November 30, 2023 | Rome, Italy


By |2018-03-21T18:39:34+01:00February 19th, 2010|Lifestyle Archive|
Beware what's written on your forehead...

know my Italian isn’t perfect. I’ve pretty much accepted that I’ll always make mistakes, at times even very embarrassing ones. At the same time, each new person I meet tells me my Italian is great — even when all I’ve said is “Ciao.”

Taxi drivers and construction workers love to marvel at my command of Italian. Then again, they’re probably not language masters either.

But after seven years of living in Rome, I finally feel as if I’ve learned to hold my own and defend myself and others in times of need.

Take taxi drivers. As soon as I blurt out an address, I apparently scrawl “foreigner” across my forehead. Also on my forehead is the word “tourist” as well as an invitation to take advantage of me.

I’m a taxi driver’s dream. They’re thinking, “I’ll take her on the scenic route joyride, yadda, yadda, yadda and badda bing! I’ve made some big bucks today.”

Think again, gentlemen.

I once instructed a taxi driver to take me to Rome’s Central Police Station. I gave him the address and showed him the location on the map (my very own map). He immediately adjusted the meter as if he’d gotten an out-of-town job. The meter speed up when it’s adjusted for travel outside Rome’s ring road (raccordo anulare). Each kilometer costs more.

Why did you change the meter? I asked him.

Perché andiamo fuori Roma.” We’re going outside of Rome, he replied.

Macchè fuori Roma? I blurted out in my best colloquial, taxicab Italian. I didn’t stop: “Listen buddy, you’re not dealing with a stupid tourist here. I’m a resident of Rome. And furthermore, you must be an idiota, since I’ve just told you I need to go to the Central Police Station of Rome, where I can conveniently have you arrested for trying to rip me off!”

Oh, did he change that meter quickly.

Despite my new fluency — I even dream in Italian — I’m still uneasy when Fabio and I go out to dinner with “new” people. The first five minutes is full of awkward stares and glances. I’m placed under forensic observation as the Italians try to figure out how much the foreign specimen speaks.

Once the conversation does get going, I don’t look forward to my turn to talk. It’s like a baseball game and I’m up to bat. I can either blab in poor Italian, a strike out. Or, I can start up interesting conversation with limited grammatical errors, a walk.

At one dinner I was so eager to impress our new Italian friends with a funny story that I shattered my water glass. It sprayed across to the other table and doused an innocent sitting next to us. Needless to say, I quieted down for the rest of the night.

My best Italian comes when I talk to my Italian niece and nephew, both eight. They attend private school where they study English. They love that I’m American. It fascinates them.

When they were younger, they couldn’t pick up on my errors. Their questions were cute: “Why were you born in America?” or “Why do you speak with an accent?” To them, I was a walking geography and culture lesson.

But now that they’re a little older and have become more aware of grammar and syntax, our conversations have turned into Italian lessons.

The other night at dinner, I told everyone the pasta was buono‘ My nephew wasn’t buying it. “No zia. La pasta non è buono. È buonA.”

“Because pasta is feminine,” he explained. He wasn’t through. “Want to know what is buonO?” he asked me. Here I am at the family dinner table, mortified. “Il vino è buonO” “ masculine, he said.

At which point I fell back on something he couldn’t correct: Mannaggia.

About the Author:

Nicole Arriaga wrote features and a column ("Bella Figura") between 2004 and 2012.