“Madonna a cielo!” the two older Italian ladies near me gasped as they watched me jump down onto the tracks at the busy train station in Florence. It was autumn. I was just returning to Italy with Lulu after a week vacation in Paris. It had been brisk there, but now it was much warmer here in Tuscany and my arms were full with the sweaters and jackets we peeled off. I had just finished helping Lulu up the steps to the train when her coat tumbled down onto the tracks.
Yes, it is forbidden to go on those tracks. This is a hard-fast rule at every train station, I think. But I promise you, the train was not scheduled to depart for another ten minutes; there was plenty of room for me to hop down and really, it was her brand new winter coat I had purchased without asking.
I was down and back up again with said coat safely recovered before the loudest of the two ladies could finish up with, “Non posso credere ai miei occhi!” ( I can’t believe my eyes!) as her arms bent at the elbow moved back and forth in rapid succession with upturned hands flapping in disbelief, “Mamma mia!”
What I remember most about it all is how much I love Italians and their expressions and the passion with which they utter them.
When I prepared to move to Italy, I asked my foreign language tutor to switch from French (in honor of where we had lived) to Italian (in honor of where we were heading). He was European, so naturally he was fluent in several languages. I continue to be so jealous of that. Anyway, up until then, the rhythm, pitch and pacing of my teacher’s voice had been smooth, fluid and even – just like the sound, to me, of the French language. But then, once he began to speak Italian, his calm demeanor evaporated into a surprising din of staccato vigor! (For more on the expressiveness of Italian, please read Dianne Hale’s enchanting book, La Bella Lingua. I highly recommend it.)
If the music of the French language is classical, then the music of the Italian language, to me, is more like hip hop. Fun, loud, and aggressive.
Like this hilarious video of an Italian’s reaction to The Family Guy. “SEI PAZZZO!” “You’re crazy!” My Italian friends and I both love this.
For example, Tuscans often punch, “Ciao!”with a loud upward inflectioned “EH!” at the end. And each word can extend for as many syllables as the speaker cares to give it. So it can be a quick, “Ciao, eh!” Or a windy, “Ciii-aaaaoooo, AAAA-EEEEE-HHH!” I love it!
Yes, like those two old ladies in Florence, the locals really use all sorts of forms of the Holy Virgin as exclamations. The simplest one is just her name – but it’s rapidly and roundly (‘round yon virgin? -nevermind) pronounced like this:, “Mah-DOH-nah!” There’s also a little diminutive version that I particularly like, “Mah-doh-nee-nah!” Then, you can take this staple and dress it up in a myriad of colorful ways like: “Mah-DOH-nah, mamma di Dio!” (or Gesu, take your pick). And there are plenty of ways to make this even angrier, like adding “pig” or porca at the end – but Lulu points out that saying “Madonna” at all as an exclamation is “actually very naughty.”
Other colorful expressions that I adore – and will mightily miss hearing every day once we depart dear Arezzo in only a couple short weeks – are “Che bellissima” (Lulu and every other little girl in Italy get this all the time) and really every form of bella. It really is not a cliché to say, “Ciao, bella!” after you have had a coffee with a female friend. Men say it to ladies. Ladies say it to ladies. Everyone says it to every little girl. And it’s the same with “Bello.”
“Bravo” with itsvariations depending on number and gender of the recipient (s), is another favorite. It’s an adjective that works with about everything. Great job at homework, Lulu – Brava! Nice painting on that old church by that Renaissance master – Bravo! All the children sang that song well – Bravi! And on and on. “Buono” and its variants are the culinary equivalent. Don’t forget to really sink yourself into the first syllables of these words, roll your r’s, and open your mouth to let the vowels explode. Did you try it? Bravo! (or Brava!)
The boisterous Italian language accompanied by the mandatory requisite hand gestures, have combined to make for one of the most expressive and vibrant communications experiences I have had the pleasure to enjoy. From some of the most expressive and vibrant people I have ever had the pleasure to enjoy as well!.
Baci a tutti!
P.S. I know I barely scratched the surface on lively Italian expressions. Do you have a favorite? A not so favorite? Please share!
Copyright 2014 Gina London. All Rights Reserved.