No Real Disasters Speaking Italian

Times Staff Writer

My friend Lucy and I were sitting in our hotel room in Nice. We had just spent three weeks in France, and I was thinking about the dinner we'd have that night at Chantecler, one of our favorite restaurants in all of France; Lucy was thinking about the three weeks we were going to spend in Italy, starting the next day.

I'm a confirmed Francophile, but Lucy loves Italy, knows a good deal about its art and has a feel for its language. As we sat there she was glancing through an Italian phrase book, practicing a few phrases aloud.

Not really paying attention, but based on what I know of French and Spanish, I thought the first phrase she uttered in Italian meant, "Give me the large shrimp."

No. It meant, "Where are the toilets."

That's when I first realized I might have trouble with the Italian language.

Having spent almost six months in France over the past 10 years, I've learned some French. I'm not fluent, but I can get by, largely because I speak aggressively and confidently (unwarranted though that confidence may be), and because I am neither afraid to look foolish nor to ask the French to repeat themselves as often as necessary.

A Menu Fancier

I spent a week in Italy 10 years ago but haven't been back since, so my knowledge of the Italian language before this trip was limited to the (I hope) correct pronunciation of the foods and wines available in my favorite Italian restaurants in this country.

With a background of two years of high school Spanish (most of it forgotten), I hoped that my residual sense of the language, combined with my knowledge of rudimentary French, would enable me to navigate reasonably well through the otherwise murky waters of Italian.


Oh, there were no real disasters in Italy. I didn't embarrass myself by driving into a gas station and saying in Italian, "I'm pregnant" when I meant to say "Fill it up," and I didn't get lost or go hungry because I couldn't explain what I wanted.

But there were a few confusing moments, most of them brought about by my misunderstanding the language--and I think I sometimes misunderstood precisely because my French and Spanish got in the way. ("A little learning is a dangerous thing. . . .")

Linguistic Pitfalls

Once, for example, I confidently assumed I understood the Italian description on a bottle in my Umbrian hotel bathroom--and wound up washing my face with laundry detergent. Another time I saw a roadside sign on the way to Sirmione that I could swear was advertising "paramilitary raspberries that light up at night."

On yet another occasion, walking thirstily by a cafe in Verona, I saw a sign that I thought said, Caffe Fegafreddo. Hmm. Caffe, of course, is coffee. Freddo is cold. But fegato is liver; was fega a derivative of liver? Fegatini is chicken liver; was fega a liver paste or something like that? Was Caffe Fegafreddo coffee with cold liver paste?

I ordered a Perrier instead (and later learned that Caffe Fegafreddo was the name of a large Italian soft drink company).

In the big cities of Italy, as every traveler knows, many people speak English--and even more, it seems, speak French. But I was in Italy and so I studied my Italian phrase book and tried to speak a little of the language, asking directions and even getting my gas tank filled.

A Learning Process

I learned how to ask for the services I wanted in the post office and in the bank. I learned how to order breakfast in my hotel room and how to reserve a table in a restaurant and how to order food and wine--and to ask if the service charge was included in the bill--once I got to the restaurant. I learned how to ask the concierge to have someone get my luggage and to mail my post cards and to call a taxi.

It was difficult at times, and since Lucy speaks more Italian, with a better accent, than I do, it was tempting to let her do most of the talking. But that seemed as cowardly a solution as resorting to French or English. And it would have diminished the pleasure of being in Italy. So I spoke the few Italian phrases I'd mastered and then--when I'd exhausted my pitifully inadequate vocabulary--I'd say, "Mi dispiace. No parlo Italiano. Parla Inglese o Frances e ?"

The Italians responded warmly and graciously to my efforts. Unlike some French--who regard their language as a national treasure not to be sullied by the barbaric tongues of foreigners--the Italians seem to have a national inferiority complex that renders them wide-eyed and grateful when any foreigner bothers to speak even a few words of Italian.

In France, the French sometimes insist on speaking to me in English, even when I make clear that I would prefer trying to speak their language; they know I don't speak it terribly well, and they would rather speak English than listen to me mutilate their beautiful language. These people, I should point out, are an exception; generally, I find the French to be friendly and helpful when I try to speak their language.

A Cup of Kindness

But in Italy there are no such exceptions--none that I met, anyway. Every time I spoke even a few words of Italian, the Italians replied in Italian and when I apologized and said I didn't speak the language, they would say--with seeming sincerity--that I spoke Italian so well, they assumed that I was fluent in the language.

They were probably just being kind. But the ease with which the Italians--and the French and most other Europeans, for that matter--switch between their native language and English and, often, other European languages, is both embarrassing and frustrating for an American.

Here I am, 42, reasonably intelligent, a yearly traveler to Europe, and apart from English, all I can claim in the way of linguistic proficiency is a modest working knowledge of French and a few sparse phrases of travel Italian and high school Spanish. Hell, even our waiter one day in a small restaurant in Bergamo spoke not only Italian and English but German and Spanish as well. All fluently.

He apologized, though, because his French wasn't as good as his Portuguese.

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