Learning Italian in the Real Italy
Moglian, Le Marche Region, Italy
My very first impression of Italy was that it looked just like, well…Italy. All the pictures and films and romantic brochures were real. Ok, I lied. My very first impression wasn’t of the red tiled roofs, the rolling hills speckled with olive trees and vineyards. No, it was in fact of Forli airport, an ugly grey block built it seems to suit the low cost Ryan air clientele. It was a low cost building where I waited an hour for my lift. It was here that I got have my first experience of real Italian men up close. Unfortunately they weren’t as the movies, pictures and glamorous travelogues told me. Here I was in an unpainted block and all I had to watch were the four greasy, somewhat dodgy fellows sitting at the coffee bar (the only refreshment establishment in the place, of course), drinking espresso, talking and very obviously staring back at me. Not quite the Italian romantic dream I had.
And even though Italy was Italy in looks in many ways as I soon discovered, living in Italy teaches one that there is a lot to be learnt about Italian.
I had settled into my new apartment in Mogliano, a small rural town in the Le Marche region: A place with 360 views of hills and more hills and an old town with a few churches, five hairdressing salons and no restaurants. I was to be in Italy for three months, with nothing to do but study and enjoy the opportunity of a break. What to do?
With all the enthusiasm of someone who has just arrived in a new place, I picked up the little blue book and charged into page one of “Teach Yourself Italian”. I didn’t have the tapes but I was in Italy so learning pronunciation would be easy, I would just pick it up along with my cappuccini. I learnt the essentials, how to say hello, how to order café, how to pay and how to say goodbye. Admittedly I used the all useful ciao for hello and goodbye (it’s just easier), café is well, café, and put an una in front and voila – you have one coffee. Paying is easy once you know the numbers and learn that when an Italian says ear-o, they really mean Euro. Sorted! So much for learning the language. I did learn more but because in the small town everyone already knew I was English, I didn’t get to use it and besides they didn’t talk Italian themselves. This is the beauty of dialect, the Italian people can’t understand you when you speak Italian to them no matter how good your accent is. And also why you will spend a lot of your time wondering what the hell everyone is talking about, not because you skipped that chapter on asking directions.
So learning the language wasn’t going all that well. But I could get around and using a bit of deduction found it relatively easy to ask for zucchini, melanzane, olive and formaggio. All this necessary vocabulary coming from the many trips to the favourite pizzeria at home. This brings me onto something far more important to learn about in Italy: The food. I love food and being a South African I am particularly inclined towards Italian cuisine. Pasta is a staple, being the easiest and sometimes cheapest thing to make. As for garlic…I worship food with garlic. This was going to be my place. But true to Italian style there were a few surprises awaiting me. (Being there for a while one learns that even the simplest thing isn’t so simple and it’s best to just go along with things as they are otherwise you will give yourself an ulcer)
First, Mogliano, as mentioned before, had no restaurants. Actually there was one but I didn’t like the look of it so I won’t count it. There is something weird going on when in an Italian town the hairdressers outnumber the eating establishments. But we did manage to find a good pizzeria a mere 10 minutes out of town and had a great pizza there. Unfortunately it closed for the winter and we never had another chance to go back. This did, howeve,r lead to a great little discovery just 20 minutes out of town in the other direction. After driving around on a Friday night becoming increasingly frustrated and hungry not being able to find any restaurant open (“Of course they will be open, it’s Friday”), we were directed to ‘La Carovana’, a pizzeria located in what looks like a community hall, the kind of place I used to go to Brownie meetings in. Not only was this tavern a cavern, but there was also nobody in it. This is usually the sign for “not a good place to eat”, especially since it was the only place open on a Friday night and still the locals had refused to eat there. This lead to the second surprise: the pizza was excellent, perfect and best of all extremely cheap.
This is the moment to explain the true Italian eatery. Where we are used to and expect warm lighting and the cosy smell of food cooking blended in with appropriate music drowned by the conversation of people enjoying themselves, the Italians, it seems, prefer to eat in a hall with preferably green walls and pink table cloths, have no music and certainly no talking, after all this is where they go to eat not socialise. We are used to ground black pepper and offerings of parmesan, slices of ciabatta served with olive oil to start. Let me tell you, in Italy, there is no ground black pepper and finding the salt is up to you and not the waiter, you only get parmesan if you ordered a dish with parmesan and it is usually a good idea to order lots of extra garlic if you want to taste any. The bread is heavy and stodgy and nearly always stale and the is certainly no olive oil, you eat the bread as is or with cheese, which, by the way is delicious, but watch out, they eat their cheese dish after the main and the serving is huge so share it otherwise you will end up wasting precious formaggi.
The pizzas are great, and so thin you can eat a whole one on your own easy. Be warned that you won’t get a pizza smothered with cheese and toppings but rather a tiny bit of cheese (if you ordered a pizza that has cheese on it), and the toppings thinly spread out. The first impression is “hey where is the rest of my pizza”, but once you taste it you realise the concept, less smothering, more taste. It also won’t come sliced for you so expect to do the slicing with your own butter knife.
When I think of Italy I think of Italian wine (they are one of the largest producers of wine worldwide) and Italian passion for life. By putting these two together I have always had the impression that the Italians indulge in lots of wine drinking and non-stop partying. They certainly do have the passion and they definitely love social gatherings but these tend to be slightly different to my South African expectations where drinking is done at a bar or party and socialising usually means a hangover the next day. In Italy they have many local festivities in the town hall, square or some similar spot. One such occasion I got to experience was the blood donor week/chestnut festival held in an old cavern cleared for community gatherings. There were lots of roasted chestnuts and other food goodies, some wine and lots of Karaoke singing. Now, how could these people get up and sing bad renditions of out-dated songs with that little alcohol? That’s probably where the passion plays its biggest role. So with passion and wine one doesn’t necessarily lead to another but rather they moderate each other.
Another big custom is passageo. This is translated as walking the town main drag in your finest garb every Sunday evening, meeting friends and acquaintances along the way and exchanging gossip. It’s a strange but really quite special event to witness. Of course I would usually be watching from my favourite table outside my favourite bar dressed in jeans and a sweater. Of course by then I had learnt the Italian art of people watching and discovered it’s actually quite a good sport.
Another local custom is for all the bars to offer free snacks with drinks, something like chips and olives at normal hours and in the early evenings or at the lunch hour this includes a delicious spread of tramezzinis and bruschettas along with olives and pickled garlic. At first I thought this was just a friendly gesture but after our third beer and the same number of refills to our olive bowl and chip basket, I got to thinking it might be to stop me getting too drunk. It also has to do with their obsession with making sure everyone has enough food in their stomachs. You’re guaranteed never to go hungry in this country.
Of course every region is different and after a weekend spent in the wine bars of Venezia, I realised I was living in fact in the more conservative countryside.
The wine is good but it is usually served cold (even red wine) and being on the warm red wine camp, this took a bit of adjusting. As for the beer, the labels were often better than the contents. Two to look out for are Birra Moretti, with the old hunting guy looking like he is about to fall off his bar stool and, the one with the drunk monk on the label. Another alcoholic favourite is café coretto, which is an espresso powered by a shot of Varnelli or some such aniseed white spirit. You can of course choose what you want in your shot of espresso. This brings me to another strange habit amongst the locals. As early as 7 a.m. you will find a bar open with old and sometimes young men drinking café corettos or some other such drink and eating their brioches. They tend to stay there watching the football on TV or playing cards, looking up occasionally to watch the person coming through the door. At night they may still be there but only now they are just drinking espressos or machiatos and to order a drink gets some pretty hostile stares. Funny, I have always been in the habit of staying sober during the day and getting a few glasses in the evening, not the other way around. Maybe our ancestors got confused over this issue when the Romans were living in their lands.
And so, this is how I spent my few months in Italy learning Italian. Not the language but the way of life. While they do most things that everyone else does: eat, drink, work, shop, they do it all with unique Italian style.