Illustration by Leo Cardini
A window on language and customs in Italy
It’s Monday night and I’m desperate for a word. The rest of the world is out watching the World Cup on the big screen. Italy is playing tonight and everyone else knows the word they are looking for. If they find it, I will hear ‘goal’ yelled from all open windows. Nice as that would be, the word I need still escapes me.
In Italy, when a person has no idea what to say, they usually start with allora
. It buys them time. So that’s what I’m going to start with to-night. It’s as good an expression as any I suppose. Better than most, actually. Most words move within strict boundaries of meaning. Allora is well-versed on versatility. Adaptable as water, it conforms itself to almost any scenario.
The dictionary will tell you that allora
means ‘so’ or ‘thus’ but, in reality, the meaning of the word depends on who you are and how you say it. In Italy, when a teacher yells ‘allora
!’ it means you’d better sit up and shut up. Trouble’s a-coming. Either find a way to stop Carlo Sassetti from swinging on the shutters or be quick and close the window. The woman means business. There is a certain power in the expression, especially when it’s accompanied by an exclamation point. Allora
followed by a comma, however, changes the cards completely. Relax, it means her monologue is going to be long. Hours may pass before you’ll be asked to look lively again.
When the neighbor lady says allora
it’s usually accompanied by a question mark. Your mother has most likely told her all the gory details. She has already been adequately versed in your personal saga and has taken it upon herself to rearrange your story upside-down and backwards. All the signora needs now is just a bit more spice to make the batter come out right. ‘Allora
?’ she smiles as you come up the steps. What she means is ‘cut to the chase.’ She knows you’re in love, what she wants is the wedding date.
When your colleague says allora
it means your meeting might actually start going somewhere. Put your ears back on and start listening again, a plausible explanation may be provided. In work situations, allora
is great for gathering evidence. It gives you time to gather your chips before you place your bet on a risky hand.
My grandfather was an artisan and an allora
man. He had the wonderful habit of talking to me as if we were always in the midst of a very important conversation. Ours was an on-going dialogue that started soon after I was born and just continued on and on until the sun set on his days. Allora
bimba, he would say, whenever we met, as if he was just about to reach the conclusion of a discussion we had started six months earlier. He would always greet me with allora
, like someone who was just getting to the good part of the story. I’ve never thought about it before now, but for him, the word was a bridge across time.
For my grandfather allora
served innumerable purposes. It was ‘let’s see now’ and ‘let’s get to the bottom of this.’ Allora
was ‘what do you think?’ and ‘where do we go from here?’ Allora
was what he said every time he sat on his stool to make a new mirror. It was a word the man used to collect his strength, the prelude to all creative effort. But it was also the culmination of a job that pleased him. Once he finished his etching, he would hold the mirror up for me to see. ‘Allora
, tell me, is the work to your liking?’ Mostly he etched ladies and gents from the seventeenth century, falling in love under a cherry tree. The work was always to my liking.
My grandmother died last week, almost twenty years after her husband. Perhaps this spring they will find a nice new tree to fall in love under. Perhaps they will have the chance to continue a conversation they had started years ago. If they meet again, he will greet her with allora
, I’m sure of it.