Italian Bike Life – Dress As You Please

Bike Life, Jed Smith Photography

Center of Attention © 2018 Jed Smith

I’ve been meaning to tackle this subject for quite a while, and even today’s post is only a beginning to a fuller visual essay on bike life in Italy.

Bicycles own a big place in Italian culture.

Of course, the Giro d’Italia contributes heavily and people are solidly fanatical about following it. But this week I’d like to focus on the everyday-getting-from-here-to-there bike culture. It’s huge.

This past weekend, we made a day trip to Ferrara, about two hours by train and just north of Bologna. Ferrara is in Emilia-Romagna, which is the region known for producing arguably the best pasta in all of Italy (stay tuned for next week’s post about one of these best meals I’ve ever had). Unfortunately, Ferrara is often bypassed by people making a beeline for nearby Bologna. I’d been urged to visit Ferrara, particularly to see the stunning Cathedral of St. George. Just when I thought I’d seen all the most breathtaking churches of Italy…

Anyway, getting back on track, we entered the city center amidst a swarm of people on their bikes. This wasn’t a new phenomenon for me, since Treviso, our city, is also home to a robust population of bikes. But on this day, I had my camera in hand and I decided to embark on a quick photo essay of these colorful people and outfits passing us left and right.

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Speaking of Tongues…

Italian relics, St. Anthony

A shrine to St. Anthony’s tongue, jawbone, vocal cords, and more.

Fair warning: if you’re a fan and believer in religious relics, you might want to skip this week’s blog post. I’m dedicated to sharing the full gamut of my Italian life and I’d be remiss if I didn’t address this topic since it’s impossible to avoid it while marveling at the majesty and ingenuity of Italian churches. For me, this practice of putting saints’ body parts on display is a bit unsettling.

A visit to the Basilica of St. Anthony in Padova and a viewing of “pieces” of the saint.

Yes, pieces of the saint. The main attraction? St. Anthony’s tongue.

During a recent visit to Padova with my sister and brother-in-law, I was introduced to the relics of St. Anthony.

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Italian Holiday Greetings – Prep Yourself and Know the Protocol

Italian Holiday Greetings

The holiday trim and lights already are being prepped and strung across the ancient city streets of Italy. Mountains of panettone (Italian holiday sweet bread) dominate the supermarkets. Christmas and New Year’s are quickly approaching, and the exchange of Italian holiday greetings is ramping up.

Let’s talk about the most often-used Italian holiday greetings…

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Arm-in-Arm is part of the Italian Culture

arm-in-arm, Italywise

Walking arm-in-arm is part of the Italian culture ©2017 Jed Smith

Italians are passionate and affectionate

I think I can safely draw this conclusion after living in Italy for several years and observing the interactions amongst Italians. The photo above prompts me to pause and pay tribute to the visible bonds communicated by walking arm-in-arm. I’d also be remiss in not speaking to the greeting (and parting) of the kiss on both cheeks.

This photo makes me smile. There’s no question of the sisterhood of this fine ladies. And if you think this is only a sweet custom between women, and older people, think again. You’ll see people of all genders and ages walking arm-in-arm – families and friends alike.

Americans sometimes are a little put off by this.

Clarification of the above statement – not put off by observing this custom, but finding themselves in situations with new Italian friends and not knowing exactly what to do.

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Meet Le Vecchie Guardie – The Old Guard

The Old Guard

Camaraderie. © 2017 Jed Smith

I love these faces. I love surreptitiously watching their interactions, and their steadfast camaraderie. The Old Guard, fondly referred to as “Le vecchie guardie” in Italy, is an integral thread, found woven everywhere in the fabric of Italian culture.

Watching The Old Guard can’t help but make you smile

At least that’s my reaction. If only I could eavesdrop on their conversations to round out the picture. Or, maybe it’s just as well (and more fun) to use my imagination, and focus on capturing the moments

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The Visual Poetry of Italian Body Language

Italian body language, Italywise

Italian body language is endlessly fascinating.

As an artist and photographer, I find people watching here in Italy to be a source of great inspiration, and education. This recent photo, captured on the streets of Cefalù, Sicily, shows one of countless snippets of the dance of Italian body language.

For most of my life I’ve thought I reveal much about myself through speaking with my hands and my body language. Now, in contrast to the effusive and rich vocabulary of Italian body language, I realize just how restrained I am. I ask myself, just how much energy is locked up in my more Americanized style of expression, and ponder whether the incredibly natural flow of energy in Italian expression (verbal and body language) is more freeing, and thereby healthier.

As I watched this particular Italian gentlemen go about his morning, I watched him have a lively encounter with a friend and shop owner. The moment captured in this photo is just seconds after his friendly exchange, and demonstrates how the dance of expression continues and flows.

Perhaps, one day, I will attempt a photographic journal, or concise visual dictionary, of Italian body language. I would only do this through the guidance and tutelage of my Italian partner who, constantly and justifiably, warns me of the dangers of foreigners thinking such forms Italian “speech” are easy to understand and emulate. Italian expression contains many important subtleties which, if missed or not understood, can be dangerous in inexperienced hands.

In closing, I have included a YouTube video, posted by nadasitlay.com, which demonstrates some of the most often used Italian hand gestures. I can’t help but smile when I watch these native Italians sharing their rich skills in speaking with their hands.

To see other photos, be sure to check out my online gallery.

 

Don’t Wish Me Luck – Talk about Wolves, Whales and Poop!

Speaking Italian, Italywise

Photo by NatureGuy, Adobe Stock Images

You’re probably asking (if you’re not offended) “What do wolves, whales, and poop have in common?” They all share a common function of wishing someone well here in Italy, while avoiding saying “good luck”.

I am fascinated by idiomatic expressions, and they are plentiful here in Italy. As you begin learning them, you might be overwhelmed. I’d recommend concentrating on matters that come up more frequently, so you can fit in. So, don’t be surprised when an Italian instructs you, “Don’t wish me luck!” Other colorful ways are at your disposal for wishing someone well. Let’s start with probably the most common…

“In bocca al lupo” means “In the mouth of the wolf.”

This phrase, is similar to the English “Break a leg,” and has origins in opera and theater. Over time, its use has expanded to encompass wishing someone well in other endeavors, such as taking an exam. I heard this several times before I took my Italian driver’s license exam. How do you respond when someone says this to you? “Crepi il lupo” which means “May the wolf die” is the proper response. Often it is shortened to “Crepi!” A prevailing theory insinuates that you hope the wolf dies, choking while he has you in his mouth.

An alternative theory of the origin of “In bocca al lupo” is that it isn’t phrase that is meant to have menacing overtones, but instead refers to how a mother wolf might protectively hold a cub in her mouth. I prefer that interpretation, and I’d rather not wish that a wolf dies. But, I don’t need to split hairs. I just want to go with tradition, and follow the formula.

If you want to equip yourself with one phrase for wishing someone well here in Italy, this would be the one, in my opinion. Other options exist, but they’re pretty colorful, and you might not feel comfortable using them. They also include references to “poop” (my attempt to be a bit more polite).

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Perils and Pitfalls of Speaking Italian

The Perils and Pitfalls of Speaking Italian

Know the challenges of speaking Italian, apply yourself, and you’ll be speaking proficiently in no time.

I’ve been living in Italy for over two years now. One of the things I’ve been hearing from more than one source here is that it takes a least that amount of time for things to start “clicking” in the brain – provided a person is immersing himself or herself in the language. This means some sort of study program and it means surrounding yourself, more and more, with native speakers, and resisting the urge to spend most of your time in the safety of other English-speaking expats.

Speaking Italian is not easy in my experience. Let me clarify, speaking Italian WELL is not an easy in experience. If you’re reading this post and if you’re only interested in visiting Italy for a short time, you certainly can set your sights on a lower learning curve. But, if you’re planning on a longer stay, or if you’re planning on living here permanently I encourage you to embrace your fears and tackle the language in a way that will give you a proficiency to help you not only in the dealing practicalities of life, but to help you build friendships and garner respect from the Italians.

If you’re serious about making Italy your home, learning the language is paramount. Otherwise you risk being perceived as an entitled foreigner who expects the burden of communication to fall on the locals. I’ve heard many English speakers (mainly tourists in Rome, Venice, Florence, etc.) becoming indignant that more Italians  don’t speak English.

My education in comprehending and speaking Italian continues. I’m impatient with myself for not being further along, but I have made considerable progress. In the process, I’ve identified several perils and pitfalls of speaking Italian. The following are 10 pieces of advice that I’d like to share:

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Learning the ways of the contadini italiani

My neighbors, a brother and sister, hard at work in their large vegetable garden.

My neighbors, a brother and sister, hard at work in their large vegetable garden.

“Contadini italiani” is most often translated as “Italian farmers”. Our Umbrian home  is smack dab in the middle of a community of hardworking farmers. These aren’t farmers operating a large-scale business. Mostly, they are growing for their own needs and households. This means they eat well as the growing season begins hitting its stride in late May and early June, and by summer’s end they also have replenished their cellars and cupboards with root vegetables, and countless jars of preserved fruits and vegetables. And, most of what is produced here is done “bio” – the Italian moniker for “organic”.

This is my third year of having a garden. When I moved to Italy in May 2013 I was swamped with countless logistics associated with the move and getting residency,  so I planted a very small garden which, in retrospect, was an embarrassing attempt at basic gardening. I was doing everything wrong, and I was lucky to harvest a handful of green beans and tomatoes. My neighbors, skillful contadini, didn’t ridicule me. They simply made some suggestions as to how I might do it differently “il prossimo anno” – the next year.

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“Talk of the Town” in the Hills of Umbria

Even daily laundry can be cause for speculation and commentary amongst the neighbors.

Even daily laundry can be cause for speculation and commentary amongst the neighbors.

I guess small towns are pretty much the same wherever you go in the world…

You see, my neighbors in Umbria talk about my underwear. Yes, my underwear.

Living in a small rural village in Umbria, everyone pays attention to everything. This is a good thing, because the “neighborhood watch” is fierce. Our home in Umbria is in a hillside cluster of 10 or more homes. Things may appear quiet, but ears are always alert to the sounds of strange footsteps or car engines, and eyes furtively peek out from darkened windows. In these small Italian hamlets, if that’s where you end up living, you’d better get used to your life being up for village commentary and speculation. This won’t be the first and only posting about having my life on display in Umbria. I’m not at all upset about it. I find it endearing and humorous.

I was prompted to write this after having a lovely New Year’s Eve dinner with our next-door neighbors from Umbria, who also live in Rome during the winter. During the course of the meal, my neighbor delightfully recounted a conversation she had during the summer with another neighbor, who lives just around the corner. This was regarding my underwear. We share a communal clothesline, always being respectful of one other’s needs and being sure not to monopolize use of the clothesline. One day I hung out a load of laundry that included a dozen pair of my Italian briefs, courtesy of Intimissimi (a guy has to feel sexy whenever he can). I’m one of those people who like to have at least three weeks of underwear on hand, and I end up washing them in bulk.

Apparently this prolific display of underwear ownership caused quite a stir and my neighbors remarked about my investment in the underwear industry. They chuckled about this “indulgence” of mine, and I’m sure word spread throughout the village. Pretty much anything qualifies for conversation fodder – and this isn’t exclusive to the expats. It hasn’t been unusual for us to be having a coffee at our favorite bar/alimentari at the bottom of the hill, only to find out that people are aware of our activities and whereabouts just two days before.

The bottom line is that we’ve been welcomed with great hospitality and affection and the “talk” isn’t malicious in the least. I like knowing people are looking out for us. So what if my underwear strategy undergoes scrutiny in the process?

Maybe you’re choosing a secluded home up a beautiful cypress-lined drive, and this will afford you much privacy. But, be prepared, because it will also prompt commentary from the locals, and this will be turbo-charged with colorful speculation. Italians are masters of storytelling.

I can only imagine what other stories have been told as the result of the astute observations of our comings and goings. With a bit of exploration, and sufficient consumption of wine and grappa, I’m sure we’ll be able to loosen lips….

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