For the most part, I have given up being shy or hesitant about my stilted Italian. I know I make lots of mistakes, but then so do some Italians when they speak English, and that doesn’t bother me. In fact, some of the mistakes that Italians make are downright endearing. When Suzye and Lindsey’s friend from their Italian school days would call our home on the phone, she would say, “I am Erika. Is there Suzye?” This was an exact translation of what is perfectly acceptable to say in Italian, and it actually taught me how to phrase these statements when I speak Italian. I thought about telling her that it is more appropriate to say, “This is Erika. Is Suzye there?” but I loved to hear her say it this way, so I kept quiet. Someone has clued her in now, and she doesn’t say it in the Italian way any more, but we still keep the memory.
I am probably still clueless about many of my own misstatements, though I do remember a couple fairly vividly. In 2001, I was carrying three large suitcases and a smaller carry-on, riding a train from Rome to Padova, where I was about to spend ten months teaching at a British school. Getting the suitcases aboard took a major struggle, because I had to leave two on the platform while I put the other two onboard, and then go back for the others. After I took my seat, I had a short conversation with an Italian seat-mate. Very short, because my Italian was extremely limited then. As the train neared Bologna, where I had to switch trains, I decided to ask him for help getting my luggage off the train. So after telling him I had “quattro valigie,” I asked, “Posso auitarmi con le valigie?” He paused for a second and then said, “Certo.” I sat for a minute, pleased that I would have some assistance, and then I reviewed the conversation in my head. That’s when I realized that I had said, “Can I help myself?” instead of “Can you help me?” I tried to correct myself, but he said something like, “Don’t worry about it. I understood what you meant anyway.”
Riding a bus in Padova during the school year, I embarrassed myself again. A lady got on the bus and sat in the empty seat next to me. Then she said something with “posto” at the end of the sentence. One of the lines in my Italian textbook had the phrase, “É occupato, questo posto?” which means, “Is this seat occupied?” Thinking that must be what she said, I said, “No.” She gave me a funny look and then spoke to a man standing next to her, saying essentially the same thing. He said yes, and she got up and went to talk to friend a few seats ahead of us. Then she came back and sat in the empty seat next to me, and by this time I realized that she had said, “Puo salvare questo posto?” I had rudely but unintentionally refused to save her seat for her. I was able to apologize and showed her the vocabulary flash cards that at that moment I had in my hands because I was “imparando Italiano,” learning Italian. We were both able to smile at my blunder, and I was grateful for the chance to explain myself.
Australian Chris Harrison, in his entertaining book Head over Heel, tells how he wanted to rent a paddleboat, but instead of asking may we rent a pedalò , he asked to rent a pedofilo. Just two little extra letters made a boat into a pedophile and him into a laughingstock among his new Italian friends.
My friends Steve and Patti tell me a couple of stories about friends of theirs who made similar mistakes. One lady was asked at a restaurant if she wanted bottled water, and she said no, she would just like water from the rubinetto, the water faucet in the sink. Well, that’s what she thought she said, but the waiter seemed shocked. What she had actually said was that she wanted water from the gabinetto. That would be from the toilet.
My all-time favorite language blunder was made by their friend Terry, a fellow missionary who was with them in Rome, taking Italian lessons at the time. Before I can explain his mistake, I need to give a mini-lesson. To say that you like something in Italian, you should say, “Mi piace” or “Mi piacciono.” Piacere means “to please,” so saying “mi piace” really means “it pleases me,” and “mi piacciono” means “they please me.” To say you are sorry for something, you simply change piace to dispiace, meaning “it displeases me.” Please note that “mi piace” and “mi dispiace” sound very similar. As Steve tells the story, Terry was riding on a very crowded bus, which made a sudden lurch, causing him to stumble headfirst in the chest of a very buxom Italian woman. And you can probably guess what the poor flustered American missionary said: “Mi piace, mi piace!” Well, of course that’s not what he meant to say. Or maybe it was, but if you were really paying attention during the Italian lesson, you should realize that in that case he should have said, “Mi piacciono.”