Italian 101

True Confession: I’m a linguistics nerd.

I love languages—the soft, flowing melody of French; the challenging, puzzle-like grammar of German; the impossibility of Slovene; the soft sh common to Portuguese and Argentine Spanish. My goal was to speak five languages by the age of 25, eight by my 30th birthday, and then ease off and be satisfied with a total of ten for the rest of my life.

Another True Confession: I’m just a little bit behind schedule.


Another lovely day in Venice

Another lovely day in Venice


So, when I arrived to Venice I enrolled in Italian school, anxious to tackle a complex conservation in the past, present, and future. I wanted, to the best of my ability, to be able to gossip with my neighbors and joke around with the guy behind the bar…any bar, any guy. They all looked like fun.

After a week of class I had memorized the plural forms of the most important nouns of my current life: un cappuccino, due cappuccini; un prosecco, due prosecci, as well as phrases such as “the cute guy on the boat,” “my child is a baboon,” (in case anyone wanted to hear about Betty) and “I’m a professional cat sitter, if you happen to know of anyone who needs my services.” (That’s gatti-sitter in Italian.)

I fumbled, and still do, with verb conjugations and I muddle though dialogues explaining where I come from and why I’m in Italy. For extra curricular activity I walk beside people engaged in conversation, whether with another person, an invisible entity on the telephone, or even a pampered pet. I’ve practiced their words, “I told you Marco was a lying, cheating bum” and “Mommy loves Bobo” many times.


Mommy loves Bobo...and his sister, Francesca?

Mommy loves Bobo…and his sister, Francesca?


Unfortunately, even with these helpful activities I lack the close, intimate contact with the Italian language I had staying with my Venetian cat lady as her gatti-sitter over the years. Gina wasn’t there to talk to, nor did her gatti have any special verbal abilities; however, her neighbors serenaded me with fanciful expressions and time-honored phrases.

Coat of arms above Venetian doorway

Coat of arms above Venetian doorway


“You’re breaking my balls,” was the useful saying I woke up to one morning.

It seems Giovanni and Barbara were at it again. They lived across the narrow alleyway. Their kitchen window faced my bedroom and I didn’t even have to turn over, much less brush my hair, in order to attend class.

Barbara was actually American, a New Yorker, probably from Brooklyn, or the Bronx, I surmised from her strongly accented Italian. I never saw her, but I did hear her, everyday, starting in the morning. And just for the record–it was her balls that were being broken.

Giovanni’s response always came in a whisper, his voice soft, his words gentle. “But, darling…”

“All I wanted to do was have one cup of coffee with my friends, one day a week, and you’re all over me,” Barbara raged, strong and clear.

“Sweetheart, I just asked if you were going to the market to get fish for lunch,”

“There you go again, jumping all over my back.”


Is this what Giovanni had in mind for lunch? Grilled sole with polenta

Is this what Giovanni had in mind for lunch? Grilled sole with polenta


It seems Barbara came to Venice on vacation a few years ago and got into a gondola, Giovanni’s gondola to be exact and now they shared the apartment across the way. Gina had told me that Barbara arrived beautiful and blonde, and everyone was amazed Giovanni, a simple gondalier, could capture such a woman…and then she opened her mouth.

“Your son is a pig,” she shouted one day, jarring me from my sweet slumber. “I’m going to go over and crap on the floor of his house and see how his mother likes it.”

It seems the visiting ten-year old had left a mess on the kitchen table and Barbara was never going to forgive him.

When Gina returned I inquired about her neighbors, full of curiosity. She told me that after Barbara’s arrival, she couldn’t sleep for weeks because of all the noise, so she knocked on their door and asked them to keep it down. A few days later while walking through the alleyway, Barbara doused her with a bucket of water.


Or maybe Giovanni was referring to cuttlefish and just said he wanted order to make the situation a little less complicated?

Or maybe Giovanni was referring to cuttlefish and just said he wanted fish in order to make the situation a little less complicated?


I guess you can say I had a love-hate relationship with the couple. I loved to hear their fights, marveling at all my new, useful expressions, but on the other hand, I hated to have a vocabulary I knew I couldn’t really put to use.

I never met Barbara nor Giovanni, but sometimes I do miss our interactive language classes. Without them, formal schooling will have to do. I’ll learn to speak properly and profoundly, have stimulating verbal encounters and intelligent conversations; however, if the occasion arises I’m also able to tell a man to stick the fish up his…


Could this be Giovanni hanging out on his gondola for fear of going home?

Could this be Giovanni hanging out on his gondola for fear of going home?


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