Pilgrimages and Slang

Last weekend I had the wonderful and completely unexpected opportunity to go on a pilgrimage with my new Italian friends. We walked all night from Macerata to Loreto, about 30 kilometers, praying and singing in Italian. I finally cemented the Italian Our Father, Hail Mary, and Glory Be in my brain (how could I not after saying 100,000 rosaries?). It was a beautiful experience. Before the walk, thousands of people met at a stadium in Macerata for Mass, at the end of which Pope Francis called and gave us his blessing, telling us to meditate on the question Jesus posed to Peter: “Mi ami tu?” “Do you love me?” and encouraging us to always keep walking, to never stop moving forward.

I am happy to note that I understood 95% of what was said during the pilgrimage. It has been tremendously helpful to spend time talking with Italian students that are my age. I do still struggle forming sentences quickly and expressing my thoughts with precision, but I trust that with more time, even that will improve.

The other day in one of my tutoring sessions, I asked my instructor, Andrea, if he had any tips to help me become more comfortable and natural in holding conversations. He said that one of the biggest problems he noticed I had was with self-confidence. I have been rather quiet the last few weeks in class, and I have noticed that I speak very deliberately in order to avoid making mistakes, but this slows me down and impedes my ability to hold a fluent conversation. My goal now is to just talk. Don’t think too much. Just talk.

One of my favorite parts of learning Italian in Italy is the slang that you don’t learn at Notre Dame. My friend Giacomo taught me several slang terms in exchange for some American slang. (His favorites were “So sick! and “You’re bananas,” which I thereafter heard a lot.) Here are a few of the things I learned:

“Bella zio/a!” can be translated as “Bro!” For example, I see my friend and to greet him say “Bella zio!” with a sort of exaggerated hand gesture and an excited tone of voice. Apparently it’s what the cool kids are saying these days.

“Tanta roba!” is a favorite of mine. It’s one of the many ways to say “So cool!” For example, if I see a really beautiful mountain or some guy do a cool backflip, I can (and should) say “Tanta roba!”

“Cavolo!” literally means cabbage. However, it is used as an interjection to express surprise, usually about something negative. For example, I realize I forgot to turn in my homework, so I exclaim, “Cavolo!” It’s almost like saying “darn it!”

Post Departure

Reflect on your language learning and acculturation during your SLA Grant experience.

Before I came to Siena I was able to live in Rome for 5 weeks. Everybody, except my neighbor, refused to speak to me in anything other than English since they all knew English, and my Italian wasn’t up to par, not to mention my accent. I spoke with Pino, the very old carpenter a couple of times, but one time I apologized that my Italian was so bad but that I was learning, and he replied “I know.” I knew my goals coming into the program were lofty, but they helped me set the right intention for learning. Instead of hanging out with American students, I tried to spend time with my host family. In the beginning I was so exhausted from constantly readying myself to respond in Italian, even when relaxing at home, trying to think in Italian, and going to class all day. Eventually I was able to build up the endurance to casually watch Italian TV shows, even if they were mostly kid shows, as well as follow the dinner conversation without zoning out at the table. In the beginning I was relegated to the kids table having no social worth with my comprehension and speaking skills at the level they were. But by the end, I loved meeting people and having conversations about who they were and what they did (I even met the top gelato salesmen in Indonesia). When I returned to Rome, I went to dinner at a place I had been once before, but this time I ordered and had a conversation in Italian with the waiter who was very excited I could actually speak Italian.

Reflect on your SLA Grant experience overall.

Thanks to the SLA Grant it feels like I have gone 0 to 100 with language ability and understanding of Italian culture. What I found most fascinating, however, is that my worldview didn’t change as much from being in Italy and learning Italian culture for myself as it did from observing how my non American classmates interacted with life in Italy. It was incredible to watch so many people experience Italy through their own lens, and in the process different parts of Italian culture were highlighted for me as well as parts of my classmates cultures. Everyday I was so thankful to have the ability to take the fantastic classes and live with a wonderful host family. I did get a little tired of Italy when I had a virus the final week, and my host family gave me pizza for medicine, but when I returned home I immediately missed Italy.

How do you plan to use your language and intercultural competences in the future? 

I am grateful for this experience as next semester I am heading to Bologna Italy where I will be lining with other Italian students and taking all of my classes in Italian. Without this experience I would be much more unprepared and nervous for Bologna. This semester I am taking two classes about Italian literature in Italian. I am majoring in medieval studies but concentrating on the Mediterranean area and specifically Italy. I hope to continue I the field, with my ability to speak Italian majorly supporting my career trek. Post graduation I plan on living and working in Italy.

Ciao amici!

Progress! I met a group of Italian university students this week! They are from different places throughout Italy, from La Spezia and Bolzano to Rimini and Calabria. They’ve started something of a battle among themselves to teach me their respective accents and expressions, which are sometimes drastically different from each other. For example, in Siena, some consonants are “aspirate”, for example, the “c” is sometimes pronounced more like an “h”. In Siena they don’t say “la coca-cola,” normally pronounced “lah coh-cah coh-lah”); rather, they say “lah hoh-hah hoh-lah”.

My new friends, and most of the Italians I’ve met, seem very intrigued by President Trump and always ask me what I think about the election and the current political situation. For the most part, going off of what the media shows, we all agree that he is somewhat of a “pazzo” (“crazy”). They find it particularly amusing that he wants to build a wall separating the US from Mexico and that he wants to make Mexico pay for it.

After answering some questions about the US political system, I asked about Italian politics. The first response is usually somewhat of a scoff, then I eventually find myself listening to a heated discussion, full of raised voices and gesturing, between two of my friends who have very strong and opposing political ideas.

Starting to Feel at Home

I don’t get lost on my way to school anymore. Classes are going pretty well. I sense my improvement coming in tiny increments, which can be frustrating at times, since I had expected to notice a more dramatic change in my Italian skills after 2 weeks. I would attribute this slow growth to 2 things: 1) I have reached the point at which I have learned all the tenses and most of the grammatical rules and can understand pretty much everything that’s said to me, but have not yet had enough practice talking to native speakers. 2) I have not met many local Italians with whom I can make more than small talk.

I have been attending Mass several times a week, which has helped with my listening skills. It’s interesting to hear the different accents of the different priests and lectors, the subtle differences with which they pronounce their “c’s” and “z’s.” I also love the churches in Siena. Most of them have relics of saints and the architecture and artwork are “bellissime.”

Living with a host family has also been conducive to learning. I’ve picked up several words and expressions from listening to my Italian siblings fight. My favorite is “Cretino!” which basically means “stupid.” My host mom, sister, and twin brothers are very polite and helpful when I ask random things about Italian words I don’t know. I love that I’ve been picking up expressions that I never learned in class. For example, I always learned that “Prego” was the way to say “you’re welcome,” but in Siena, most people seem to respond with “Niente,” which means “nothing.” These little things that I never would have learned in class are what makes studying abroad such an invaluable experience. It makes my speaking seem more natural.

Another interesting realization I’ve had is that every language that I speak brings with it almost a new personality. For instance, I express myself in a totally different way in English than I do in Spanish or Italian.

Buongiorno Italia!

If my first day in Italy is any indicator of how the rest of my summer in this country is going to play out, then I am in for quite the adventure. The one word that comes to mind to describe my first encounter with “la bella Italia” is “hectic.” As soon as I got off the plane at FCO, I was overwhelmed by the number of travelers scrambling around like ants. I was already tired from traveling for so long, and the signs were all (obviously) in Italian, but I followed the crowd and fortunately managed to catch a train from the airport to the city center.

Roma Termini is probably the most chaotic place I have ever been in, and I pretty quickly got lost in the maze of shops and tourists, so I decided to test out my Italian. I walked into a shop, greeted the woman at the counter, and asked in Italian where I could find a store to buy an Italian SIM card for my phone. To my dismay, she responded in English. Strike one for me. Apparently in Rome, everyone speaks English, and as soon as an Italian gets a whiff of tourist, he’ll immediately switch to English. Frustrating for anyone trying to learn the language.

After somehow making it clear to the people at Vodafone that I needed an Italian SIM card and a phone plan, I went to Mass at Santa Maria degli Angeli with my friend Harriet. It was the first Italian Mass I had ever attended, and it was absolutely beautiful. I followed along well with the program, but the homily was difficult to understand. After Mass, Harriet showed me to the station where I was supposed to catch a bus to Siena. I asked the clerk if I could buy a ticket, but he said it was full, so I rushed to the train station and ended up taking the next train.

I struggled to stay awake on the train ride, so as not to miss my connection. Fortunately, I made it in time, after walking back and forth in the station, trying to figure out whether or not I had to buy a second ticket, where I had to validate it, which platform I was supposed to be on, which train it was, etc. I was slightly stressed at that point.

Once on the train, I sat across from an older woman. I smiled and said, “Ciao.” She responded politely, then asked me something that I didn’t understand. So I told her that I didn’t speak much Italian, which sparked a conversation. She was excited when I told her I was from California and that I would be studying Italian in Siena. She let me borrow her phone charger so I could call my host family and she gave me her phone number, telling me to call her anytime and also mentioning that she had a handsome son only a few years older than me. And single.

When I arrived at the train station, in my exhaustion, I accidentally went in a wrong door and ended up in a mini shopping mall across the street. Long story short, it took me another hour to find my host family. I apologized as best as I could in my broken Italian. They just kept saying “Niente. Non ti preoccupare.” I showered as soon as I got home, then went into the kitchen for dinner. They asked if I wanted to dry my hair, something I never did back home. I uncomfortably said, “It’s fine, I can do it after dinner.” They stared at me sort of strangely, and I decided to go find a hairdryer first thing the following day.

Giorgio’s Baptism – “Battesimo Contradialo”

One night walking back from aperitivo, my host family was discussing their weekend and asked me if I wanted to come to Giorgio’s, the baby’s, baptism that Saturday. Of course I jumped at the opportunity and replied “Sì, certo!!” They were very happy I said yes, but began explaining that this wasn’t a regular baptism.

First they told me it was a “pagano” baptism. With an obviously confused look on my face as I was trying to figure out if I had really heard “pagan baptism,” Donatello tried to explain the meaning of the word pagan to me. I was more hung up on what a pagan baptism was (what kinds of rituals would take place?) as opposed to the meaning of what Donatello was saying. Next he tried explaining that it would be a group baptism and lots of babies born that year would be baptized. This only added to my confusion, but after failing to understand for a full five minutes, I decided to let it go and see what would happen on Saturday.

It has been fun navigating the misunderstandings so far. Oftentimes, like the “pagan baptism” situation, I don’t necessarily have a problem with understanding the individual words; I just don’t understand the cultural context or the general gist of the situation. To make matters more complicated, my host family usually doesn’t understand what I don’t understand. In class the next day I asked my professor what she thought, and she immediately realized that I would be attending a contrada baptism.

Every summer each contrada has a festival week, which begins with the baptism ceremony to celebrate their patron saint/Mary. Onda celebrates Our Lady of the Visitation. Anyone joining the contrada that year has to be baptized into it, and you can only join one contrada. The picture I included above is Giorgio being baptized. In the image you can see the special scarf being tied around Giorgio. Every member of the contrada receives this special silk scarf at their baptism and wears it to contrada events and to be “patriotic.” The picture below is the contrada dinner celebrating the baptism. The whole community comes out to celebrate all the baptized babies.

Italian Soccer Moms

While in Siena I am staying with a host family. It seemed like the best way to learn the language, but it has turned out to be much more difficult than I expected. My host family is by no means anywhere close to a horror story but it has certainly taken some time to get used to living with them. My host family includes Katia and her 10-year-old son, Alberto, her husband, Donatello, and their 2 month old son Giorgio (my favorite member of the family since we currently have the same ability to speak the language). Below is a picture of “Babbo” (the grandpa) pushing Giorgio in his stroller outside of the apartment. Both sets of grandparents (along with other miscellaneous family and friends who are basically family) visit often making for long and loud dinners.

Language is a huge barrier, which I knew coming into the summer, but the cultural differences have been surprisingly challenging. These differences wouldn’t be so noticeable except for the fact that I’m staying with a host family, so I am constantly confronted by them. Not everything is totally different, though.

This past week my host mom brought me to pick up her son at soccer practice and invited me to join her and her friends at lunch. As I had only been in Siena for a of couple weeks, I was still trying to get a feel for the culture and way people interact, so I mostly remained in the background and observed at these events. At lunch, after a few brief conversations about who I am and why I was there, I sat quietly, limited by my speaking ability, but all the while listening. It turns out a bunch of Italian moms like to gossip the same way American moms would back home. At soccer practice, I watched Katia interact with the other moms in the same way my mom acts when she takes my younger sisters to soccer.

My comprehension has been getting much better. It has taken me awhile to get used to the speed, musicality, and accents of native Italian speakers, but now I am able to understand the gist of what’s being talked about. At lunch I learned what everyone’s kids and husbands were up to and whom everybody wanted to win in the Palio the next weekend (none of their contrade were participating). At the soccer practice I watched the miniscule drama play out between the moms and between the boys. Italy is definitely not America, but people are still people, so some things are universal.

I am very happy to be living with a host family because it really has made my experience here so much more immersive. At least twice a week, my host family and I go out for aperitivo at the di solito (“the usual”) bar. Now the bartender recognizes me even when I am on my own. The neighbors/family friends say hi to me when I pass them on the street. My host family has included me in their life in a way that opens up experiences for me that I never would have had otherwise.

Siena: a city of the past?

The day I arrived in Siena, I took a taxi from the train station to my host family’s apartment and waited outside to meet them for approximately 30 seconds before a parade of men dressed in Renaissance garb, colorful tights and all, beating drums and waving flags, marched through the streets around me. Needless to say I was slightly overwhelmed by the fact that it seemed like Dante Alighieri himself could be in this crowd, and it was almost impossible to hear anything except the beat of the drums as I attempted to greet my host family.

I asked myself, “Harriet, what have you gotten yourself into this time?” My host family is wonderful, but at the time I had no idea what was happening around me and barely understood anything my host mother was saying. But seriously, why were there men walking around like it was a completely different century? [see images below]

In the beginning, I could hardly utter anything other than “ciao” and the occasional “come va?” to my host family, but slowly but surely I was able to gain the confidence and language proficiency to gather information about the modern day medieval city I’m living in. It turns out almost every weekend during the summer, one of the contradas marches around the city in their traditional costumes.

One of the neatest things about Siena is the 17 Contrade. The best I can do explain the enigma is that they are essentially neighborhood organizations that developed from the guild system during the medieval ages. Most tourists and other non-sienese know the contrade as the different participants in the Palio (a horse race that occurs twice a summer).

So far the contrada has been a great way to experience Sienese life. I join my host family at the contrada dinners, try new foods (like anchovy bruschetta), meet new people, and observe how Italians interact. There are lots of spirited discussions every time we go. Most of the people my host family knows and says hi to while walking around the town seem to be from their contrada; however, the contrada serves as more than just a place to get dinner and socialize. They keep the history of Siena alive as well as serve an important role for the community. In the Onda contrada, there is free academic tutoring everyday after school for all of the younger members. Contradas maintain traditions, such a “faciando un giro,” and each one has its own museum and church to collect significant artifacts such as old costumes, Palio banners (the prize for winning the Palio), artwork made by their members, etc. Each member is baptized into the community, usually when they are just babies. My host family has invited me to their son’s baptism into the contrada, so more on that soon.

The picture above is Onda doing a giro, which is a march around the entire city. The men of the contrada walk through the streets for the whole day in the hot sun, wearing their traditional costumes. There are flag twirlers and drummers, and each man has been practicing the particular flag spin and drum beat since they were little. My host dad plays the drum and hopes his 2-month-old son, Giorgio, will follow in his footsteps.

While Siena is definitely a medieval city in its architecture, society, and activities, the tradition is alive and constantly evolving. Even the most notable activity, the Palio, which originated as a war between the armies of the different contradas, has evolved into a horse race based on strategy. It’s still changing today due to recent interests of animal activist groups. The Palio races or the highlight of the summer and even inspires tears (happy or sad) and fights depending the winner. I could read about the contradas and the Palio, but anything other than experiencing them for yourself is missing something.

Below are some images of the setting for the living history in Siena. 

“Hoha Hola” and Accents

All the different accents and dialects in Italy make it very difficult to for the beginner speaker. I first noticed the accent in Siena when my host brother Alberto asked for a “hoha hola” and received a coke. In Siena they pronounce the “c” sound as an “h.” No wonder I couldn’t understand when my host mom said we were going back to the “hasa.” Eventually I was able to tune my ear to the Sienese accent, but everything would change when I met someone who didn’t live in Siena and didn’t speak proper Italian like my professors.

It turned out that these accents almost always go further than just pronunciation. In different regions they use different words to refer to the same thing, different slang, and sometimes even different grammar. In Siena they call watermelon “cocomero” but some regions use “anguria” and others use “melone di acqua.” In the Bologna area, apparently they use “zio” meaning “uncle” to say “bro.”

“Cathedral, Milan”

In Milan they use the formal third person instead of the informal second person like they do in Siena. I visited Milan one weekend, and despite the heat and mosquitos, I managed to have lots of conversations in Italian, whether it was with my taxi driver, with the owner of a pasta food truck, or getting sightseeing advice from an old man in a bookstore. A couple times I tried to ask why each person used the formal tense with me, but quite frankly could not get my point across. After fifteen minutes trying to explain what I wanted to say to my cab driver, he finally understood my question and replied that that’s just something you do.

On reflection, I realized the reason I was having such a hard time explaining my point about the intricacies of Italian grammar was because I have a completely different understanding of Italian grammar than native speakers do. I think of conjugating verbs with a chart, but Italians just speak. In the same way the verb “to know” is the same regardless of the person i.e. whether I say “I” know, “you” know, “he” knows…, in Italian the verb sapere has the same significance whether I say io so, tu sai, lui sa… Italians don’t even realize they’re conjugating verbs.

This realization was actually very helpful for improving my speaking ability. Later that weekend when I ate lunch a pasta food truck I decided to stop thinking about how I was conjugating verbs and just speak. I ended up having a 45-minute conversation about food trucks- how they were up and coming in Italian cities, their popularity in Italy and the US, and what the legislation was like in both places, and how this guy started his business. Once I was able to just let the conversation flow, I received my highest marks yet for my conversation ability. I was no longer “abbastanza bene” (pretty good, sufficient), I was simply “bene” (good).

“the pasta food truck”


The Vaccine Debate: Italian Edition

Who knew the question of whether vaccines should be mandatory was as big of a question in Italy as it is in the United States? The first protest as ran into in Italy (there seemed like there was a protest or strike every week) was an anti vaccine march. While I steered clear of any protest I encountered, I did try to figure out what “la liberta di scelta” meant after the fact.

Recently, Italy passed a law the mandates vaccines for all children attending schools. It turns out there is a fair amount a disagreement with this decision and many Italians want the “liberty of choice.” The more research I did, the more I found that the same arguments made in the United States, such as the link to autism, were being expressed on the protestors’s posters, through their megaphones, and in the courtroom.

I asked my host family what they thought about the mass protests across Italy as a result of the mandatory vaccine laws. My baby host brother was getting vaccines at the time and I was curious about their take on the issue. Katia and Donatello basically said that those people were “cretini” meaning stupid. Even though Giorgio cried for the entire day after he had to get a shot, my host parents both said it was important to get vaccines, and that they didn’t have a problem with the new regulation since they would have already gotten Giorgio vaccinated.

I asked my professor what he thought, but he was more interested in me describing the debate in Italian to practice explaining a point. He has refrained from commenting on the issue for now.