Mini Italian Cultural Lessons
Aò – a classic guttural expression similar to “hey” or “yo” in English. Can be used to call for someone’s attention, to signify surprise, excitement, disdain, and outrage. Often accompanied by hand gestures.
Assossì – In Terracina dialect, a phrase that is roughly equivalent to “attaway!” or “this is how it’s done!”
Il Bacetto – the standard form of greeting in Italy; one quick peck on the cheek between friends. Right side first. Skip this, and risk your friends pouting: She came and she didn’t even say hello. I thought she must be mad at me.
Bar – The Italian term for what we in the English-speaking world call a cafè; most likely because it’s traditional to drink your coffee while standing upright at the bar, like a horse in a stall. Dip in to get your shot of espresso for breakfast, or any time of day. Snacks, sandwiches, aperitivi; sometimes gelato in the summers. Cappuccino before noon or what are you, an animal? A meeting ground for friends and acquaintances. Not quite the haven for artistic types as are cafès in the States, but I wrote my novel in my favorite bar anyway, the one on Via Roma that for two years was my official “office”. One day, when I am famous, they will put a plaque above “my” table and bronze the imprint of my asscheeks on “my” chair. Here she sat, typing at her 2007 Japanese MacBook, sipping her prosecco, drunk and tragic. Literary history.
Caffè – The Italian word for coffee. Six years here and I still hate the stuff. According to the people I know, this makes me inhuman. Guilty as charged!
Cazzo – Oh, bliss; the catch-all Italian swearword. While in its literal sense it refers to the male member, it is as multi-functional as the English darling, f*ck. I may say, “I don’t care a cazzo!” as well as “You are a cazzohead”, “That stupid jerk of the cazzo!” or “He took out his cazzo in the middle of a Chinese restaurant and I was like, cazzo, what the cazzo are you doing, cazzo?” In its verb form it means “wasting time.”
il cibo –The Italian term for “food.” That is, life.
Italian food is loved worldwide, and with good reason. The Italians themselves are extremely proud of it, which is why if you suggest other cultures also produce good cuisine, you’ll be setting yourself up for: “Maybe, but nothing is better than our own food.”
“Yes, but Mexican food is also delicious. In fact, I think it’s my favorite.”
“There is no food better than Italian food.”
“Have you ever tried Mexican food?”
“I don’t have to try Mexican food. I know that Italian food is the best.”
“Mexican food is really delicious.”
“Not as delicious as Italian food.”
Press the issue and see the sparks fly. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
This is not to say that I don’t appreciate il cibo Italiano. I love it. Adore it. There are days when I think, “I’m done; I’m out; this country is a toilet!” … and then someone gives me some sausage from Monte San Biagio or something their grandmother made with her own two twisted hands. And then I’m, like, Oh cazzo. Guess I’ll stick around.
Dialect (il dialetto)
Lucio Battisti – the prince of Italian pop music. Most active in the 70s and early 80s, Battisti – along with his lyricist, Mogol – wrote some of the most achingly beautiful songs ever. Think Simon & Garfunkel, if they were one man. Think a song for each emotion of your life, if your life were achingly beautiful and needed a similarly beautiful soundtrack.
My parents left Italy in 1975, at the peak of Battisti’s success. They left their country before the Internet, before Facebook; their comprehension of Italian pop culture ended the year they left. Lucio Battisti was what we listened to while I was growing up; to me, he was Italy. And since he was – and remains – virtually unknown outside of Italy, he was my family’s “secret”. My first night in Terracina, I sat typing in my study, and somewhere, from the open window, I heard the faint strains of Il Mio Canto Libero. And I thought, yes, I’ve come to the right place.
I soon learned that, in Italy, the music of Battisti is as diffuse and popular as The Beatles in other parts of the world, yet learning that my family’s “secret” was mainstream did nothing to dampen my enthusiasm; unlike The Beatles, Battisti is so adored that saying you love his music isn’t trite; it’s merely correct – of course you do, you’re breathing, aren’t you? I still take great pleasure in knowing that at any time of the day, I can catch one of his songs on the radio.
Slip – the Italian term for Speedos. American women have a reputation for being prudish compared to European women, which isn’t all that wrong, and I’m the worst of the worst. My first summers here, I could barely look my friends in the eye when they pranced around the beach in those nutty banana hammocks. Ciao, Eva! Walk away, just walk away.
But human beings are highly adaptable creatures, and it turns out you can get used to just about anything. And you can even start to appreciate it! Somewhere around Year Three, something shifted within me – probably the last shuddering gasps of my fallopian tubes – and now damned if I don’t find myself looking forward to Slip Season? Especially when some of my buddies spend as much time in the gym as I do talking about food.
Ah, yes, hello boys. Come here to me, let me see how nice you look. Do a little turn. Now to the side. Yes, very nice. Tomorrow you’ll wear the red.