Friday, March 8, 2013


by Sheila Connolly

Recently I realized that could say "I don't know" in five languages. English obviously, but also French (je ne sais pas), German (Ich weiß nicht), Spanish (no sé), and Irish (níl a fhios agam). It's good to know that I can be ignorant in sooo many different countries!

I started thinking about languages because I'm going to Italy in June, with a group of college classmates.  I have been to Italy before—exactly once, in 1972.  I didn't speak Italian then, and I don't speak it now.

In 1972 I was traveling with a friend, who had a peculiar independent streak and decided to take off on her own, leaving me sitting in the middle of the Roman Forum.  I could have panicked, stranded in a place where I didn't know the language.  I didn't. I looked around:  it was a beautiful day, I was in an incredible place, I had the map (she didn't!) and money in my pocket.  What did I have to complain about?  So I had no way of communicating with most of the people around me—what did it matter?  In the end, it didn't. It was surprisingly liberating to find out that I could cope just fine.

I know probably as much Italian as anyone who goes to Italian restaurants and watches Italian movies, or movies set in Italy.  I'm good at obscure food terms.  I can say useful things like "where is the church?" or "how much does that cost?" but that's about the end of it.

I've always been good at languages (thanks, I think, to a Swiss nanny I can't even remember, who spoke only French to me), and I can understand languages better than I can speak them, which means I nod a lot during a conversation and say "yes" in whichever language is appropriate (oui/ja/si/tá).  But I have also acquired some handy phrase books, which I plan to read…sometime.  Maybe on the plane on the way over.

My husband has been to Italy since I have, maybe ten years ago (it was a business conference in Florence).  He passed on to me a handy Berlitz phrase book, which I've been reading on and off lately.  Its original publication date was 1970, and our copy was its 19th printing, in 1995.  I have a feeling that not much was altered from the original 1970 version, and I'd guess that one drew heavily on earlier ones.  It's a weird snapshop into a different world of travel.

For example, early on it tells you how to call for a porter for your luggage when you land.  Facchino!  Wait, are there still porters in airports? Will they come if you call? Not long after there is a handy phrase if you want to ask, "could you drive more slowly?"  (Think any self-respecting Italian taxi-driver is going to agree to that?) On page 27, we are instructed how to ask for a babysitter/secretary/typewriter. There is an entire section on Difficulties, in case any number of things in your hotel room don't work. Okay, that could be useful.

If you can find your way to a restaurant, the book tells you how to say, "I'd like some more," followed by "may I have some more, please?" and not much further down the page, "where are the toilets?" (A phrase that remains useful and appears every few pages in the book!)

I find the section called Relaxing particularly charming.  "Is there a sound and light show on somewhere?" If you're seeking a nightclub, you can ask "is there a floor show?" and "is evening dress necessary?" (Who are these people??)

And then there's the Dating section, which I present to you in the order given:

Do you mind if I smoke?

Would you like a cigarette?

Do you have a light, please?

Why are you laughing?

Is my Italian that bad?

Of course, there is no information on what to say if you've made it past smoking and introductions and laughing and would like to negotiate more amorous pursuits, although there is a line for "I'm on the pill" in the medical section.  Still, one might want to bookmark the page with "call the police!" or maybe just "Stop!"

This is all pure entertainment for me, because the trip is being organized by someone else, starting with picking us all up at the airport, through where we're staying (one villa, one vineyard), driving us around, feeding us, obtaining tickets for museums and so on.  I don't think I've ever been on a trip where someone else did all the planning, but I intend to wallow in it, while taking pretty pictures of Florence and the Ligurian coast.  And eating a lot—at least know what to order.

Ma io non parlo italiano.


Edith Maxwell said...

Your trip sounds wonderful! I wonder which of your characters will need a trip to Italy sometime soon. ;^) Have a great time.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this charming post - a lovely way to start a snowy day in Manhattan! Thelma Straw

Leslie Budewitz said...

Sounds delightful -- in any language!

Steven M. Moore said...

Hi Sheila,
Buon viaggio (I think I have that right). I spent five weeks in Italy many years ago. If you're fluent in Spanish, you'll have no problems, because I spoke Spanish and they spoke Italian, which soon started corrupting my Spanish. My landlady and I got along famously, but she was always telling me that Americans bathe too much! It was fun.
My wife and I also spent a delayed honeymoon there. I caught something in Venice that put me in the ER by the time we got home, but it was also great fun. Our favorite place was Firenze.
I could never be a simultaneous translator for the U.N., but I do have some skills for language. For me, Spanish and Russian were the easiest...both almost phonetic!
We tend to be shy about making mistakes in a foreign tongue. The best tactic is to blurt it out. Most people love it if you try to speak their language.
Take care,

Leslie Karst said...

Your comment about the "sound and light show" cracked me up, because one of my very favorite phrases in French has long been "un spectacle de son et lumière," which translates as "a sound and light show." But I love that what we would call simply a "show" is "un spectacle" en Français--so much more exiting, non?

Sheila Connolly said...

Steve, I'm thrilled to be going back to Florence. I was once an art historian, and it's like everything in the Art 100 intro course is right there in front of you, all in one place.

Leslie, I have been to sound and light shows, if not lately. Do they still exist? but it might be fun now to ask for a "spectable" and see what you get!