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….

A Coffee Please…the Italian Way

Un cafè dopo pranzo (a coffee after lunch).

Un caffè dopo pranzo (a coffee after lunch).

God, I love coffee, and Italy is paradise for me in this regard. On one hand, I pass up (most of the time) pizza, bread and pasta, because I am one of those crazy low-carb critters (it really works for me). If I passed up the incredible coffee here also…well, that just wouldn’t be right.

Having just returned from a brief trip to the States, and after having to depend on Starbucks for my daily “fixes”, I’m delighted to be back in coffee-Utopia. I had brunch at a great bakery while visiting South Carolina. The food was exceptional but I found the “American” coffee so foul that I was shocked something so awful would be served and consumed without a mass protest. How people could drink that stuff without wincing was beyond me.

You’re thinking I’m some kind of stuck-up coffee snob now, right? Think what you may, but the Italians have trained me to appreciate REALLY good coffee. And you can find it almost anywhere in Italy. My dear friend Arun, who has also spent ample time in Italy, and I often remark about the exceptional quality of a coffee or cappuccino at the Auto Grill – a chain of auto and truck stops all over Italy. Stop by most truck stops and service stations in the States and you’ll usually get something that will perk you up, but it won’t make your taste buds sing. Stop by an Auto Grill for a coffee and your ire will surge realizing you’ve been cheated with most of the offerings back home.

People often quote “Life is too short to drink bad wine.” For me, this goes for coffee as well.

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Italian Hand Gestures – Artistry in Action

Using the hands to punctuate conversation and emphasize emotional content in a conversation is essential to Italians. For them, the hands are as essential as the mouth for communicating. Hollywood has had a heyday with this…to a fault. I’m not saying the portrayals are inaccurate, just a bit over the top. Sit an Italian in front of a movie screen or TV featuring Italian “characters” and ask them to “weigh in”. Most will roll their eyes and make hands gestures of their own to express outrage that the Americans are “at it again”.

Check out the following “brief” YouTube videos explaining some of the most prolifically used gestures. WARNING: In the second video some of these are a bit explicit, so if swearing offends you, you might want to skip over. However, if you’re planning on spending much time in Italy, you’d better start getting used to creative swearing, with words and hands.

www.youtube.com/watch?v=iB-kz4Rj7MY

 

www.youtube.com/watch?v=5wWhnFgSFMM

This brings me to share a piece of advice. Embrace the language and do everything you can to perfect your vocabulary and pronunciation, but leave the Italian hand gestures to the Italians. Understand the “vocabulary” of the Italian gestures so that you know when a person is emphasizing a point, expressing outrage, saying someone is bullshitting them, telling someone to go f#*k themselves, or communicating countless other sentiments. But, if you try to emulate these hand gestures, in my humble opinion, you’re playing with dynamite. These movements of arms and hands are so natural and fluid for Italians because they starting learning them when they were starting to walk. Just try reading up on the breadth of hand gestures and soon you’ll realize how you could end up “mis-pronouncing” with your hands. Italians will spot the pretense right away and it won’t be endearing.

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The Art of Italian Greetings & Goodbyes

If you spend any time in Italy, and you want to begin to endear yourself to the people here, you’d better familiarize yourself with the art of Italian greetings and goodbyes.

Don’t abuse “Ciao”.

This is one the biggest missteps Americans make when they come to Italy, blithely tossing out “Ciao” everywhere when greeting an Italian or saying goodbye. Most people will acknowledge you, but you might as well have “unenlightened foreigner” stamped on your forehead. My partner, who is Italian (born and bred here in Italy,) has helped me embrace a few important guidelines for when saying hello and goodbye.

Italian Hello and Goodbye“Ciao” is a greeting or a goodbye used for people with whom you have a familiar relationship. Don’t use it with strangers. “Salve” is the polite way to address people you are meeting for the first time. I don’t usually make the switch to “Ciao” unless the other person does so first. It’s kind of like them saying “It’s okay to be a bit more casual.”

As for saying goodbye to someone you don’t know, always use “arrivederci”. I know, it’s a mouthful, and you may stumble over rolling your r’s, but practice, practice, practice.

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