Italian is, fittingly, a romance language. Mention to anyone that you’re traveling to Italy and they’ll immediately fire off warnings, or wishes, about some handsome, tanned-skin, coal-haired man sweet-talking you in Italian. And while most Europeans speak multiple languages including English, Northern Italy doesn’t follow suit. When I began taking Italian language lessons from a local tutor, the first few lessons were spent repetitively learning the correct pronunciation of letters. Ivana repeatedly enforced that if the word is not annunciated 100% correctly, then no one will understand you. After two years, I can attest that this is true. While dining on a farm in Tuscany, my Southern mother desired butter for her morning bread. To show off my newly-learned language, I asked the waitress for burro. She did not understand me and I was 100 percent certain that it was the correct word so I persisted. After several exchanges, she finally recognized my need but corrected my pronunciation. Seems I had ordered a small donkey for our bread, and not “boor-ro”, with a long u. Lesson learned.
Of course within two months of my arriving, I was certain I’d broken the language barrier. I quickly discovered that charades is really the universal language. When traveling to a foreign country, you don’t need to speak the native language when you can act out the words eat, drink, walk, drive. And as we all know, Italians love to talk with their mani. I’ll spare you the story of my sister-in-law playing charades with the pharmacist to illustrate a rather, shall we say, itchy situation.
But as I soon found, charades only works when you’re the actor. One day while shopping in Carrefour, the Italian version of Super Target, a woman approached me and pointed at my watch. I confidently responded in Italian, pointing and explaining that the watches were two aisles over. She obviously didn’t understand my directions because she persisted by pointing at my watch, even touching it on occasion; the inflection in her voice told me she was asking a question. After about three of these exchanges, I realized that she was asking me for the time, not where to buy a watch.
Some of the best advice I received from an American friend here who has an impressive command of the Italian language told me, “Just speak with confidence, even if you get some words wrong. People will correct you and that’s how you will learn.” She proceeded to relay the story of her learning curve. She was invited to a dinner party and while seated among several reserved Italian acquaintances, began telling a story and to make her point, said “fare un peto” which means to fart, as opposed to her intended “fare un pezzo” (make a piece).
Like today’s haircut. I got my haircut from a British woman who could speak English. But the $75 haircuts were killing me so I thought I’d try a local Italian salon. Haircuts in Italy are a la carte – 5 euros for the shampoo, 5 for the conditioner, 40 for the cut, 3 for the mousse and 10 or 15 for the blow-dry. So, it adds up. At any rate, I decided to try Ego’ Salon, which I discovered translates to “bedhead” in English. At least I think so, because everyone in there looked like they had just woken up and didn’t bother to comb their hair. I walked to the counter and gave them my name and told them my appointment time. I was led to a back treatment room and the woman gestured for me to take off my pants. Now I’ve been in some fancy salons but never has removing my pants been part of the process. I quickly realized that she thought I was getting a bikini wax so I immediately explained that I was there for a haircut. (Now I know my Italian is bad, but I’m sure when I made the appointment that I was able to communicate a haircut – and not my bikini hair!) Soon after, a man in blue jeans and a t-shirt approached me to cut my hair. He spoke no English, but in my bad Italian I managed to eek out “little cut”. I showed him a picture and off he went. The entire time I was thinking how my 4-year old niece could be doing a better job. He never once cut in a straight line and even went out of his way to cut zigzags. But I must say, after the one hour blow-dry, it looked pretty good. I’m sure I’ll wake up tomorrow with bedhead though! And in the end, the price was the same, roughly $75 in US dollars for a simple haircut.