From My Tuscan Window

Chapter 35
Sì, Sì, Sì! (Yes, Yes, Yes!)
In attempting to communicate in a language that is not one’s native tongue, faux pas can and will occur to either the amusement or embarrassment of all involved in the conversation.

I can remember the time, when traveling in Mexico Sue asked the waiter at breakfast if he had any eggs, or “Tiene huevos?” The waiter looked shocked and embarrassed since the proper request is “Hay huevos?” “Hay huevos?’ means “Are there any eggs?”, whereas “Tiene huevos?” means “Do you have any gonads?” So now, I suspect you are getting the picture of what any traveler is up against when attempting to communicate in a foreign tongue.

Even if one is 90% fluent in Spanish, Italian, French or any other foreign language, there is still a great deal of room for error. This is especially true when not understanding just one word in a sentence can change the entire meaning, or when the meaning of a word has changed over time.

To bring the point home in an American English perspective, take the word “gay” for example. My mother’s generation, and mine as well until recent decades, used the term frequently to mean “happy”, and my mother still refers to happy people as being gay. Now think of the Italian who has taken a crash course in English and wishing to please his American friends when they are having a good time, tells them how happy he is that they are “gay.” This would be perfectly okay if indeed they were “gay” in today’s standard interpretation of the word, but might cause some embarrassment if they weren’t “gay.”

My parents are just a little deaf and not 100% fluent in Italian. Since they wish to please their friends while not appearing too incompetent, they developed the habit of responding with “Sì, sì, sì!” (“Yes, yes, yes!”) to almost any question or comment. About 90% of the time “Sì, sì, sì” is the correct answer as in, “It’s sure a rainy day.” “Isn’t it too bad that Vittorio isn’t feeling well today?” or “Would you like for me to bring you some fresh lettuce from the garden?”

“Sì, sì, sì” can backfire when the correct answer should have been “No.” Our neighbor, Eddie Dye recently reminded me of one such instance that caused the disappearance of all of Shirley’s beautiful blooming geraniums that graced the stone stairway in front of their house and ours.

When we first arrive in Gioviano, we purchase flowering plants and potted herbs to grace our loggias, exterior stairways, and the fronts of the houses. When we leave, we take all of the plants outside and offer them to Arina, who on her own initiative waters and cares for our large ortensia (hydrangea) plants in front of the Palazzo.

Eddie and Shirley, sometimes take trips away from Gioviano for a period of several days. Arina, noticed their house was vacant for some time, so she believed that the Dyes had returned to Texas. Arina asked my father if she could take the bei fiori (beautiful flowers) home with her. All that he understood was the phrase, “bei fiori”, which is the standard comment of Giovianini passing our houses and admiring our flowers. Thus, Canetto’s standard response of Sì, sì, sì” was in his mind, an agreement that the flowers were indeed beautiful.

Arina’s correct interpretation, of Canetto’s “Sì, sì, sì” was that she should take the flowers home with her. When Eddie and Shirley returned from their trip, the ancient stone stairway, which had been bursting forth with beauty, was barren and abandoned looking. They asked Adenaco if he knew what had happened to their flowers, and he didn’t know. They asked the priest Francesco, who announced at Mass that someone had stolen the Dyes’ flowers. Arina jumped up and announced, “I took the flowers. Canneto gave them to me.” This, of course, was the embarrassing truth.

Our daughters, being quite the cautious type, learned early on to never say “Si” unless they were totally certain that they understood the question, especially after reaching “signorina” (young lady) status which meant going out on dates with their Italian “boy” friends.

Responding with “Si, si, si” is appropriate after hearing “Sua sorella e molto bella.” (“Your sister is very beautiful.”) However, if they didn’t quite understand the question of “Vuole fare l’amore?” (“Do you want to make love?”) and in their virginal innocence had responded with “Sì, sì, sì”, that misunderstanding could have led to far more than just the loss of some flowers, I mean geraniums.

My most memorable faux pas this year occurred when I was having a lively conversation with a friend who lives a few houses away. We were both expressing our disappointment that so much of the heritage of Gioviano had been lost in recent decades. My friend launched into a rather harsh condemnation of a certain profession that he felt was responsible for some of the faulty decisions leading to those losses.

In the interest of anonymity in this particular case, let’s just call the professionals “lawyers,” since they seem to be universally vilified and thus hopefully won’t be terribly offended if the shoe doesn’t fit. My understanding of my friend’s rather vitriolic condemnation was understood by me to be a universal condemnation of all “lawyers,” so I responded with “Sì, sì, sì, sarebbe una bella cosa di amazzare tutti come ha scritto Shakespeare in Enrico Quarto!” (“Yes, yes, yes, it would be a good thing to kill all of them as Shakespeare wrote in Henry IV.”)

My friend looked startled and declared, “Dio! Io sono un avvocato.” (“God! I am a lawyer.”) Boy was I ever embarrassed. I had no idea he was a retired lawyer. My “lawyer” friend had only been condemning those lawyers responsible for the negative events that we had been discussing, yet my lack of 100% fluency in Italian had caused me to open mouth and insert foot. I sure had to do a tap dance to get out from under that one and convince my friend that I didn’t mean that he should be drowned along with the others.

Revised March 3, 2008
Copyright 2005-2006 George H. Russell
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