There is no bigger personal triumph for the long-term expat than to achieve fluency. By ‘fluency’ I mean, of course, that magical brew of effortlessness and accuracy that comes with years of practicing a second language and seems to grow only more elusive the better one speaks. As you become familiar with a new language, you begin to understand what you don’t understand: the arcane tenses, the puns and the irregular conjugations. Of all these subtleties, perhaps one of the trickiest is not understanding what a word or phrase means, but understanding what it doesn’t mean.
Key to learning a language is learning the nuances. Often, the contextual and literal meanings of a word or phrase diverge dramatically. These linguistic shadings are difficult to master, so in the interest of aiding the avid student of Italian, here is a practical guide to four common phrases.
1. Una ventina di giorni
What it should mean: roughly 20 days.
What it really means: I can’t begin to guess when the spare part I ordered for your dishwasher will arrive/that rash will clear up/your carta di soggiorno will be processed, but it seems either impolite or impolitic to admit it. Instead, I’m going to placate you with a random number, which may turn out to be either tomorrow or November 27, 2017. Please don’t start pestering me on day 19 because I will find your insistence perplexing. Assume a Zen acceptance of the unknown and have a glass of wine. Wine helps.
‘When will my metano service be hooked up?’
‘Una ventina di giorni.’
‘Ok, I’ll go have some wine.’
2. Una bella signora
What it should mean: a beautiful woman.
What it really means: the first Pavlovian qualifier for any human possessing double X chromosomes, regardless of their notable accomplishments, achievements, talents, crimes or misdemeanors. It is sometimes tacked on to the end of the list of accomplishments, achievements, talents, crimes or misdemeanors, overpowering them with the primary importance of being una bella signora.
‘Jane Goodall, una bella signora, is a British primatologist, ethologist, anthropologist, and U.S. Messenger of Peace. Considered to be the world’s foremost expert on chimpanzees, she is the founder of the Jane Goodall Institute and has worked extensively on conservation and animal welfare issues.’
Or, ‘Jane Goodall is a British primatologist, ethologist, anthropologist, and U.S. Messenger of Peace. Considered to be the world’s foremost expert on chimpanzees, she is the founder of the Jane Goodall Institute and has worked extensively on conservation and animal welfare issues. She is also, ahem, una bella signora.
3. Quanto basta
What it should mean: just enough.
What it really means: if, while reading a recipe in which 90 percent of the ingredients listed for pollo alla cacciatora have q.b. in place of metric quantities next to them, you find yourself scratching your head and muttering, ‘Well, how much is just enough?’ and ‘If I knew how much was just enough, I wouldn’t need a recipe, would I?’, give up. You are obviously not hardwired for the eyeball method employed with stunning success by most Italian cooks. If you shadow them in the kitchen trying to quantify the handfuls and pinches of ingredients they are nonchalantly tossing into the pot, you will be mocked. Instead, get yourself invited to dinner to eat the pollo and bring brownies for dessert. Italians love brownies.
My neighbor’s recipe for crostata:
Flour q.b. (‘How much is that?’ ‘Oh, you know. Enough to make a mound.’)
Eggs q.b. (‘How many is that?’ ‘Oh, it depends on how big they are. 2. Or 4. Sometimes I put in 5.’)
Sugar q.b. (‘How much is that?’ ‘Oh, not too much. You don’t want it too sweet.’)
Oil q.b. (‘How much is that?’ ‘Oh, enough to make a dough.’)
4. Ci vediamo
What it should mean: see you soon!
What it really means: not in any way intended as an allusion to a future meeting, this is merely a noncommittal, amicable way to part company and does not denote a particular desire for the speaker to either see or not see you ever again. When weeks pass and no invitation for drinks or dinner comes, do not take offense. Prendiamo un caffè!, on the other hand, might indicate a casual commitment; if fate and serendipity cause your paths to cross over the next year, you may share an espresso. Or, you may not. It could go either way.
‘Sì, ci vediamo!’
‘Who was that?’
‘I have no idea.’