A window on language and customs in Italy

Linda Falcone
March 8, 2007

‘Arrangiarsi or the ability to ‘arrange oneself’ is all about overcoming obstacles. Italians love to jump fences, and they do it with an agile grace that people from Anglo-cultures can almost never pull off’.



Writing about arrangiarsi is a bit like chasing a cricket. The little bug’s been leaping all over this page with the energy of a caged pixie who knows that it’s spring outside. If I don’t hurry, it will hop off my computer screen, climb up to the windowsill and shimmy down the drainpipe. There are far too many people to outsmart in this world than to waste so much time with the likes of me.


This impish little word has been locked in my brain for over two weeks now, and the Prime Minister is entirely to blame. The morning after Mr. Prodi resigned looked like the start of a very ordinary day. I missed the bus as usual, had a cappuccino at il solito bar and worked a few hours in alternative bouts of banter and silence. Italy had been left leaderless, but no one had a thing to say about it.


By mid-day I could no longer stand it. Dragging my chair closer to Giovanni’s desk, I asked my colleague about the sudden government upheaval and the eerie calm with which it had been received.


‘It’s just a bit of healthy theatre’, he told me. ‘The United States is not the only place where actors become politicians’.


‘But I don’t understand how he can just resign without warning’.


‘The Left has a fragile coalition’.


‘But I want to know why nobody cares! The country is without a prime minister and no one’s even talking about it’.


‘Oh, Linda, Italians like weak government. As long as we eat, it doesn’t matter who rules us. We do fine on our own.  Sappiamo arrangiarsi, we know how to arrange ourselves. Besides, what dies today will resurrect tomorrow’.


Sure enough, Prodi slid back into his chair by the end of the week. And his countrymen gave nothing more than a nod of their heads. Centuries of invasion and tyranny have taught Italians not to pay too much heed to shifts in authority. After all, the drama of daily survival is essentially a personal one. To solve the problems of normal life, Italians do not look to leaders. To place faith in one’s own smarts has always proved a smarter strategy.


Arrangiarsi  or the ability to ‘arrange oneself’ is all about overcoming obstacles. Italians love to jump fences, and they do it with an agile grace that people from Anglo-cultures can almost never pull off.

Flies more easily the radar than its English equivalent ‘to manage things’. ‘Manage’ implies the sceptre of command or at least the scrap of a plan. Artisans by tradition and temperament, Italians do not invest much confidence in management. ‘Arrangement’ is much more manual and works for craftsmen, not for kings.


Craftsmen know how to make things look beautiful, and they have transformative powers. They cannot turn stones to bread but they can make them into statues and at least feed the soul. We may not be able to eat this dusty marble, but we’ll squeeze nourishment out of it somehow. This is Italy’s best-loved game. There is no bigger accomplishment than making something out of nothing.


As a reflexive verb like ‘wash oneself’ or ‘dress oneself’, arrangiarsi captures the Italian tendency to find solutions within the intimate sphere. Unavoidable obstacles will always exist, but outsmarting The Inevitable is mostly a question of personal adaptability. To the Italian mind, even the most challenging of life’s truths can look appealing if properly arranged in colourful piles.


Often called ‘un arte’, arrangiarsi also refers to being able to make it through the month without a day of official labor. The Neapolitans are said to have a special talent for it. But before we wade in the lukewarm pools of southern stereotype, note that arrangiarsi is a far cry from sloth. A banner to ingenuity not laziness, it’s a bold mix of intuition and uncommon instinct. It’s knowing where to leap the fence. It’s learning when to cry wolf and when to wear dog ears. In the theatre of Italian life, roles and rules are secondary. Profit must know no fear and cleverness is paramount, if you’re meant to survive as a mere marionette in this land of cats and foxes.


Well, that’s it. Life is a nothing more than a puppet theatre, and the art of arrangement is about learning to dance without strings. But today’s main character can no longer stand to stay on this page. Snappy and elf-like, arrangiarsi  is itching to dance up some new spring storm.


Admittedly, he’s not too big a fan of linguistic analysis. So let’s let him out to get lost in the world. He’ll make do somehow, I’m sure. His toes will show the way to green pastures even if the road is well-hidden in the woods. Maps mean nothing, arrangiarsi knows how to follow his nose.

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