Sunday, February 1, 2009

You Say Potato, I Say Patata...


(Published by Fra Noi, Chicago IL, June 2007)

“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” When I read that line in my high school English class, I didn’t really appreciate its meaning. Actually, its significance was lost to me over time, as I had heard that phrase overused in films, television and everyday conversation. In America, I used a “glass” to get a drink of water, but in Italy I now use a “bicchiere”. Whether called one or the other, the function of the thing itself is the same; a container for liquids from which one can drink. By learning a second language, I came to see that Shakespeare was correct. A “rose” or a “rosa” smell equally as wonderful. A “daisy” or a “margarita” each have white petals surrounding a yellow center. A “cow” gives milk, just as does a “mucca”. When dealing with physical objects, the Bard’s observation invariably holds true. But when it comes to intangible things, like ideas, philosophies, emotions…can the same still be said?

After much unintentional research, and numerous social blunders, I’ve come to the conclusion that the answer is no. Though words can easily be translated, the ideas they represent can sometimes be twisted, bent or broken during the process of translation, leading to misunderstanding, confusion and perplexity. The ensuing bewilderment can manifest itself in numerous ways, ranging anywhere from a squinty-eyed frown, to tearful emotional public displays, or even to secret (and occasionally not so secret) wishes of revenge, the likes of which would make any of the “Godfather” films look like a Saturday morning cartoon. What one says and what another hears, are not always the same thing.

Take for example, the word “silly”. For me there is no better example of that word than when Michael Palin bounced up and down, forward and back, smacking one of his companions in the face with two rather dead fish in the mirthful “Fish Slapping Dance” on the British television program “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.” That madcap scenario is the pinnacle of silliness, there is none higher, none more perfect. But most Italians have never seen a film by, or even heard of Monty Python, as the humor doesn’t carry over. There is no real way to translate the word “silly” in Italian. Looking in the dictionary, the word used is “sciocco.” But “sciocco” doesn’t have the same lighthearted meaning as the word “silly” does in English. “Sciocco” literally means “tasteless”, and is most commonly used to describe a dish that needs salt. When someone is acting silly, normally the response is to smile and say, “Che stupido!”, but that somehow lacks the sweet and jocular connotation of the word “silly.” Ah…but wait a moment! There are two Italian words, when used together, flawlessly illustrate the concept of silliness in all it’s glory: Roberto Benigni!

A more troublesome exemplar however, is the word “honor,” which can occasionally be a point of contention between Italians and non-Italians. According to Luigi Barzini in his book The Italians (Simon and Schuster, 1964), the word “onore” exists in the Italian language, but is understood in a notably different way than the Anglo-Saxon mind interprets it. In English, “honor” is something internal, something chivalrous, something King Arthurian. However, by the Italian definition, honor is an external concept. A person can be bestowed with esteem, rank or distinction and thereby be considered “honorable.” Members of Parliament, for instance, are called “Onorevole,” because of their high ranking political position, and not because they are such fine and decent people. (Actually, come to think of it, there have probably been more authenticated Bigfoot sightings than examples of when in English one would use the words “honorable” and “politician” together in the same sentence…) That’s not to say that fine and decent people don’t exist in Parliament, I’m sure they do. But the title of “Onorevole” is assigned because of exterior circumstances, regardless of the character of the individual. Barzini claimed that for an Anglo-Saxon, “kicking a man when he’s down,” would be considered a dishonorable thing to do. On the other hand, the Italian perspective is perhaps based on logic, but yet still honorable, in its own way. He writes, “[Italians] know a man should not be kicked if he is old, if he is strong and can immediately kick back, if he can later avenge himself, if he has powerful friends or relatives, if he could be useful some day in any way, or if a policeman is watching. But why not ‘when he is down’? When else, if you please, should one kick a man more advantageously?” Now, some might say that this is particular philosophical viewpoint simply isn’t fair or correct. But I doubt if any Wall Street broker would agree with them.

There is one other word, an important word, where the subtlety of its meaning if not fully understood, can cause a sea of trouble, tribulation and tears. That vital single syllable is the word “Love.” It’s almost a daily event, to witness young, female Americans, here on a Study Abroad program or vacation, crying to her friends, “But he said he LOVED me!”, after the all-too-quick end of a passionate affair with one of the local Latin-Lover-Wannabe boys. And just to be fair, it’s not only young girls that fall into that particular trap. Women of all ages, myself included, have fallen prey to the seduction of dark, inviting Mediterranean eyes and the seemingly heartfelt words “Ti amo.” It’s all too easy to do when you’re a long way from home, in the most romantic country in the world, and where pheromones and oxygen make up equal percentages of the breathable air around you.

I finally asked an Italian male friend of mine, “What is it about you guys? What is love for you? How do you define it?” He closed his eyes and exhaled a thoughtful “Ahhhhh…” with a smile, and in a grand gesticulation, waved his right arm toward the sky. (This is, of course, the standard cue for all Italians who are about to make a very profound speech about any given topic.) According to him, “Love” is defined as a brief and intense emotion and experience, very real for its short existence, but not the “happily ever after” idea that so many Westerners have in mind. The way I understand it, what I grew up perceiving as “infatuation”, is for many Italians, “love.” An Italian female friend wryly explained it to me as, “It’s all based on Catholic guilt. You can’t go to bed with someone you’re not in love with. So…we just fall in love a lot.”

Therefore if you ever find yourself in Italy, don’t be offended if after a couple glasses of wine you start doing Rodney Dangerfield impressions or dancing like a duck, and someone calls you stupid. They probably find you charming. And don’t be surprised if, while riding along on an overcrowded tram, a very honorable man picks your pocket. But most importantly, carpe diem, seize the moments of “Amor”, and don’t be afraid to fall in love a hundred, a thousand, a million times a day. After all, when in Rome…

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