Installment 1: Language barrier? What language barrier?
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).
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.
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.
Given my recent spate of nonstandard fiction posts, you may have guessed that I am on vacation. This year, however, rather than booking our usual warm weather getaway, Mr. Slattern and I have debunked for Italy, which I am sorry to report is experiencing some truly Old Testament weather on the eve of the big papal party. Obviously we hadn’t anticipated either contingency back when we made our holiday plans, but here we are in soggy Florence with a relocation to even soggier Rome in the not too distant future, and so we must make the best of both the climate and the impending riot of pope-mad tourists. On a positive note, we have found a bottle of Chianti or two at lunch and a steady supply of Aperol spritzes in the evening really do take the sting out of being occupied. Or is that ossified? Either/or I guess.
Now, I don’t really get to the Continent all that often, but when I do, I am always interested to see what the locals are up to. If the fashion- and culture-cognoscenti are to be believed, just by breathing the rarefied air of Paris, Milan or Frankfurt, our EU cousins are innately more sophisticated than we mall-stomping, burger-munching sad sacks will ever dream of being.
Certainly one sees the hand of old world sophistication at work in the choice of Beppe Grillo and Silvio Berlusconi as presidential frontrunners. I mean Jesse “The Body” Ventura and Arnold Schwarzenegger only made it as far as governor and governator respectively. Imagine what heights the USA might have risen to if they’d been allowed to scramble to the top of the political dung heap.
Aesthethetically, we are also told, the Euros have it all over us, and having visited the Louvre, the Uffizzi and the occasional Paris pissoir, I can certainly attest to that.
Better art? Absolutely.
Superior architecture? Check.
Pre-eminent fashion? Not so fast…
Though the average European is certainly slimmer than her Yankee cousine, she is just as prone to fashion faux pas as Betty from Peoria, let me tell you.
In the past week I have been subjected to a steady stream of what I call the mini-sweat pantalon. For those of you who aren’t familiar with this hot fashion trend, let me explain. The mini-sweat is an extra cheap, shrunken, shortened version of all American grey sweatpants. Like American sweats they flatter no one; however, unlike the Walmart version that aims to camouflage, these little gems give unattractiveness a sophisticated new spin by virtue of being skin tight and made of some kind of lightweight synthetic material that shows every bump, bulge and pimple on the ass beneath. Sadly, I have seen these on both men and women, but in truth I can’t say which is worse.
I have also noted that the perennial Euro favorite of t-shirts with nonsensical English printed all over them is one trend that’s still going just as strong as it was 20 years ago. Such authentic slogans as “Super Texas! Throw some cheese!” and “Rockin’ good booty San Francisco style!” routinely adorn the upper halves of the continent’s golden youth.
When paired with the mini-sweat pantalon, these make some kind of statement. Like maybe Beppe for President.
My good pal, Peter Kevin Connell over at Today in Heritage History has seen fit to bestow upon me the coveted (and first-ever!) Poofy Shirt Award for my winning caption of the photo above. I’ll bet you’re wondering about the comic gem that took the prize. To find, you’ll need to scoot on over to Kevin’s excellent site for my caption and all the other extremely amusing entries.