Cerca Articolo

Share |

Ciao Bello!

Gennaio 2009
Per imparare bene l’italiano non basta studiare le regole.  Capire a chi dare del lei e a chi del tu, ad esempio, è già un buon inizio, ma poi occorre giostrarsi tra infinite sottigliezze... Le rocambolesche esperienze linguistiche di Trisha Thomas.

di Trisha Thomas

Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck
Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck
Trisha with her son
Trisha with her son

It took me a while to learn that the Italian language has to be spoken with passion and playfulness.  My colleague Maria Grazia has a wonderful way of dealing with people.  Everyone is ciao bella, and ciao bello.  She can worm a news story out of just about anybody by working them over verbally.  I remember an important meeting we had at Vatican Television.  The people who work at the Vatican tend to be stand-offish.  Well that is not Maria Grazia’s style.  She burst cheerfully into the office and ciao-belloed everyone there.  Many of them she gave a kiss on either cheek.  I greeted everyone like a cold Bostonian and offered my hand.  
For a while I tried a bit of the ciao bello myself.  My husband put an abrupt end to that, when after a dinner party I said goodbye to a man we had just met saying ciao bello.  As we climbed into our Fiat Uno, Gustavo looked at me sternly and said, “What did you just say to that guy? Ciao bello?! You don’t even know him!”


One mother friend of mine calls all the other mothers tesoro.  I have three kids so that means when I pick them up at school if I want to greet by name all the mothers in their classes I must have 75 names on the tip of my tongue.  The tesoro option seemed like a good one. But for an American it is nearly impossible to implement.
One of my favorite aspects of the Italian language is ino, one, and accio. I love being able to make a simple object like a door small, big or bad (portino, portone, portaccio.) I find the accio particularly useful. What a pleasure to be able to describe your giornata as a giornataccia.  I think my frequent and enthusiastic use of suffixes may have had some influence on my son.  One day when he was four, we were having lunch at my in-laws where he was served piselli. To my mother-in-law’s dismay Nico began, “Piselli, piselli, piselli.  I have a pisellino, but my daddy has a pisellone.” My mother-in-law was not happy.


When I moved to Italy my husband tried to make the whole formality issue simple for me.  “Use the lei form with everyone,” he said, “that way you can’t go wrong.”  A few weeks later I found myself at a luncheon and knowing my Italian was too weak for a decent conversation with an adult, I tried my luck with a boy, “E lei, come si chiama?”  He looked to the left and the right and back at me. “Me?” he said, confused. “My name is Giacomo. E lei?”  Then it was my turn to look left and right before realizing that he was talking to me and not to another person. “Ah, I’m Trisha”.  Then the wise little Giacomo gave me as lesson “lei do not have to use the lei with me because I am a kid and lei are not.”  At that point I was completely lost and Giacomo had better things to do than to try to explain basic Italian grammar to a grown-up.
So I started my own list of rules for when you use the lei.  Rule number one, Giacomo’s rule, use the lei with someone who is older than you to show respect.  
Rule number two, use the lei to show respect when speaking to bureaucrats, shopkeepers, bartenders, school-teachers and doctors. With school teachers and doctors I get terribly mixed up. With two daughters it is hard to know who people are talking about.  Our pediatrician once told me, “If lei give this medicine to lei three times a day, than in one week lei will be much better.”  But when I responded, “Sorry, I don’t understand, who is lei?” the doctor thought that I was asking “who are YOU?” and responded, “I am your pediatrician.”  I had to beg lei (her) to use the TU with me for the health of my daughters and for my own sanity.


Italians learn aggressive verbal skills from an early age and are artists at arguing their case vociferously even when they are wrong.  Once when I was driving down a one-way street in Rome with my son, a man on a motorino came flying towards us in the opposite direction. In order to avoid a head on collision, I came to a full stop.  The man on the motorino pulled up beside my window and started screaming at the top of his lungs, “you idiot, stupid... bla  bla bla bla...”  I was shocked and sat there for a second taking the abuse when all of a sudden 7-year-old Nico pipes up and yells “ma vaffanculo, è lei l’idiota!”  
I am not sure who was more surprised, the man on the motorino or me. “I didn’t know you knew that word,” I said to Nico as I started off again down the street, shaking my head.  It was then I realized my son is a true Italian, he knows when he needs to use the lei and he knows that he always must defend his mamma.

An abridged version on this article was published in Italian in Internazionale magazine, December 12-18, 2008.  

Torna all'inizio
submitting your vote...
Hai già votato per questo articolo