In Puglia, Basilicata, Lazio, Umbria, Lombardy and other regions of Italy, many towns and villages celebrate la Festa di San Giuseppe (March 19th) in a unique way... by lighting Fuochi nella Notte, fires of the night--or bonfires. The bonfires and festivities are on various days (depending on the town), from March 17th through the 19th. Known by different names, the bonfire festival might also contain the words Torciata (torch), Fiaccolata (torchlight procession), Falò (fire).
For example, in Tuscany's Pitigliano, the event is called Torchiata di San Giuseppe with people dressed in medieval costumes and a procession of men and boys dressed in hooded monk's robes carrying flaming reed torches that will help build the bonfire. After the bonfire has burned down to ashes, tradition calls for people to collect and keep the ashes, ensuring their good luck in the coming spring.
As with other holidays beginning in the New Year and throughout lent, the lighting of bonfires has a long history going back to the time of pagan worship. Through the last 2000 years, the activity has morphed into a Christian tradition. This tradition also coincides with the need to burn the trimmings from vines, olive trees and other woody crops.
While Christians claim the fires are a representation of the good father, Saint Joseph, striving to keep the infant Jesus warm during winter nights, others say the tradition is from the ancient Romans celebrating the dark winter being overtaken by the light of spring. Many modern observers say it's just another way for fun-loving Italians to throw yet another party, for as with most festa and sagre, there is always the food, and a great sense of community.
And if the truth is to be told, Italians love bonfires so much, you will also come across other Fuochi on other saint day festivals across Italy.
Maria Giuseppa Robucci, better known as Nonna Peppa in Italy, is currently the oldest living person in Europe. Nonna Peppa has yet another birthday coming up... on March 20th she will turn 116!
This centenarian lives today in Apricena, Puglia with her daughter Filomena and her family. She was born in 1903 in nearby Poggio Imperiale where she married farmer Nicola Nargiso and bore five children, nine grandchildren and 16 great-grandchildren. She managed a local bar along with her husband for many years, is very religious and claims to have known Saint Padre Pio personally. For the last few years she holds the title of honorary mayor of Poggio Imperiale, making her the oldest mayor in Italy.
Her secret to longevity? Nonna Peppa doesn't drink or smoke.
Today, March 8th, is International Women's Day and in Italy it's the time when mimosas are blossoming with their golden color. All across Italy women are presented lovingly with a bouquet of mimosa flowers to say "Thank you"... thank you for being Mama, that you for being my sister, thank you for being a great daughter, thank you for being a fantastic co-worker, or thank you for being a wonderful wife. March 8th is called La Festa delle Donne in Italy.
While in Italy the day has become almost like Mother's Day here in the States, the observance started in 1909 by the Socialist Party of America, and was held in New York City after a sweat shop factory burned to the ground, killing 145 workers--mostly young women who were underpaid and had to work in unsafe conditions. This event and the observance was the de facto birth of the modern Women's Movement. Sadly, in Italy and around the world, women are still struggling to achieve equal pay for equal work, among many other issues.
The tradition of a gift of mimosas dates back to 1946 when the feminists, Rita Montagnana and Teresa Mattei, came up with the idea of women offering the bouquets as a symbol of mutual respect, sisterhood and support. Mimosa was one of the few flowers in bloom on the date. The Mimosa also represents strength and endurance, being a tough plant that can survive adverse conditions in Italy.
Oddly, being originally a Socialist observance, it seems that in Italy, the Festa delle Donne has been commercialized... another day where bouquets of Mimosa tied with yellow ribbons are sold in supermarkets, bars and tobacconists all over Italy. It's become expected that fathers, sons and husbands also give the flowers to the women in their lives. The commercialization of La Festa delle Donne has made it more like Mothers Day and might be losing some of its original meaning based on solidarity of women's issues. Even chocolate companies offer their dolci in yellow packaging. In some parts of Italy the Festa is celebrated on the closest Sunday to March 8th, and special events are held, such as a procession of mimosa decorated gondolas in Venice and a regatta for female rowers. .
The commercialization of the Women's Movement in Italy
From Grand Voyage Italy to all Women... Auguri!
Support each other and keep up the fight for equality!
If you look in my cellar during mid-May of any year, you will find a couple of dozen young tomato plants under my grow light, nearly ready to be planted out in my raised vegetable beds (after fear of frost is gone). My mind always fills with thoughts of tomatoes in this time of year, with hope that there will be a good yield for our little famiglia.
If I say, "tomato sauce" you think of Italian food, right? If I say "home grown tomatoes" you might think of Vito Corleone playing with his grandson in his garden in that final scene in his life. If I say "pizza" you picture a round crust with cheese and tomato sauce.
That red color emblazoned in the minds and hearts of Italians everywhere (even though heirloom tomatoes come in many colors). Some say that Il Tricolore (the tricolor flag of Italy) represents the hills of Italy with green, the snow capped mountains with white, and the blood spilled from the wars of independence by red. But others in la Cucina Italiana would argue that the green is for pesto, the white for besciamella and the red for salsa pomodoro found in tri-color lasagna... or that the flag represents the simple but wonderful insalata caprese: green for basil, white for mozzarella, and the red for ripe tomatoes. In any case, you might say the red in Il Tricolore represents the true blood of Italy--the tomato.
But how did the tomato become such a strong part of Italian culture? It is not indigenous to Italy, or Europe for that matter. The tomato was first "discovered" by the Spanish Conquistadors while exploring and then conquering the Americas. The Spaniard, Hernán Cortés, conqueror of Mexico in 1519, returned home and brought with him a cargo of Aztec tomatoes.
The tomato most likely originated in the Andes mountains of Peru and spread sometime in the distant past to most parts of South and Central America and eventually on up to Mexico. In fact, it was the Incas who first cultivated tomatoes about 1000 years ago, eventually trading seeds to Aztecs and Mayans to the North. Most botanists consider the tiny, scraggly bush Solanum Pimpinellifolium (or "Pimp") as the ancestor of all modern tomatoes, itself becoming an endangered species.
The odd thing is that the tomato became popular in Europe long before it came to be used in North America. Colonial Americans thought of the tomato as a poisonous plant, after all, it's a close cousin or Nightshade, a well know toxic vine, and in fact, the leaves and vines of the tomato plant are fairly toxic.
It was during the 1500s that Columbus and other explorers introduced the tomato to Europe, but 200 years of skepticism had to pass before the tomato gained acceptance there. It was feared that one touch of a tomato on the lips would kill you. One likely catalyst for its popularity in Europe, especially with the wealthy and elite, was the rumor that it was an aphrodisiac.
The general population more than likely heard about this new fruit and saw that the Barons and Dukes behind the castle walls were flourishing, not falling down dead. One can imagine that the trash middens where refuse from the castles, chateaus and villas were thrown, became a great source of distribution for the tomato plant. As anyone who grows tomatoes knows, tomatoes are prolific and seeds can spring up anywhere. Leave a fruit on the ground and chances are good you'll have more tomatoes next year. Leave a tomato on the kitchen counter and the seeds might eventually sprout right out of its own skin.
Little by little, the peasants discovered gnarly vines growing wild with attractive red or yellow fruits that were attracting wild life. (Chipmunks love them in my garden!) "Why not give them a try? The birds, squirrels and rabbits aren't dying, after all." Presto... a free, easily grown source of vitamins and amazing flavor. It was easy to save seeds and cultivate a very large harvest from even a modest number of plants.
The word tomato is derived from the Aztec word xitomatl, shortened in Europe to tomatl. The French originally called the tomato, pomme d’amour (love apple) before calling simply la tomate. Perhaps they changed the name when the aphrodisiac claims failed to yield any effect. In Italy it was pomi d’oro (golden apple) which today becomes il pomodoro. Tomatoes do come in a wide variety of colors, including golden yellow, but along with tomatoes, the tomatillo also came from the Americas--many of which are also yellow. In Italy, the tomato more than likely prospered because of its near-tropical climate. The tomato can be grown all year long in tropical temperatures.
It makes sense the Spanish had tomatoes first, after all, they sponsored the Columbus and Cortes explorations. In this way, Spaniards actually led the way, "teaching" Italians to fry tomatoes up with eggplant, squash and onions, and used the dish as a condiment on bread and with meats. The cuisine of Southern Italian peasants, who often lacked meats and other proteins on a regular basis, developed into a mostly vegetarian diet in which tomatoes and olive oil, spices and vegetables were and eaten with bread, rice or polenta.
The first time the pomi d'oro is mentioned by name in Italy was in 1548 in the household records of Cosimo de’Medici, the grand duke of Tuscany. His house steward presented a basket to “their excellencies”. The Duke had no idea what was inside, only that it came from his Florentine estate at Torre del Gallo. The records describe the scene, “And the basket was opened and they looked at one another with much thoughtfulness.” After the event, the house steward wrote to the Medici private secretary to tell him that the basket "arrived safely".
But as far back as 1692, tomatoes were used as ingredients in a cookbook from Naples, Lo scalco alla moderna. The author obviously copied details from Spanish tomato sauce recipes ("alla spagnuola"), including simple ingredients like minced tomatoes and chili peppers. Curiously, he did not recommend using the sauce specifically with pasta:
"Take a half a dozen tomatoes that are ripe,
put them to roast in the embers,
when they are scorched, remove the skin diligently,
then mince them finely with a knife.
Add onions, minced finely, to discretion.
Hot chili peppers, also minced finely.
Add thyme, in a small amount.
After mixing everything together,
adjust it with a little salt, oil, and vinegar.
It is a very tasty sauce, both for boiled dishes or anything else."
Italian nobility at first used this new, jewel-like fruit merely as a tabletop decoration, gradually incorporating it into their cuisine by the late 17th and early 18th century. They cherished their beauty, and experimented with selective breeding, managing to create tomatoes of many colors and shapes
It took another 200 years for the tomato to become the national treasure is it today, but by the late 1700s, the peasants of Naples began to put tomatoes on top of their flat breads, creating something very close to the modern pizza--essentially turning pizzas from white to red.
Tomatoes gained popularity, especially with the elite of Europe and Americans taking the Grand Tour, and soon pizza attracted tourists to Naples, tempting them into the poor areas of the city to sample the new treat. Pizza was born.
Soon after taking a Grand Tour himself, Thomas Jefferson, being an expert farmer and a culinary expert, brought tomato seeds back from Europe. Jefferson grew tomatoes in his expansive Monticello garden, with his daughters and granddaughters using them in numerous recipes including gumbo, soups, pickling and especially for ketchup (the common use for tomatoes in the 19th century). In an 1824 speech to the Albemarle Agricultural Society, Jefferson’s son-in-law, Thomas Mann Randolph, claimed that ten years before, the tomato was barely known, but by 1824 "everyone was growing and eating them". Slow but sure, people were taking notice of this special fruit.
In the same time period we find the first recorded evidence of tomatoes used in sauces and preserved condiments and pastes. In the 1800s, in Naples a recipe was written about pasta al pomodoro, the very first mention of tomatoes being married to pasta.
In 1889, after Italy became one nation, the King and Queen of Italy found it necessary to visit the former kingdom of Naples to appease the citizenry who disliked their loss of independence. Queen Margherita was bored with the same old French cuisine that they were eating everywhere they went--as was the custom in all of Europe.
She called for the most famous pizza-maker in Naples, Raffaele Esposito, and commanded that he make pizza for her. He brought three types: pizza marinara with garlic, pizza Napoli with anchovies and a third with tomato sauce, mozzarella and basil leaves. She fell in love with the third one and Esposito named it after her--Pizza Margherita.
A short time later, the Queen sent her emissary with a thank you note, which still today hangs on the wall of Pizzeria Brandi, still run by his descendants. Pizza--with tomato sauce--was to become more popular than ever after the Queen's royal recommendation--the equivalent to Royal Yelp nowadays.
Emigration to the United States did more to increase the popularity of the tomato than anything else in history. Because of the climate in Italy, tomatoes became a big crop, even small farmers produced an excess of the sweet fruits. A need developed to preserve them, and to create new markets. The only foods that may be safely canned in an ordinary boiling water bath are highly acidic ones--coincidentally, tomatoes are naturally high in acid. Sun drying tomatoes and storing them in olive oil was also a proven way to preserve large stores of tomatoes, as long as no fresh herbs or garlic were added, the method a safe with a long shelf life.
During the mid-1800s the science of canning started to develop and improve, allowing this new cash crop to find its way to distant markets. By the end of the 19th century Italians were already using tomatoes in their recipes and as a condiment. When Italians emigrated to America, they wanted to have products that reminded them of home... canned tomatoes filled that need, along with olive oil and other specialty imports.
Italians at home and expats in American developed import-export businesses to give relatives and other their compagni jobs based on their new found wealth in America. In Italy, exporting companies were popping up, especially in the Naples area. By the time World War I rolled around, even the Italian Army experimented with canned ravioli, spaghetti alla bolognese and Pasta e fagioli, the inclusion of acidic tomatoes in the recipes aided in the cans' shelf life. Italian grocery stores stocked these products in Little Italy neighborhoods in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston and New Orleans.
Italy is know for passionate people, and Antonio La Cava from Matera is one of them. He's passionate about sharing the glory of books with children. La Cava carries a telling surname, as Matera is the city of caves, or Sassi, when people have been living in cave homes for tens of thousands of years.
Retired as a schoolteacher after 42 years but couldn't stop spreading knowledge to il bambini of his region of Bacilicata. So in 2003 he bought a used tre-ruote (three wheeler) Ape mini truck and created his Bibliomotocarro, a portable library that houses 700 books.
La Cava travels over 500 kilometers each week to 8 regular stops on his route. The children know of his arrival by the sound of organ music coming from his unique vehicle. The children run to greet him as if some TV star is showing up. He also funds his efforts, pays for fuel, repairs and buys the books from his own pocket.
His passion for the love of the written word will be carried on--certainly by the many children on his route.
“A disinterest in reading often starts in schools where the technique is taught, but it’s not being accompanied by love. Reading should be a pleasure, not a duty.” --Antonio La Cava
Being a second-generation Italian-American, I wasn't affected by the Italian naming conventions. I once asked my mother why we never spoke Italian and she answered, "When we got married, I wanted an 'All-American" household, so we only spoke English around you kids." I'm certain one reason for this was to lessen the impact of racial bias against her kids at the time.
This might also be the reason why I was named "Jerry"--as my mother told me, "I thought of 'Jerry' after watching a Jerry Lewis movie while I was expecting you. It sounded very American." While my birth certificate says "Jerry", I had no idea my legal name was "Jerry" until at age 13, I got a copy of my birth certificate to get my working papers. "Jerry"? Well, that was a lot better than "Gerald", my baptism name, which I could barely pronounce properly when I was little. Even so, everyone in my family knew me as "Gerald" until I ordered them to stop calling me that. Still today, many won't call me "Jerry". (To add to my confusion, Saint Gerald was French!).
Being the second born son, I should have been named after my mother's father, Salvatore Vetri. That would have been nice, since my Dad's lifelong nickname was Sal, even though he was born Saverio. Since I was born 11 years after Salvatore's passing, perhaps my mother felt less obliged to name me after him.
My sisters and brother who came before me met the same fate with their names. The oldest of us--the twin sisters--Barbara and Joan should have been named Caterina and Mariantonia, Caterina being my paternal grandmother's name, and my maternal grandmother being Caterina. (Barbara was the oldest by three days... YES, they were born three days apart, but that's another story.) Kenneth, my older brother, should have been named Sergio, after my paternal grandfather. My sister Joyce should have been named after one of my aunts, perhaps Antonia or Rosa. Although I know that Barbara, Joan, Kenneth and Joyce are my siblings, I have no idea who they were named after since those names are unknown in our family tree. Only their middle, confirmation names reflect names of uncles or aunts.
Perhaps other movies my mother watched while she was pregnant for each of them influenced her... The twins? Barbara Hutton and Joan Crawford were famous during the 1940s when the Twins were born, Joyce Reynolds was a well-known, All-American looking actress when my sister Joyce was born. But Kenneth? There really were no famous actors or performers named Kenneth when my brother was born--and it's a very British name, at that. Mom probably just liked the sound of it.
As for me, I really think I would have preferred to be named Francesco, Giovanni, or even Anselmo after one of my my uncles. "Jerry" never really suited me.
And here's an interesting note about my father's name, Saverio... There is no Saverio in our family tree, and since my great-grandfather Anselmo was adopted, there was no maternal grandfather to name him after. It seems the name was given to my father (second son of Sergio) as a "votive name". Saverio means "second home" or "new home". My grandfather traveled to America 2 times before bringing over is wife and three children, 7 year-old Anselmo (named after my great-grandfather), 4 year-old Saverio and baby Antonia. Perhaps Saverio was born at the moment my grandfather decided to take the first steps on emigrating. Saverio. New Home. It suited Dad.
How to properly name an Italian child...
The basic convention goes like this:
Be aware that there are exceptions to this naming custom that preclude this assuming your ancestors adhered to these conventions. In the case of orphans, they would have no idea of parents' names. For someone estranges from his family, he might not want to use their names. It is also possible that the first born son might have died, so they might have also given the same name to a second born son who survived. Many children did not live to adulthood in the nineteenth century and earlier.
It is also very possible that your ancestors didn't keep to these conventions, for instance, many named their first sons after a hero. For example a hero in southern Italy (The Two Kingdoms of Sicily) in the early 1800s was Guglielmo Pepe, so an ancestor in this time period could be named after him.
A final example of exceptions to the naming custom can be seen in the nontraditional family of my great-great-grandparents, Pasquale and Rosa. They were great opera fans who named all of their children after characters from their favorite operas. Due to theses types of exceptions, you cannot use the Italian naming tradition to assume an ancestor's name.
When doing genealogical research another problem can arise when finding several people living in the same town at the same time, all with the same first and last name. Think about it a second. If someone named Giovanni had five sons, all of them could have named their first born sons Giovanni, resulting in confusion as to which one is your gr-gr-grandfather and which are merely distant uncles. The same would hold true when researching the maternal members... Nonna Rita might have several Ritas that were named after her. They might even have been born in the same year! Remember, families were often quite large, especially in the rural, agricultural south.
This shows that although it seems naming conventions might help you discover your ancestors, they might also confuse the issue. When in doubt, it might be a good idea to hire a genealogical research professional to make sure you find the right people in your family tree.
For help in researching your ancestors, the Facebook group
Italian Genealogy is highly recommended by GVI. There are several professional researchers who are members who freely offer their advice and who can be hired to help find your ancestors.
More often than not, I'm shocked at the blatant racism I see on Italian Facebook pages and felt compelled to leave a response to someone who claimed that most immigrants today offer nothing to American society and exist well below the poverty line... in other words, "we don't want to support them" or "we don't want them" or "they have no skills anyway"....
My response to these people:
Many would argue that when our grandparents and great-grandparents came here, they were also living below the poverty line--in fact, poverty was one of the main reasons for them coming to America. They also didn't speak English at all. Most Italians listed their profession as "Laborer" or "Farmer"... in other words, unskilled peasants. Often the father came first, working to earn enough to bring over his wife and children, as my Grandfather Sergio Finzi did. He sailed across the Atlantic, in steerage, in the middle of winter (when fares were cheaper) three times over the course of 5 years... the third time bringing his wife Caterina and three children (including my 4 year old father, Saverio).
My father's family came from Molfetta and had a very tough life at first in Hoboken... a large family living in a tenement. (They would have another 5 children born here making them a family of 10). Pretty much the same with my Mother's family. Luckily, my grandfather was skilled as a tailor and found employment in a coat factory.
As young children, my father and his brothers were tasked with walking the RR tracks to pick up chunks of coal that fell from the trains for the kitchen stove, which was the only source of heat in winter. They all had to leave elementary school early to help support their family.
My father and one of his brothers bought a lame "Three-Legged Horse" and wagon and sold fruit and veggies to the people coming off the ships in the harbor. Another brother started his own grocery store in Hoboken. A couple of my uncles served in WWII and even my 65 year-old grandfather carried a U.S. Draft Card while my father worked in a military plant making springs for jeeps and tanks.
My father became a fruit and deli man his entire life, always working for other people. Even as a child, I remember my father working long hours, night shifts and often even on holidays. And there was no overtime pay!
My mother and her mother both worked in factories for "piece work"... paid by the piece. My mother bore the sweltering heat and airplane hum of industrial fans all day long as she worked at hot press machines making jewelry boxes... and crushed two fingers, bearing her crooked finger the rest of her life to show for it. She worked her way up to be a supervisor over 30 other workers.
Somehow my parents housed, clothed and fed their 5 children and saved enough to buy a small six-family apartment house where I grew up, the rents from the other five tenants helping to support us. After work I remember helping my father as he maintained the building: putting on a new roof, repairing the chimney, fixing the furnace, doing plumbing and electrical, painting--whatever was needed to keep the tenants happy. He taught me that working hard was a good thing.
My grandparents and parents definitely contributed to our society and created opportunities for their children... My parents were proud to have 5 children, lived to see 19 grandchildren and many great-grandchildren, all living as Americans today. Several of us owned our own businesses, hired employees, bought nice homes... and lived the American Dream. I remember the pride on my parent's face the first time they came into Manhattan to see my 5000 square foot photo studio. It took our family three generations to succeed in America--three generations to fully assimilate. America gave us that chance.
As Americans, we all have to remember that even people who are desperate enough to enter our country through unusual means for asylum (like the Cuban boat people or Central Americans trudging through the desert) in fact should have a chance at a new life. There are no laws against crawling or swimming out of desperation onto our shores. Not everyone wanting a better life comes to our country on a jumbo jet through airport Customs.
For those of you who have never read the entire text of the poem that is emblazoned on the Statue of Liberty:
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles.
From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
My purpose in penning these words is not to let people forget that we are all immigrants and owe thanks to the struggles of those who went before us--AND who come after us. In my opinion, our country is stronger for their efforts and contributions. I've lived in another country and know for certain that we have something special here.
Never forget that WE were immigrants, too.
This painting, Portrait of a Young Boy Holding a Drawing by Giovanni Francesco Caroto (1480 – 1555) is perhaps one of the strangest portraits from the Renaissance period. Since carota in Italian means carrot, and the boy in the painting has "carrot-top" colored hair, many believe it's a self portrait of the artist as a boy. Others think it's a portrait of the artist's son. There are some who believe that to truly represent a child's drawing in the portrait, Carota asked a child to paint that part of the picture, which if true, would mean that it has dual authorship--Carota and an unknown child.
This is also the painting from which Dr Harry Angelman derived the now defunct name of Happy Puppet Syndrome for children (now referred to as Angelman’s syndrome). In the painting, the boy’s happy expression and the jerky movement of the puppet of which he holds a picture, reminded Angelman of the behaviors exhibited by three young patients who had the syndrome in his pediatric ward in Warrington, England. Angleman’s syndrome is a rare genetic disorder characterized by intellectual and developmental delay, sleep disturbance, seizures, jerky movements (especially hand-flapping), and frequent laughter or smiling. It affects approximately one in 20,000 children.
To add more interest to this odd painting, it was among others stolen from the Museo di Castelvecchio in Verona in 2014. Little more than a year later, the paintings were recovered in in the area of Odessa, on an island of the Dniester river not far from the partially recognized state of Transnistria, just a few kilometres away from the border between Ukraine and Moldavia. According to the Ukrainian police commissioner Viktor Nazarenko, the paintings were buried wrapped in some black plastic drop cloths and hidden behind some shrubs. (Watch the discovery in the video below).
The culture in Italy is very different than in the U.S... especially concerning rules of proper behavior. What is acceptable in the States might be considered disgusting in Italy. What Italians consider as normal behavior, we would never thing of doing at home. Here are a few differences...
Before I voyaged to Italy, I wanted to learn phrases that weren't the standard tourist expressions. I wanted help in the day to day situations that would arise... to assimilate into Italian life with "street language", possibly even including some well-chosen curse words. I've always held the belief that when traveling in a foreign country, one should make a decent attempt in learning at least some of the language. It's the polite thing, with the added benefit of not sounding like an arrogant "ugly American" tourist, but as a more seasoned World Voyager. I can still recall an Ugly American years ago in rural, central France demanding in an overly loud voice, "I would like some PLAIN bread!"... sheer embarrassment.
For example, one of the more helpful non-tourist Italian expressions I learned was "Va Via!" (Hit the Road!) This became invaluable when being hawked by aggressive street vendors, beggars, scammers or someone trying to rob us. I used it several times with great success--they backed off and were given the impression that I was a confident local and not an easy mark, tourist. It was just as effective as in Paris when I felt a hand in my shoulder bag and yelled "Voleur!" (Thief)... drawing the French people's attention to the thief, causing him to flee. Sounding like a local is a real benefit and boosts your confidence when traveling.
I've listed some expressions which are well worth learning for your next Voyage to Italy. And don't be shy about trying to sound Italian when pronouncing the words. Years ago when learning French, I imagined a mix of Maurice Chevalier (of "Every leetle breeze seems to wheesper Louise" fame) and Charles Boyer (for a deeper, sexy voice) when I spoke. Hey, it must have worked, because although I admit to speaking very poor baby-talk French, and I'm not that great at one-on-one personal conversations, at least my accent est très bon. A vendor in Paris, after asking where I was from said in surprise, "Ahh... but I took you for a Frenchman!" High praise indeed from a Parisian selling necklaces in a flea market.
Click on the link for each below
to hear the pronunciation
When the Google Translate window pops up, click on speaker icon under the Italian phrase to hear the pronunciation. Try to mimic your favorite, sexy Italian TV chef (Fabio? Luca?) when you pronounce these phrases. Use your best Italian accent and you'll do fine...
Allora - This is used a lot in casual conversation as a pause to allow the speaker time to think of his next thoughts. It is used like "then", "oh well...", "therefore", "Mmmm, let me see... ". Examples:
"Allora... tutto bene." (You see... Everything is fine); "Allora...prendo un risotto Milanese." (Let's see... I'll have risotto Milanese.); or after someone does something nice for you, you can stretch it out a bit and say "Allora, mille grazie!" (Well then, a thousand thanks!).
Boh! - More of an exclamation for "I don’t know”, "I don't care" or "I don't want to hear it". It expresses your disinterest ambivalence toward the subject of discussion. The closest thing in English is “meh”, but Italian's use this a lot.
Avete le mani d'oro - "You have gold hands", meaning the person is gifted in using his hands, as when complimenting a local artisan.
Attaccalo al chiodo - Literally, "Stick it to the nail", meaning "forget about it" "leave it for later".
Leccapiedi - A toadie, a boot-licker, a brown-nose--An ass kisser. They have them in Italy, too.
Olio di gomito - Literally, "oil from the elbow. Referring to an exertion of physical labor, as we use "elbow grease".
La mia macchina è in panne - Literally, "my macchina (car) is creamed". This is used to describe something broken, as in "Mia macchina ha una panna, allora prendo un taxi." (My car is broken, in that case I'll take a cab.)
Che ne so - Used as a sarcastic response to someone asking something that you don't (or couldn't possibly) know. A gesture typically accompanies this phrase... a shrug of the shoulder along with wavering hands turned toward the sky as you shake your head "no". Use it as we do when we say "How in heck should I know?" rather than the more precise and formal "Non lo so" (I do not know).
Non mi va - This means something like "It doesn't go with me" and is used when someone suggests something that you don't or won't agree to. Use it casually as you would say "I don’t feel like it", for instance if someone suggests a restaurant that you wouldn't like, or with a stronger voice if you are trying to get rid of a pushy vendor or hawker on the street trying to sell you something that you'd never buy... "Allora... Non mi va!". Kids will say it to get out of doing what their parents tell them to do.
In bocca al lupo - Literally, "in the wolf’s mouth". Used to wish someone good luck, meaning to aim into the wolf's mouth to kill it (the wolf represents the difficulty they are facing). When wishing someone will overcome something more serious, use "crepi il lupo", literally, "Croak the wolf!". Sort of like when we say to someone "You'll beat it" or "You'll kill it". Always use this when wishing someone Good Luck.
Neanche per sogno - Literally, "Not even in (your) dream". Used to slap back someone's offer or when you don't agree with a suggestion, such as "Not in your wildest dreams" or simply "No way!".
Sono stanco - Literally, "I'm weary (tired)". Use after a long day of walking around tourist sites, such as "Sono stanco. Troppo a piedi. Ho bisogno di gelato freddo!" (I'm tired. Too much walking. I need a cold gelato!")
Magari - This is slang for "maybe" or perhaps "if it could only be true". You could use it expressing hope to win the Lotto or meeting the perfect mate, or "Voglio avere figli... magari" (I want to have children... I could only wish.)
Ogni morto di papa - Literally, "Every Death of a Pope", used the same as "Once in a blue moon". Make sure to accent "Papa" correctly... accent on the first syllable (PA-pa). If you say "pa-PA" you are taking about your Dad.
Salve, come va? - Literally "Hello, how’s it going?" The more formal way is to ask "Buongiorno, come stai?"(Good morning, how are you). It’s a less formal way of greeting someone, but use "come sta" in formal or business situations.
Galeotto fu il libro - "Jailbird was the book"... an odd expression referring to matchmaking two people. Perhaps referring to when a guy gives a girl a book (a present) they'll become imprisoned--in love. Some of the roots behind these expressions are really difficult to comprehend.
Promettere mari e monti - Literally, "Promise the seas and mountains". Used like "Promise Heaven and Earth". Examples: "Non mi prometti mari e monti" (I am not promising Heaven and Earth" or "Mi ha promesso mari e monti" (He promised me Heaven and Earth").
Non chiedo la luna - "I'm not asking for the moon". Used when frustrated with someone complaining about a simple request. One of the more useful expressions to make your request in a restaurant or hotel seem like it's coming from a more seasoned Voyager who can't be taken advantage of. (I wish I knew this one when picking up rental cars at Hertz!)
Andare a monte - (ahn-DAR-eh a MOHN-teh) - Literally, "Go to the mountain", but it figuratively means that everything went downhill and failed. Examples: Un viaggio va a monte (The trip was called off); Il matrimonio è andato a monte (the marriage failed). Use to describe something that went awry or got fouled up.
Ho peli sul mio stomaco - Literally, "I have hairs on my stomach", meaning you're not taking something seriously or that it's not bothering you.
Ne ho fin sopra i capelli - Literaly, "I'm sick up to my hair". Use it the same as "I’ve had it up to here" or "I'm fed up to here" or "I'm sick and tired". You can use a hand gesturing to the top of your head with this.
Capitare su un osso duro - Literally, "Happen on a tough bone". A pejorative. Use it referring to dealing with a tough cookie. A person who is "un osso duro" (a tough bone) is a bit thick and stubborn. You can also use "capo tosto" meaning "thick (tough) head". A hand motion goes with this... knocking your knuckles or fist on a table as you say it.
Dare del filo da torcere - Literally, "giving a twisted thread". Think of a small, precocious child asking "Why... Why... Why" no matter how many times you give an answer. "Torcere" means to Twist. They’re never satisfied with your answers. To tell someone about your daughter's quizzical nature, you could say, "Mia figlia mi dà del filo da torcere" (My daughter gives me a hard time). In the positive, you might also use this to describe how smart and curious your kid is because he asks many questions.
Essere in alto mare - This is a common phrase used when someone has procrastinated and discover that they are behind on a project. It literally means that you are in deep water with a long way to go before getting finished.
Mi fa cagare! - Instead of the much more polite "È orribile" ("It's awful!"), Italians will say bluntly, "It makes me poop," . So, when taking about "That restaurant? Mi fa cagare!" "Her new dress?! Mi fa cagare!" "That new American singer? Mi fa cagare!"
Mi sento le mani prudono - Literally, "I'm feeling itchy hands" means you feel like hitting someone... you're pissed off. Be careful how you use this.
Figurati! - Literal, "Imagine (that)!", used as "Don't worry about it!" or "It's nothing!" You can use this in both positive or negative ways. "Thanks for a great meal... Figurati!" or when to act innocent and blameless when you've just dented someone's fender who just cut into your lane, "I'm so sorry I ran into you... Figurati!" It's like saying "mi scusi" (excuse me) without really meaning it.
Dai! - This simply means "Come on!" as in, "Please, you can't deny me." When someone refuses your suggestion to go have a drink, you say "Dai!" along with a motioning hand gesture toward yourself. You can also use it to try to stop someone from doing something negative. "Why are you pushing me? Dai! Wait your turn!"
Meno Male! - Literally, "less bad." Oh, HE got elected? Meno Male! As long as that other jerk didn't win!" "I passed the test? Meno male!"
Che palle! - This is a rather crude, but everyday expression meaning, “what balls!” or "what a pain in the ass!" but stronger than "what nerve!"
Ho perso il mio portafoglio. (I lost my wallet.)
Che palle! (What a pain!)
Grazie a Dio! - "Thank God!" used the same way we use it to express great relief. Always include the "a" (meaning "to")... "Thanks to God" otherwise, you would be thanking God directly.
Che guastafesta - Roughly translates as "What a party pooper". Guastafesta is a combination of two Italian words: the verb guastare, “to spoil” or “to ruin,” and the word festa, which means “party.” Use it when anyone is putting a damper on your fun or a monkey wrench into your plans.
Ma, che sei grullo? - Used more in Florence, literally "But, how stupid are you?" It's used like "Are you kidding?" or "Are you crazy?" to friends. Say it to a stranger and you might get in trouble. Example: "I'll pay for dinner." Response, "Ma, che sei grullo?" or "You paid that much for those shoes? Ma, che sei grullo?"
Scappo! - Slang for "escape" or "I'm gone" or "I'm outta here!".
Basta! - Literally, "Enough!". This can be used in simple ways, like telling a waiter when he's put enough pepper on your dish, or more forcefully when someone is BS-ing you, as in, "Basta! Non voglio sentire altre scuse!" - "That's enough! I don't want to hear any excuses!" Can be combined with above... "Scappo! Basta!".
A fagiolo - Literally, fagiolo means “bean,” but the phrase a fagiolo (“to the bean”) means something like the English “to the letter” or “to a T.” It indicates to someone that you are expecting precision from them.
Ti scureggia il cervello - Use this only with friends, or when you really want to insult someone. It means, literally, "your brain is farting". A Roman expression.
Cazzata - Literally "Crap!" or perhaps a bit more blunt, as it's derived from "cazzo" (f*ck). Used when you get a whiff of someone's BS. Or to scold yourself when you said something crappy or stupid, "Dio, ho detto una cazzata," meaning, "God, I said something f*cked up."
Figo - Slang for "Cool", meaning something great or nice. Used to describe things or people. End it with an "a", "Figa" can also describe a cool (or rather, "Hot)" female, but be forewarned, the word "figa" is also used as a very crude reference to a woman's vagina (similar to "c*nt"). A "figata" is something that is cool or great--used as the opposite of a "cazzata."
Mannaggia - Used as "Damn!" or combined as "Manageria miseria"--"Damned misery!" Used to express utter frustration with someone, something or a frustrating situation.
Zitto - Slang and abrupt was to get someone to keep quiet. "Zitto!" or "Stai zitto!" means "Shut up!" or "Shush!"
I hope you'll put some of these expressions to good use during your next Voyage to Italy. This was a long post, Sono Stanco! If only I had someone else to write these posts for me... magari!
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