The Slattern’s guide to Italian travel

Installment 1: Language barrier? What language barrier?

Can you believe they hadn't heard of the Vino-2-Go in ITALY?

Can you believe they hadn’t heard of the Vino-2-Go in ITALY?

As recently chronicled, Mr. Slattern and I just returned from two glorious, albeit damp, weeks in Italia. And let me tell you the Italians were the salt of the Earth. To a man, woman and child they were unfailingly polite, helpful and kind  — except for that unfortunate misunderstanding about whether the bottles of Barolo were “to go,” but once we made bail, reacquired our passports and had the dents pounded out of the polizione prowl car, it was all was bonhomie, back slapping and three new names for the Christmas card list. But I digress.

In any case, I cannot urge you strongly enough to do whatever is necessary — save your nickels, sell the family silver, cash in the kids’ college funds — and  get yourselves over there. In support of this, I am starting a new travel series, and over the coming weeks I will be answering your travel questions and offering helpful tips and strategies for squeezing the maximum amount of fun from your Italian idyll (while staying out of jail).

Party while you still can, Voyage Boy.

Party while you still can, Voyage Boy.

So listen up there, Rick Steves, you’d better grab that fanny pack and get out of my way. The juggernaut that will soon become the Slattern’s travel empire starts rolling right now. Andiamo!

Dear Kitchen Slattern,

I don’t speak Italian, but I have a burning desire to take a gondola ride and drop in on the Pope. How will I get around without knowing the language?


Hot Madonna, Duluth


Dear Hot Mad,

First, kudos on wanting to put Duluth in the rear view. Well done. And may I suggest a course of antibiotics for that burning sensation?

Now to your query. During my recent trip I was delighted to discover that English has become the lingua franca of Europe, which was a big relief since Mr. Slattern’s and my efforts to learn Italian prior to departing were not exactly crowned with success, as the saying goes. I suspect this was because we listened to our Pimsleur Italian lessons while swilling vast oceans of Insolia, just to get in the spirit. While it was certainly a festive way to pick up the dialect, and we were chatting like nobody’s business during the lessons, unfortunately most mornings we could not remember one word of what we had studied the night before, and more often than not we woke up wearing yesterdays’ clothes after having slept on the living room floor.

And so our linguistic exertions netted us little more than the ability to accost a young Italian woman in the street and inform her that we could not speak Italian. Not as helpful as you might think.

Pissoir de Paris. Mais oui!

Pissoir de Paris. Entrez vous!

Now Mr. Slattern speaks lovely German, we both dabble in Spanish, and I have a certain proficiency with French – I used to speak it quite well, but these days my skills are a bit moldy. When sober, I’m lucky if I can make myself understood at the level of a mildly retarded pissoir attendant. After a bottle or three of Bordeaux, however, it gets better, as I resemble a mildly retarded pissoir attendant who is really REALLY enthusiastic about speaking French. So drinking facilitates communication is the lesson here.

Thankfully, these days Italian sewer workers speak better English than most of the residents of New York City and the entire deep south, so we got along fine on English, especially once we had looked up and practiced the following:

Mi dispiace, mas io no parlo italiano. Lei capiche l’inglese?

Roughly translated, this means, “I’m sorry, but I am a complete fucking cretin who has swanked into your magnificent country speaking not one sainted word of your heartbreakingly beautiful language, but I hope that if I throw around enough cash, you won’t mind too much.” Quite often we’d be interrupted after the first couple of words with a pained, “English, please.” Understandably so.

Thanks to the unfailing politeness of the Italian people, however, we still managed to have a rollicking good time while visiting the sites, gazing upon the world’s most magnificent art and sucking up more fine food and wine than most Americans see in a lifetime. It was excessive on a Caligula-esque scale, and really isn’t that what we go abroad for?

So, forget Italian 101 and wing it is my advice. Just remember, there’s no such thing as a go cup in a wine bar.

About WSW

Writer, wife, mother. Toiler in the bottomless, black, soul-sucking coal mine of domestic life. Thank God for the portable bar.

Posted on March 31, 2013, in Life and times, Travel and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 23 Comments.

  1. Ah, I like Italy! Florence is fab. They are a bit sexist though – I remember going to Bologna on a business trip a few years ago and finding a charming restaurant where I thought I’d have a spot of lunch in the sun before going to catch my flight home. It took an absolute age for them to acknowledge me and take my order – maybe it was just that service was bad in that particular place but I took it to mean that as a woman on my own I was inevitably waiting for my husband or other keeper to join me. Invisible, in other words.
    As you can imagine, I was absolutely gagging for a nice drop of something moist and chilled, poured tinklingly from an ice-encrusted bottle. I attracted their attention in the end, probably by speaking very loudly and slowly in English – which, as any English person can tell you, is the way to make ourselves understood abroad – but the waiting staff seemed very surprised to see me, considering I’d been sitting there for 20 sodding minutes.

  2. Now this is the travel column I’ve been waiting for. I think your advice is invaluable. I will increase my alcohol consumption and start saving my pennies immediately with the intent of one day embarrassing myself and my country abroad while outgrowing my pants. Prego.

  3. I spent a few years with a last name that is Italian for “chickpea.” Ironically, both my ex and I are very short. Unfortunately, I worked in Little Italy at the time and was accosted by little, angry Italian women on a daily basis. It would seem that having an Italian surname “through marriage” was not a viable excuse for not speaking the language–all I could muster was a “fongu” (care of Laverne and Shirley’s Carmine) and a few pasta dish names. My red hair and freckles didn’t seem to convince them that I was, indeed, Irish and not Italian. They both start with “I,” I guess. To this day, frail Italian women scare me. Especially the ones is skirts and knee high pantyhose.

  4. “Oeuf means egg. Chapeau means hat. It’s like those French have a different word for everything.”

    Steve Martin

  5. Must say, I do enjoy reading your posts about your gorging and drinking yourself to excess rather than the somber ones about Greek Gods yogurt and eating bird seed. Where is your next travel destination? (And don’t say Duluth.)

  6. I like you way better than Rick Steves.

  7. We found the Italians to be very welcoming and family friendly when we there about 5 years ago with my crew, then 7 and 11. No language problems – as good hand gesticulation works wonders in English and Italian!

  8. absolutely adore Italy! One of our favorite travel destinations.

  9. Welcome back. I’ve tried to learn another language, Japanese, Spanish and French. All failures. I stick with English, but I’m not fanatic about it. A good ear has sprinkled a few words from Polish, Spanish and Italian (usually of the cussin’ kind) into my vocabulary. BSS has gone south. VA is setting up a consult for me.

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