A window on language and customs in Italy

Linda Falcone
February 22, 2007

The Florentine is hunting for a new home and I’ve been trying all day not to write about it. But our search for an office keeps sneaking into my article as if this page were the rented space we’re looking for. So, after hours of wrestling with what I shouldn’t yet share, I’ve decided to give in to the growing pains and tell you the story.


This newspaper is made by a group of people who have almost nothing else in common. Still, we love each other deeply, the way only dramatically diverse people can. But even fondness needs a sizeable field for growing. With three companies co-existing in an ‘open space’ that was originally built for the three musketeers, sooner or later, we knew we’d have to find another press room.


In Italy, however, moving is not a pick-up, pack-up event—it’s a full-fledge birthing process. The first trimester of our ‘move’ was purely philosophical. When you work in what feels like the waiting room of an ADD doctor, it’s easy to entertain the idea of a quiet corner where one can ponder the importance of commas. By month four, as the fantasy threatened to crystallize into reality, we all scrambled to find reasons to stay in San Frediano: Who will feed us if we move away? Who will be our patron saint? Locked up in separate rooms, we’ll all die of loneliness for sure. What an utter ode to boredom! Things are fine right here where we are, insomma. When all is said and done, elbow room isn’t everything. 


But as nine cramped desk-spots suddenly turned to ten, it became time to come to terms with our options. We could either pump more oxygen in, or we could really move out. Thus began the practical quest to find a new treehouse for the Lost Boys. Antonio and Elia dressed like private agents and went to talk to real estate people, who showed them flats and storefrontsall over Florence. With each return to the mother-ship, I hounded the harried pair with the likes of ‘How did you like it?’

Most times, all I got was a shrug and a half-hearted ‘insomma’. Used in this context, it meant that the place they’d seen had too few rooms and not enough windows—or a good neighbourhood, but a bad landlord, unbelievable frescos but unaffordable prices, or decent rent but poor renovation. Not too bad—but not quite the right fit, in sum’.


After months of trying to pinpoint its exact meaning, I’ve decided that insomma punctuated with a period is nothing more than a word-shield that neutralizes enquiring minds. This colorless expression tastes like tofu and is about as committal as bean-curd. Often translated as ‘so-so’, it saves a spot for both ‘yes’ and ‘no’ and denotes a decided lack of decisiveness.


To witness its straddling magic at work, ask an Italian any basic preference-based question.


‘Did you have a good time at the party last night?’




Your night-owl friend either didn’t particularly enjoy the soiree or he’s just unwilling to admit that he was the life of the party. His real response is hidden among the two m’s, but with insomma you’re being asked to do your own math. Calculate the sum any way you want—just expect the final numbers to be low. Insomma is not known for giving gratification. The first stop on the bus to Limbo, it simply saves the speaker from having to elaborate.


No one ever really minds, of course. Italians love implied reasoning. As natural information seekers, they can usually figure things out without much help from interested parties. A tilt of your chin, a raised eyebrow, the downward curve of your mouth—Italians can easily trace the truth in every flit of your features. In this country, a clear verbal stance is often entirely secondary.


Insomma is quite a chameleon. Accompanied by a comma it’s ‘all in all’ or ‘in the end’. Give it some gumption and you’ve got yourself a means of impatient protest. ‘Stop being ridiculous!’ or ‘the nerve!’, it’s a one-word warning to change your tune. It can also be an invitation to ‘cut to the chase’ because, paradoxically, the word Italians use to straddle a stance is the same one they employ to finally get a final verdict. In sum, you’ve reached the end of the plank. The clock in the crocodile’s mouth is about to strike—so hurry and wrap up your final good-bye. Time’s up. ‘Insomma! Enough already! Fly if you can, jump if you must, but for God’s sake quit crowding the beam!’


Cutting to the chase, though, I’ll tell you that this week, we all went to scrutinize a flat which was still completely furnished. According to his calendar, the owner had died in May. There were still sheets on the beds and biscuits in the cabinets. Thankfully, no had the guts enough to check the wardrobes.


-         Insomma, if you get over the skeletons in the closet, it’s kind of a nice place.

-         Will we need permission from the city to scrape off that wall paper?

-         All I know is that I’m painting a Brazilian landscape right above that picture of the pope.

-         Fine. I want my office in the laundry room.


This exchange was a good sign: no one has ever talked décor before. Lo and behold, against all prognostics, the move might actually happen—unless of course, I’ve jinxed it by talking about it. Oh well, let’s consider it worth the risk. In this country, one can never get too attached to intentions. They are always far more mobile than people and certainly more readily available than office space. But, insomma, things do look promising.

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