hen I lived in Italy for five years beginning just after the euro was introduced I fell in love with two words and they both ended up giving me fits. They were the kinds of words you think you have under control but don’t. The first was sega, which means saw, the verb segare meaning to saw, usually with a chainsaw (um, it can also mean something else, but let’s not go there). The second was trapano, a noun that means drill, usually the electric kind. This duo can come in extremely handy at a hardware store or when you think you’re handy, as in man.
I picked them when I got tired of no-show Italian workmen and took home improvement into my own hands — as in building a bookshelf and installing a shower stall. That phrase by itself — on my own — should strike terror into the hearts of those who know me, but we’ll also let that dog sleep for now.
The problem with thinking you’ve mastered very specific words in another language is that you can get easily excited and mix them up, or insert them where they don’t belong because, well, you think you know them and they sound good.
At some point I started confusing sega with trapano, saw and drill. Now, that may sound absurd, even silly, but unless you want to be seen as a local Dexter, those are not words you want to confuse.
Once, my neighbors, two economics students at La Sapienza, came to my door. Both were two butch looking women who needed a prolunga, or extension chord, and had apparently heard enough of my hammering and drilling to assume I might have one. I did. But I also asked what kind of problem they had, because it sounded to me like they needed to drill a hole.
That’s when I basically offered to come right over saw them in two (or four).
My segare instinct prevailed over trapano realities. I literally told them I’d be glad to come over and use my saw on them. Not satisfied, I added that saws were always useful. I knew how to use a one. In fact, I loved saws. I am very brave with a saw, bravo, I said, smiling.
What I loved, of course, and was very brave with, was a drill — a tool that might even have helped them out.
Staring back at me with a serious dose of mezzo alarm, they decided not to take me up on my offer of a prolunga. They just left. This made me sad for them because how earth would they be able to use the sega without the prolunga.
I was dismayed. Upset even. I’d somehow lost my first opportunity to help the Italian people.
Later that that year, at the office, a secretary told me she was remodeling her apartment and putting up posters. I was proud of my Italian at that point so I told her that if she needed someone handy with a… saw, I was her guy. My sega reappeared.
What would I do with a sega? she asked in Italian.
Make holes, I replied in Italian, and I stuck my fingers out in the shape of a gun, hoping they might look like a drill bit.
HR sat me down and told me basically to stop using Italian. English was fine. I’d do less harm that way. They also suggested I throw away all implements of destruction, or at least not mention them at the office.
So I shut up. Until the time a real handyman came over to fix the washing machine. HR wasn’t around, so I revered to my Italian plain speak.
What’s wrong with it? he asked.
Well, the door’s loose so I think you need to use the sega.
He looked at me, then at the machine, and finally said the most sensible thing, in the sense that he didn’t scream, or stab me. “In Italy,” he said calmly, “when screws come lose, we use a drill. Maybe in America they use a saw. But a saw isn’t very efficient.”
Logic even Dexter could understand.