allegedly even lynx, our wildlife encounters included some raptors (possibly Buteo buteo, the common buzzard), innumerable butterflies and other insects enjoying the flowers, and swifts whistling around our ears on the ridge. Best of all, however, was thisVulpes vulpes specimen, who came jogging along the the ridge path from the other direction.

We thought he’d run off when saw us, but he kept getting closer, until he stopped at our feet, like a pet dog expecting a treat. I suspect hikers do feed the foxes, hence the behaviour, but it was still a wonderful moment, as foxes are among my favourite animals. I even thought about patting him like a dog until the word “rabies” popped into my mind. He was a very healthy looking specimen though, so it was probably just my turn to be paranoid.

We eventually left the ridge at Rifugio di Lorio (padlocked – apparently you have to get the keys from the park authorities. Which seems pretty silly, to have a shelter you can’t access if you’re caught in a storm). I had a flapjack break, then we started the descent.

Path B4, dropped to the east, took us back into the beech forest and onto path B1, though this seemed to be called something else on the blazes (R7?), just to confuse things.

We even subsequently saw a small, weathered sign pinned to a tree that said we weren’t even supposed to have walked C5, the ridge route, without a guide, as part of the bear conservation programme. Maybe having some info on the park website, pinning the signs at both ends of the park, and, oh, opening the tourist office, might have been a better way to disseminate this info. Presumably none of the other half-dozen hikers we’d seen on the path had received this info either. So Italian.

We descended through the forest, past some ski facilities (absurd looking without snow), then back onto part of the path we’d done yesterday, under the castle ruins. I was craving a beer, but when we finally made it to Pescasseroli’s only birreria they only had foreign muck and industrial beer, so I forwent that essential part of any hike and settled instead for an aperitivo later.

We were joined by another Marammano, presumably retired. These guys are ubiquitious in Pescasseroli, wandering to the streets blagging stuzzichini (aperitivo snacks).

All in all, a great walk. Despite Fran’s uncertainties. Soon forgotten, after a glass and a half of prosecco. (Only a half – a big dog barged the table, smashing the glasss, before Fran could finish her second one.)

We concluded the day with one of the best meals we’ve had in Italy.

(Apologies – the pics are mostly taken on my rubbish phone’s 5MP camera I’m afraid. Fran is the real photographer with the proper DSLR. Maybe she’ll put some on Flickr at some point, and I can link to them.)


Filed under Italy, Main thread

Improving my English by learning Italian

Not having learned Latin at school has long been a regret of mine, as the sort of person who likes words and etymology.

I’ve written before about how it would have helped me learning the names of animals in Italian, as so many of them are close to their Latin names. But I’m finding learning Italian is also now teaching me new words in English – words with shared Latin roots. Words that aren’t necessarily common in English, but are still interesting. Hey, it’s one of life’s main joys to keep learning new stuff.

So for example, I wanted to learn the Italian for “to dither”, as I’m a past master at dithering. Maybe. Sometimes.

To dither = esitare or tergiversare

I dug a little deeper with tergiversare, and it can also be translated as “to prevaricate” (ok) and “to tergiversate”. That latter one was new to me. It’s from the Latin “to turn back”.

Here are a few others I’m learning while trying to read this beer guide (gotta collect ’em all!):
organolettico – “organoleptic”, that is “perceived by a sense organ” or “capable of detecting a sensory stimulus”. (Okay, this one is from the Greek.)
appannaggio – “appanage”/”apanage”, that is an endowment, a prerogative, a rightful revenue or a necessary accompaniment. (I like this one. At the heart of the word is “pan”, as in bread – pane, pain, panis. In the sense of “to give bread”, or “to nourish”.)

Inevitably, my WordPress spellcheck doesn’t like a lot of these English words. I shouldn’t really be ashamed of my ignorance if it’s so ignorant too.

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Rome: closed for the holidays

We’ve lived in Rome for nearly a year now. We arrived last August, and soon became familiar with shuttered-up shops and restaurants adorned with various signs saying “Chiuso per ferie”: Closed for the holidays. People, very sensibly, avoiding the heat, humidity, traffic fumes, and stench of garbage cooking in the dumpsters and dog shit dry-fried on the pavements.

Having said that, there’s also something pleasant about Rome in August: it calms down, marginally.

As summer rolled around again this year, the shutters started coming down. In July, the woman in our local pet supplies shop said to me: “When are you going?” “Going where?” I responded, slightly confused. “Vacanze!” Oh, right, of course. She was checking what supplies I needed for our cats as she was going away at the start of August, and wouldn’t be back till the end of the month.

It’s not like every business closes for the entirety of August, but a reasonable proportion still do. Apparently Rome used to be even quieter in August, especially from Ferragosto – the 15 August holiday that traditionally marks the hottest point of the year. (I reckon it’s heading for 40C ish this year.) The word, like ferie, is close to the Latin for festivals, Feriae, but I like to think of it as “ferro agosto” – iron august, when it’s so bloody hot, it’s like being hit with a metal bar. Or metal getting so hot you can’t touch it. Or something.

Anyway, the fruit and veg vendors I favour said bye in late July, and now the market is half-empty, the various metal shacks totally locked down. When we moved into our current flat on 4 September 2011, the big, popular restaurant on the corner was all closed still, but this year I spotted a sign proudly stating they’re open for August. Though maybe they’ll be staggering their holiday, and closing for September.

As a Brit, this continues to tickle me. It’s just such an alien concept. We have a different work ethic, and a different work-life balance. You’ve got to admire these people for retaining the sanctity of holiday, of time with family and friends. If Sunday is the week’s day of rest, then August is the year’s equivalent.

My only point of reference in British culture is from stories by the likes of W Somerset Maugham and EM Forster, describing a very middle-class, or upper middle-class milieu in Edwardian Britain. But even most well-off Brits wouldn’t consider taking a whole month off these days. It’s not like it’s a comparable class issue here though. Many Italians I speak to, from different walks of life, have seaside or country houses, including our neighbours, who aren’t wealthy by any stretch of the imagination (she’s a perpetually stressed single mother, for example). Maybe it’s a bit more like the New Zealand culture of the “bach”, a second property to retreat to for a break, be it a shack in the hills or a nice pad on the beach. (Oh, and many Brits are confused by “bach” – well, it’s short for bachelor pad, innit.)

I don’t know whether my friendly grocers have gone to a country retreat, but they’re certainly having a nice long holiday.

A few weeks back, in July, I wanted to get some chocolates for a present from a cioccolateria, and found a sign saying they were off for nearly three months.

Nearly three months! Respect. Is selling handmade chocs really that profitable? This is in Trastevere, a favourite location with tourists, so maybe it is. Or maybe it’s just a practicality. Perhaps it’s just too messy trying to sell handmade chocolates in the summer.


Filed under Main thread, Rome

Confusion, sometimes of a risqué variety

Here are some of the words that confuse me in Italian due to their similarity.

It can be a risky business, most notably with…

scroprire (past participle scoperto) – to discover, to find, to uncover
scopare (past participle scopato) – to sweep, but also to fuck

I’ve blundered with these two many a time, to a point where it seems like my brain is simply being bloody-minded and refusing to learn the difference. Maybe my brain thinks it’s funny. It’s so risky, I have to try and use workarounds, for example avoiding scroprire and using trovare (to discover), and using spazzolare, to sweep, to brush.

This is another very risky one, which I’ve messed up a few times in the rudimentary exchanges that generously could be called my attempts at “conversation”:
fido – loyal, faithful, also overdraft and I trust (fidare, to trust)
fida – he/she trusts (fidare)
sfida – challenge
fico – fig, but also cool, kewl
figo – as above
fica – slang term for vagina, which could be translated by that most harsh of Anglo-Saxon four-letter words, but I don’t think that’s quite right. It’s probably closer to the US English appropriation of a once-cute name for a cat. also insists it can be used like the English word “babe”, but I’ve not heard that myself so can’t confirm.
figa – variation on the above.
sfiga – bad luck, as in Che sfiga!, What bad luck! Adding an s in front of words varies their meaning in Italian, though I can’t quite get the logic here.

This is a real minefield, especially in plurals, where fico becomes fichi, okay, but also fiche (according to This is problematic as fica also becomes fiche. So I’m really not sure how one could safely ask for some figs on the market… And it’s fig season now too.

Now, I enjoy idiomatic expressions, especially old ones in English, such as “I don’t care a fig” as a tame way of saying “I don’t give a damn”. Apparently Italian has similar expressions, such as Non me ne importa un fico! or Non vale un fico! (It’s not worth a fig!).

What makes this interesting is how easily the anodyne expression, which presumably evolved to avoid using any Christian cussing, can become something really rather rude, with the adjustment of one letter.

Here’s a tamer one, but still ripe for comedy value:
tetto – roof
tetta – tit (at least this noun has the decency – and logic – to be feminine)
Just think of how wrongly I could say “I’m going up on the roof.”
Note the plurals too – tetti (roofs), tette (tits).

And now, just to get beyond my confusion/obsession with rude words and general turpiloquio (my teacher would be so proud), here are some more ordinary words I’m just trying to clarify for my own sake:

menta – mint (but also the first person present subjunctive conjugations of mentire, to lie)
mente – mind
mento – chin

detergente – detergent, washing up liquid
detersivo – detergent, washing powder

I think the difference between this two is loosely liquid vs powder, but don’t quote me on that.

I’ll add to this page as and when I encounter similarly confusing words.

Oh, and just a quick note – what I’m talking about here is standard Italian, a language that arguably doesn’t really exist. Most Italians speak dialects apparently. The mind boggles about the variables therein.

Addendum 1:

Here’s a classic confusing thing you may encounter in an Italian restaurant.

ostriche – oysters, not ostriches, in case you were wondering if they were doing ostriche state. (Singular ostrica. Ostrich in Italian is struzzo. In taxonomy, their family is Struthionidae, genus Struthio, which hints at the origins of the Italian word.)

And a few other similar words:
astice – lobster (also aragosta; taxonomically, the lobster infraorder is Astacidea.)
istrice – porucpine (also porcospino, literally spiny pig, a name that’s used for hedgehogs too. Naturally. I wish I’d studied both biology and Latin more as both are very handy for making guesses at the names of animals and plants in Italian: the Latin name for the family of Old World porcupines is Hystricidae).
strisce – stripes. (Singular striscia.) I’m enjoying an Italian beer at the moment called Stelle e strisce – stars and stripes. I imagine it’s inspired by a US ale.

Addendum 2:

Just learning this one yesterday, 10 March 2013. We were on the Aventine hill, and discussing the keyhole of the Knights of Malta compound, with its famous view of St Peters.
toppa – keyhole.
topa – slang word for vagina. Learning the pronunciation nuance of a single versus a double letter in Italian is a real challenge…
topo – mouse.


Filed under Learning Italian, Main thread


Italians have a great passion for coffee, for food (notably offal in Rome), smoking (basta!), football (you should have heard the horns honking after the 2-0 Italy-Rep. Ireland match last night) and cars. It’s fundamentally evident in the language: la macchina means the machine, but it’s most commonly used to mean the car. The machine is the car. The car is the machine

They love their cars. I did read somewhere that around the turn of the millennium, Italian per capita car ownership exceeded that of the USA. I can’t find that stat now. This list on Wikipedia (of vehicles per capita, not specifically cars) has them at 10th in the league table of vehicle-crazy nations. Monaco is first (surely Monaco is small enough to just walk everywhere? Crazy). The US is second. The UK, perhaps surprisingly, is 30th – good for the UK. That’s a sanity point in the UK’s favour.

Anyway. So Italy is still up there. 690 cars per 1000 population.

This car obsession was re-iterated to me this morning not by an encounter with Rome’s daft traffic but by an exchange I overheard between a thirty-ish mother and a three-ish daughter.

“Mummy – what kind of car is that?”
“That’s a Chrysler dear.”

This child was certainly starting young. And a girl to boot. Would you ever hear a three-year-old British girl ask that? Maybe, but the cultures I’m a little more familiar with – British, New Zealand, even US via the old remote viewing of movies and TV – it’s the males who grow up to be petrol-heads.

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Translating cheesy Italian pop songs, pt 2

So I’ve already had a few attempts at translating Italian pop songs into English. These are generally songs that I’ve found catchy, but have been largely unable to translate in my head while I’m listening. I never know what they are or who they’re by, as the station our radio is mostly tuned to doesn’t give such info.

Anyway, a song struck me lately, so I looked it up online, and lo it’s by the same band that I translated before, here. The song’s called ‘Come un pittore’ – Like a painter – and the band’s Modà, and I guess they’re quite big here. I said before, they’re perhaps the Italian Coldplay. Though they sing in Italian, so haven’t quite been exported so successfully. Oh, and this one seems to be a song “feat. Jarabedepalo”, a Spanish group. I believe that’s their singer Pau Donés in the video, below.

I’d say this song sounds like a nursery rhyme (filastrocca), but that’d be unfair to nursery rhymes. When you think about it, a babyish love song is a disturbing thing.

And having said all that, I must admit I quite like it – it’s idiotically sentimental and cheesy but has singalong value, the bottom line of any good pop song. Plus, the fact that I can just about sing along with an Italian pop song, and understand some of it, gives me a good feeling, a sense of progress on my pathetically slow journey on the road to acquiring Italian.

Here’s the official video:

(Why is he making the – very rude – sign of the cuckold at the end of the vid?! I’m really confused now. Is it only rude the other way round?)

Here are the original lyrics:

Ciao, semplicemente ciao.
Difficile trovar parole molto serie,
tenterò di disegnare…
come un pittore,
farò in modo di arrivare dritto al cuore
con la forza del colore.

Guarda… Senza parlare.

Azzurro come te,
come il cielo e il mare
E giallo come luce del sole,
Rosso come le
cose che mi fai… provare.

Ciao, semplicemente ciao.
Disegno l’erba verde come la speranza
e come frutta ancora acerba.
E adesso un po’ di blu
Come la notte
E bianco come le sue stelle
con le sfumature gialle

E l’aria… Puoi solo respirarla!

Azzurro come te,
come il cielo e il mare
E giallo come luce del sole,
Rosso come le
cose che mi fai… provare.

Per le tempeste non ho il colore
Con quel che resta, disegno un fiore
Ora che è estate, ora che è amore…

Azzurro come te,
come il cielo e il mare
E giallo come luce del sole,
Rosso come le
cose che mi fai… provare.

And here’s my stab at a translation:

Hi, just hi.*
It’s hard to find the right words,
so I’ll try to sketch it…
like a painter,
that way, I’ll try to get straight to the heart
with the strength of colour.

Look*… without words*

Blue like you,
like the sky and the sea
And yellow like sunlight
Red like the
things you do to me… Trying.*

Hi, just hi.
I paint the grass green like hope*
and like fruit that’s not ripe.
And now, a bit of blue
Like the night
And white like the stars*
with hints of yellow

And the air…. You just want to breath it!

Blue like you,
like the sky and the sea
And yellow like sunlight
Red like the
things you do to me… Trying.

For storms, I just don’t have the colours
All that remains, I paint a flowerer
Now it’s the summer, now there’s love.

Blue like you,
like the sky and the sea
And yellow like sunlight
Red like the
things you do to me… Trying.

“Look” in the sense of “Behold!” perhaps.
“Without words” – or maybe “Without talking”
“Trying” – provare is the verb to try, but also to demonstrate, to feel, to experience. Not really sure what it means here.
Is hope green? Maybe in Italy.
“Like the stars” – or “like her stars”?

I’m probably doing these bards a terrible disservice with my crude translation.

Oh, and if anyone things I’m being rude about Italy here, I don’t agree. I’m being rude about cheesy pop. And I’m enjoying the challenge of translating it, as part of the process of learning Italian.
English language songs can, of course, be equally cheesy. Especially if they’re by Coldplay.

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A quick trip to the supermarket in Monteverde Vecchio

It’s a hot sunny late April day in Monteverde Vecchio, our neighbourhood in Rome. I need some stuff from the supermarket – I generally buy food at one of the markets, but the supermarket is good for its eco-branded bog roll and whatnot.

Leaving the house, I’m met by ‘Wuthering Heights’ by Kate Bush being blasted from a raised ground floor flat. It’s somewhat incongruous, but joyfully so as Kate is the one musician I’ve listened to all my life.

I fall in behind a pasty, chunky guy in shorts and flipflops. Clearly a foreigner, as such attire is generally non si fa (not done) for Italians, unless you’re at the beach. I may be acquiring some local prejudices, as I speed up to overtake him, then head to the ATM. I wait at the door to the vestibule where the cash machine is located. He falls in behind me, a micro orderly queue. A Brit perhaps. Two ladies, presumably a mother and a nonna (granny) pull up with a pair of double buggies. They don’t form an orderly queue.

After a trial of patience with the ATM (they seem extraordinarily slow here. Maybe I’m just even more impatient), I turn to leave and find the doorway flanked by the buggies, one of the occupants on his potty right in the middle of the thoroughfare. I giggle, I think the mum does too, but it’s not funny enough to make her consider putting young Giovanni’s potty slightly, you know, out of the doorway.

At the supermarket, I gather my goods, head for the till. The woman in front is on her mobile. The woman on the till is busy chatting with her colleague. For the best part of a minute, the woman in front holds out her bank card, not looking at the woman on the till. The woman on the till is chatting over her shoulder and doesn’t notice the bank card.

I finally get to shuffle forward, around the woman yakking on her mobile. Luckily the till’s “shoot” is divided into two areas, so I’m able to pack without getting muddled up with Senora Yakki. I hurry though, as I’m aware of the next person’s goods building up behind me.

The charge is €22.35. I don’t have €2.35, so I make a comment about not having enough change, as usual. Change is an issue here. Vendors welcome cash, but they particularly welcome exact change. One cash till lady was very sour with me when I tried to pay for something costing €10.70 with a €20 note, but if you ain’t got the change you ain’t got the change.

We tend to generally get €50 notes from ATM, as we get out money to split between us. Except it’s hard to split as we can’t easily get change. Even the friendly chap at the local launderette has to generally nip next door when I offer him a €20 to settle my €14 bill.

I muster some change, 35c. It’s a gesture. The woman seems appreciative, and even laughed at my comment, so presumably my Italian is making some progress. Unless of course she was just laughing politely but didn’t understand a word I said.

Leaving, I run the gauntlet of beggars, and head home. A door in a palazzo opens on the pavement and a dog emerges, barking. It’s the sort of bark that’s on that fine dividing line between assertive and aggressive. A nonna strolling by smiles indulgently, which is very much si fa when it comes to daffy dogs here. The dog – miraculously – shuts up, and is followed out by another mother, holding the leash, dragging out huge plastic ride-on toy car, and a child. The mother is muttering something about scappare – the verb to escape or flee. I can’t make out whether she’s referring to the dog escaping, or the child, or even her own desire to flee.

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Things I miss from home. And the question of beer.

In no particular order:
A good pub* (preferably in the company of old friends).
Interstate in Covent Garden, so I can buy some new jeans. Been buying my jeans (as well as sundry satchels and undies) there for about 12 years or more. [Edit: Interstate closed down while we were in Roma! End of an era]
Vaguely reliable, functional postal services.
Cinema. There are plenty of cinemas here, but unlike in Paris say, it’s hard to see English-language films in versione originale. And I’m damned if I’ll watch a dubbed film, especially in a language I don’t understand very well. I detest dubbing. There is one cinema here that shows films in VO, but for some reason they had The Iron Lady on there for three long effin’ months. I adore the big screen, indeed it was central to my job for a decade or so, so this dearth of big screen action is a difficulty for me.
Simple brand products – soap, roll-on etc that’s not perfumed, not coloured, just kind.

Things I don’t miss:
The sheer trashiness of Britain and British culture.
The unfailing uniformity of British shopping streets (mobile phone shops, Boots, Tesco Metro, generic coffee franchises etc).
The grotesque ubiquity of CCTV. I remember my feelings of shock and discomfort when I first became aware of CCTV cameras, such as outside a bar in Radford in Nottingham, c1992, where dealers congregated. Thanks to Blair and co, we’re all treated like potential now criminals in the UK. So much for valuing our freedoms. Never mind the Olympics factor.
The lack of lizards.

By no means a complete list. And is it prejudiced and classist? Who knows. Me ne frego.

* I don’t necessarily have a painful longing for British beer. As much as I love a pint of proper British ale, there’s no shortage of decent beer here in Italy, thanks to what I understand to be a fairly recent growth of artigianale (artisan, or traditional) beer production.

In Rome, we just need to go to Ma Che Sieta Venuti a Fa’ or Open Baladin, or other birrerie (beer bars), or specialist beer shops. We can even get great ales from the supermarket. Last year, the boyfriend of a friend launched a new beer in Italy, and after being unable to source it in the specialist shops, I spied it in our local supermarket. And very nice it is too: Mastri Birrai Umbri.


Filed under Food misc, Main thread, Rome

Clear as mud, and the convolutions of mnemonics

Mnemonics are really useful for learning vocabulary in a new language. So for example, in Italian the pavement, or “sidewalk” if any North Americans happen upon this blog, is il marciapiede. To help me learned this one, I thought about marching along the pavement.The Latin factor is clearly very useful. Piedi, feet in Italian, is related to the French pied (thanks O-level, you weren’t completely useless after all), and also related to the English word pedicure. Or the Italian verb to hide is nascondere. I’m thinking that’s probably related to the English verb to abscond, somewhere along the line.

It’s not, however, always so straightforward. I was trying to translate the English idiom “clear as mud” in Italian, as I often find myself in a situation where clarity eludes me, notably in class. The word for mud in Italian is, however, fango. Semi-unhelpfully, the thing that sprung to mind here was “You know when you’ve been Tango’d”. Ok, thought I, that’s fine, I have a vision in my mind of someone splattered with mud.

Unfortunately, I remembered the mnemonic, but forgot the first letter of the actual word. Jango, mango, gango, gah!? Okay, thought I, fango is like fangs, so that brings to mind vampires. It’s clearly unrelated though, with no nice neat Latinate etymological chain of connections. Instead, I the mnemonic visualisation got increasingly silly. So now when I try to think of the word for mud, I imagine a mud-splattered vampire.

And finally I can say Chiaro come il fango.

Unfortunately, this isn’t one of the idiomatic expressions that directly shared between English and Italian, as far as I know. Hi ho.

Yesterday, I tried a semi-mangled Italian translation of the English expression “between a rock and a hard place” with my teacher, Giammarco: tra una pietra e un posto duro. Though looking now, apparently the Italian version is tra l’incudine e il martello – which means between the anvil and the hammer. Which is great, very evocative, but I’ll need some new mnemonics to learn these words, as for me the word martello brings to mind martello towers, the defensive towers built on England’s coast in the Napoleonic wars. Which, etymologically, have nothing to do with the Italian for hammer.

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Me Talk Ugly This Day

Been reading David Sedaris’s ‘Me Talk Pretty One Day’ (thanks Marta!), an astute, highly entertaining collection of essays/autobiographical short stories. Several of them are concerned Sedaris’ move to France and his efforts to learn French.

I particularly love the way he renders bad student French in English – “That be common for I, also, but be more strong, you. Much work and someday you talk pretty.” (Hence the title of the book.) I’m aware that much of my Italian probably sounds like this. My teachers are used to such mangling and don’t even bat an eyelid, but staff in bars and restaurants in touristy areas, who inevitably have better English than my Italian, do tend to flinch and wince, giving a good idea of my standard

Teachers and linguists perennially say that a key problem adults have when learning a new language is self-consciousness, a fear of the blunders. Children don’t have this problem, or confident people, who just push on through. But I most certainly do; I don’t relish hearing myself talking like I’m retarded a semi-illiterate nincompoop.

Pitfalls and pratfalls

There are just so many pitfalls to cause linguistic pratfalls. One of my teachers, Giammarco, suggests that Italian is a largely logical language and while it’s hard to learn at the start, it gets easier. This is the complete opposite of my experience. At the start, having learned the present tense and the passato prossimo (simple past tense, ie “I bought a cake”) and a smattering of everyday vocabulary I felt a fleeting giddiness – “Wahey, I can speak Italian!” At least in class or alone with my wife.

After that, however, other tenses have presented themselves, tenses like the conjiuntivo passato (present perfect subjunctive), which not only involve learning new conjugations, but can also be somewhat baffling to translate; modern English, for example, doesn’t use the subjunctive much.

Prepositions – to, from, in, at, on – also continue to bewilder me, especially in combination with eight variations of the definite article (“the”). People say English is complex, but at least we only have one the. And I’m still trying to ignore complex constructions with indirect object pronouns.

Hell, it doesn’t help that during my 1970s and 1980s education, a literal teaching of grammar was out of fashion. Or at least seemed to be in my school; thanks for nothing St Peter’s, Winchester. Hence I didn’t even learn much of the terminology, like, oooh, “transitive” and “intransitive” verb, even if I instinctively know how to apply such elements of my own language.

Mister Sandwich

Anyway, I could very much relate when Sedaris talked evocatively of the bewilderment he felt when faced with the concept of nouns having gender. Or as he elaborates in ‘Make That a Double’: “Because it is female and lays egg, a chicken is masculine. Vagina is masculine as well, while the word masculinity is feminine…. I spent months searching for some secret code before I realized that common sense has nothing to do with it.”

Sedaris finally decided to avoid using gendered pronouns, and instead always talked in plurals. Which works fine linguistically in French, but did mean he’d end up buying food in bulk – so him and boyfriend Hugh are faced with the challenge of not just finding space in the fridge for four pounds of tomatoes, alongside two chickens, but also eating their “way through a pair of pork roasts the size of Duraflame logs.” (I had no idea what they were without the help of Google, but got the picture.)

This system wouldn’t work in Italy, and not just for the issue of acquiring too many groceries. In Italian, unlike the French plural the (les), plural definite articles are different between genders. So il (the, masculine) becomes i, or even sometimes the pronunciation challenge gli, while la (the, feminine) becomes le. There’s also l’ sometimes, which doesn’t even have the decency to appear with the predictability it has in French.

Now, Italian is broadly logical with its nouns – masculine nouns mostly end with o, feminine a in singular, with this changing to i and e respectively in plural. So a book, libro, becomes libri, while an apple, mela, becomes mele. I say broadly logical, because I’m increasing meeting nouns that don’t conform to this. The first that really threw me was egg, which is uovo – looking deceptively like a regular masculine singular. But then it becomes uova, which looks like a feminine singular but is actually a feminine plural of a masculine noun.

Italian seems to be tricksily littered with these transgendered nouns. A knee – ginocchio (m) – decides to become feminine in the plural, but looks like a feminine singular, ginocchia. Discussing running, for a long time I thought I was being smart (well, smart-ish) saying “I miei ginocchi sono rotti” – my knees are broken. Anyway, what I should have been saying (well, should-ish; I’d no idea how to be any more refined with expressions for to be damaged or injured) is “Le mie ginocchia sono rotte”. Maybe. I’m still not quite sure.

Another confusing customer is tower, which in the singular is torre – resembling a feminine plural. But in the plural it becomes torri, resembling a masculine plural.

How on earth did this gender reassignment evolve over history?

Gender confusion

Talking of which, one of the most confusing things I’ve encountered in Italian involves the various ways of saying “you”. Your choice of “you” depends not just on whether you’re addressing a individual or a group, but also on the formality of the situation. Ok, thought I, I learned a bit of the similarly Latinate French as a kid, I can handle that. So French uses tu for the singular “you”, then vous for the plural “you” – and the formal “you”. I assumed Italian would use the equivalent tu and voi but oh no. Ooooh no.

In Italian, the formal you is – get this – “her”. Lei. Yes, even if you’re addressing a person of a chap persuasion, you refer to them as her. So you’ll ask a male shop assistant or waiter “Lei ha…” – literally “She has…” – to mean “Do you have….?”

I can’t say I’ve exactly got my head around this, but I’m at least aware that I should use it. Or most of the time. I mean, I realise I’ve probably been a bit rude using the tu conjugation of the expression “how are you?” (come stai?) with an older neighbour but what really throws me is when, for example, I’m in a bar – frankly, a pretty informal situation – and the waiter or waitress is a lot younger than me. Do I still have to use Lei not tu? Really?

Another of my teachers, Clelia, says it’s a “cultural thing” and Italians will generally be fairly forgiving of foreigners being rude through basic ineptitude or ignorance. But still. Do I really have to use Lei for an amiable, young bartender? Sometimes they even go straight into tu conjugations with me – so if they can do it, can’t I? Or should I be offended? What’s Italian for faux pas?

Oh, and out of interest, apparently the Lei form of address evolved in the Florentine courts of the Middle Ages, when the nouns used for sycophantic greetings or whatever were feminine. Mussolini wanted to try and purge it, considering it too feminine and Spanish, and replace it comprehensively with voi, used like the French vous. Voi is used more for the formal address in southern Italy I believe. Though I’ve never experience that in Rome, which according to northern Italians is the south.

See, that’s a key factor too. Parts of Italy approach language very differently. Giammarco also likes to tell us that “Italian” doesn’t even really exist as a spoken language; most Italians will use one of innumerable dialects. Some people say that Florentine Italian (of refined, Dantean origins) is like the Queen’s English, but this is a misconception and a Florentine dialect is as alive and well as many other dialects in his long, diverse nation. So basically I’m trying to learn a language that no one even really uses. It’s not exactly heartening.

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