Swimming in an Ocean of Italian Verbs

Caravaggio's "Medus" (one of my favorite paintings in the Uffizi) aptly illustrates my first reactions to the abyss of Italian verb tense and conjugations.

Caravaggio’s Medusa (one of my favorite paintings in the Uffizi) aptly illustrates my first reactions to the abyss of Italian verb tenses and conjugations.

Sto nuotando in un oceano di verbi Italiani. I am swimming in an ocean of Italian verbs.

I’ve just completed three weeks of intensive Italian language classes and have proceeded to the next level. “Yay!”, but I really have to commit this stuff to memory by practicing as much as I can. This isn’t like a dreaded, required college course that you take, pass and leave in the review mirror as quickly as possible. My success at building a robust life in Italy depends on my having a strong command of the language.

This most recent level was level 5. Believe me, this is difficult stuff, unless you are a prodigy when it comes to languages (like my dear friend Arun). I’m a bit envious of my fellow students at the school who come from other romance languages like Spanish, French and Portuguese since Italian shares many similarities with them. For English speakers, and students from vastly different languages like Japanese, Russian, and Swedish, I feel a greater kinship. I see the same looks of confusion on their faces when we’re forming sentences with a different logic and syntax from our native tongues.

Moments exist when I “get it” and I actually can put together a sentence that isn’t remedial. I won’t allow myself to feel like I’m stuck in the Italian equivalent of the Dick, Jane and Spot series from my first grade in elementary school. To achieve this I have to practice, practice, practice…and then practice some more. For this reason I crave having additional homework exercises.

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Let the Brain Games Begin….Intensive Italian Course

What a week! Today we constructed sentences using "che" and "cui" (in its various forms) - pronouns. This was after three days of forming conditional verbs.

What a week! Today we constructed sentences using “che” and “cui” (in its various forms) – pronouns. This was after three days of forming conditional verbs.

At the moment, I’m sitting at a very nice restaurant, with an outdoor seating area, just a five-minute’s walk from where I just completed my fourth day of an intensive Italian course – language that is, with lots of additional cultural add-on’s to round out the picture. It is an incredibly warm and sunny day for February (here in Rome), and I am having a nice glass of Nero d’ Avola (from Sicily) to congratulate myself on “staying the course”.

During this first week of the course (out of four weeks, 20 hours of class a week) I have experienced two prevailing symptoms. Firstly, I feel like a sponge that has been overly saturated, and I’m desperately trying to keep it all in. Secondly, my brain hurts. It says “I don’t wanna…” This part of my brain feels like a vintage car that has been stored in the garage under a tarp for too many years, without being exercised with a regular spin on the open highway. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have a lazy brain. I DID pass the Italian driver’s test last year, and I had similar feelings during the 9-month journey to securing that sweet little piece of plastic that resides now in my wallet. How is this different? I am swimming now in Italian, and the English speaking center of my brain is putting up a fight. I think that is to be expected, and perhaps it just needs to tire itself out.

But, dammit, I’m going to go after this with everything I have.

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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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