Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Awkward moments for an Italian speaker

Disclaimer: I don't claim to be 100% fluent in Italian. I never will be as I wasn't raised in this country. But I'm damn close, even though some days certain things go straight over my head. It's from those times that I've decided to put this list together of awkward moments that I as an Italian-speaking foreigner face on a regular basis.

The use of dialects
Ok, Milan isn't the greatest example of a city to use when dealing with dialects, as there's such a mix of people here from all over Italy and beyond, but there are times when people who were born and grew up in this city use words from the Milanese dialect with me - especially online - and I'm left puzzled. I only hear a few words of the Milanese dialect on a daily basis, so I've learnt very little of it. At Christmas I was given a crash course in Veneto whilst staying over at my friend, visiting her old neighbours - some of the ladies were of a very impressive age! - who were speaking Veneto dialect at full speed. I understood most of it to my surprise, but it was very disorientating not understanding everything that was being said around me, like it used to be years ago.

Having to repeat yourself
On New Year's Eve I was in central station in Milan. Ordering lunch I had to repeat the word 'menu' three times for the man serving me to understand what I wanted. Tired after the previous night's celebrations I was so close to going off on one about my accent not being that difficult to understand! But I guess sometimes it is. My friends are used to how I speak, and they all say that they love my accent. Meeting new people however, isn't always easy.

Someone speaking in English
Ah, the dilemma of how to answer someone who speaks to you in English. If it's an Italian I naturally speak back to them in Italian, by now it's a reflex that I don't think about. I hear an Italian accent and I reply in Italian. Some however, stubbornly go on speaking in Italian... But what if it's a foreigner who lives in Italy? One of the men who sell things on the street? They're not Italian, is it better to reply in Italian or English?

The mistakes
I make some clangers sometimes. One of my most memorable mistakes was calling myself a zoccola dura (hard slut) instead of zoccolo duro (hard core), just by confusing the gender of the word zoccolo. I may be able to laugh at it now but at the time I was absolutely mortified. I don't make little mistakes like incorrectly conjugating a verb (ok, yes, that does sometimes happen...) but I feel like the ones that I make are more noticeable as everything else around them is correct. I've lost count of the times my friends have told me that I speak Italian better than a native speaker, so it's even more frustrating when I come across words I don't know.

Speak the language means you understand other aspects of life here? 
I often think here that the level of Italian fluency reflects how well you've integrated. It might not be the case, but if you speak the language you're at least not a foreigner who's just got off the plane. Many things still confuse and escape me. During New Year's Eve I witnessed a conversation between two of my friends as to which nuns were unlucky, white ones or black ones. Seriously. I couldn't quite believe what I was hearing, but that's Italy! Speaking the language is only a small part of it, I know I'll never fully understand Italy and all its mysterious ways.


Laruchka said...

mm yes white nuns stay cooler in the summer but have to wash their habits more often. Not sure which is better either.

Nerys said...

They meant in the sense that one kind 'porta sfiga' whilst the other one doesn't, they couldn't agree which though!

Giovy Malfiori said...

Your post is amazing!
I'm coming from Veneto and dialect is something so important to me.

Nerys said...

Thanks Giovy!

Anonymous said...

Just some tips.
A man selling things on the street could know some italian and... no english at all!
Zoccolo is a wooden shoe. Zoccola is a slang word for a big rat (and then applied to a slut as well). Gender of words IS important.
Nuns are well know carriers of the sfiga, the bad luck. A children game was to touch a friend saying "tua suora" (the nun is yours!) when seeing the nun on the street and then the touched friend "had" the nun, he was to "give" her someone else at the same way (he could not touch back the first who gave the nun away).

Nerys said...

Thanks anonymous ;)