Don't let your fear of the Italian language keep you from going to Italy! You will be able to converse. You will be able to eat and drink. You will be able to get around.
Today let's talk about the language barrier that might be keeping you from visiting Italy. When it comes to traveling to Italy, this should not worry you one bit. Really...don't worry about it.
I have heard a lot over the years about how we in the USA don't speak several languages like the nice folks in Europe. But, I say...we don't typically need to, and they do. Within a 700-mile radius of the geographical center of the United States (located just outside of Lebanon, Kansas), you will be well contained within the borders of our large country. Make a circle of a 700-mile radius from Vienna, Austria, and you will encompass around 35 countries, virtually every country in Europe (except far-flung Norway and Finland), along with their varied languages. Well, that's my excuse anyway, and I'm sticking to it.
So, don't feel guilty about not knowing Italian...just get there, anyway. There are several reasons that I say this, all based on our experiences.
They Speak English
First, in the 6 trips we have made to Italy, we have run into only 2 people who did not speak English! One was in a little gift shop in Varenna on the shores of Lake Como, and one was in a wood-carver's shop in Venice in the dead of winter (i.e. it wasn't the 'tourist season'). If you don't stray too far from the beaten path, you will have no problem with communication.
I've asked many Italians why they speak English so well, and most give me two reasons. One is that it is the language of the tourist -- its a matter of doing business with those traveling within Italy. The second is that they love our movies and television shows, which are often projected and broadcast in English. Witness the posters to the right plastered in Capri. Italians are big on celebrity...think about the origin of the word 'paparazzi'!
After listening to an Italian-language CD for several months and studying up on vocabulary, on our second trip I tried to get checked into our hotel using my well-rehearsed Italian. The desk clerk's first words after I went through my routine were, "You want to try that in English?". 'Nough said.
Nearly everywhere you go, you will see signs in two languages -- Italian and English. Here are some examples.
Waiting to catch your train...
...notice that each of the salient words in Italian are echoed in English?
Here is a sign in Florence for the Accademia gallery where the David statue is housed.
Whatever it says in Italian, it also says in English.
Need to take a vaporetto (water bus) in Venice?
Dual language, once more.
Ordering from a printed menu...
...often has an English translation with the Italian, like this menu from La Taverna at the Banfi winery. They probably have menus like this in at least French and German, also.
Often the menu is just in English. They can usually peg you as American pretty quick and give you an appropriate menu, like this one from La Pergola in Rome (make your reservation at least four months before your departure -- and be sure you have a sufficient balance on your credit card).
[Just a note about the menu shown above: this is the man's menu...the woman's menu has no prices...don't you just love those Italians?!]
Here is a menu board at a small restaurant on Campo di Fiori in Rome.
I don't think you would have any problem at all ordering breakfast, do you?
Nor, would have much problem with liquid refreshment, either. Just ask for 'vino rosso' or 'vino bianco', or say 'coco-cola light, per favore'. And speaking of wines, we have found the house wines, often served by the pitcher, to be delizioso. Ask for, 'Vino rosso della casa' for instance, if you would like red house wine. You probably figured that out on your own, didn't you?
Bottled water is everywhere. You just need to decide on 'senza gas' (no carbonation) or 'con gas', with carbonation. Your waiter will ask, and you will usually just need to say the words, "Yes", or "No". It's pretty simple.
At the Market
There are fresh-produce and seafood markets throughout Italy calling out their freshness. Now, there isn't much need for signage interpretation on most items, as they are obviously sitting right there in front of you for you to see. But you may need a bit of 'translation' on the units...like Euros and kilos.
See those nice Italian pears? Based on my calculations (and today's value of the Euro), I'd say they cost about $1.95 in dollars-per-pound. Multiply the Euro-price-per-kilo by about 0.55 to get the price in U$D-per-pound...maybe round to 0.5 or 0.6 to get a rough estimate.
These squash blossoms are sold by the 'mazzo' or bunch/bouquet and would cost you about $1.11 at today's conversion rate, which is a fabulous rate...excuse me whilst I go online to make a plane reservation!
OK, I'm back.
Sometimes you do actually need to know a bit of translation. Want some of this salami?
Grab a bottle of wine and a link of this salami for your picnic this afternoon. But, I didn't know that you like donkey! What you don't know probably won't hurt you.
Here is where you need to learn a bit of signage...but it is mostly graphic in nature these days. Your rental-car agreement will probably have a brochure included, as does almost all guidebooks. Be sure to know what the no parking sign looks like if you want to avoid hefty parking fines...and they will catch up to you here in the good ole USA, won't they, Scott?!
How about directional signs, like these?
Do I need to translate the arrow symbol for you? I thought not. And the mileage in most of Europe is in kilometers. To convert to miles, multiply the distance in kilometers by 0.62...just round to 0.6 and you will be OK. Siena is roughly 12 miles, isn't it? Close enough.
Often, you have no problem translating words from Italian because you can use your common sense. Take the photo to the right, for instance. Can you guess to what this ticket would give you admission?
Some of the words or phrases that are used in Italy actually come from the USA. We were in a glass shop on the Piazza San Marco purchasing some nice glassware. The radio was playing. The announcer was speaking lots of Italian that we could not understand, and then all-of-a-sudden, we hear worked in, "...Top 40 Weekend..." Some things just don't translate well, evidently.
Italy is absolutely full of friendly people. Really...it's the friendliest place we've ever been. Have a problem finding something? Just ask. Need help ordering? Just ask. Lost? Just ask.
Here are just a few of the friendly people who have helped us over the years (I'll share more in a future blog).
Even the police in Rome will give you a hand when you need it.
Obviously, when you go, you will be doing some research on the web. There are scores of sites that focus on Italy...and many of those are Italian sites. But, don't worry -- most have a way to get an English language version -- other than using Google Chrome hit-and-miss translation.
Here are a couple of examples.
Here is the site for museums in Florence. See the row of flags under the words 'Florence Museum'? Click on the British flag (they speak English pretty well there, too) and you get the English-language pages served up to you. Sometimes its the Stars-and-Stripes. This site was very thoughtful in their tourism-directed information to provide information in eight different languages. This is rare.
Though it is rare to find that many language version for a website, many have Italian and English versions, like the two that follow.
This one for La Terrazza del Principe overlooking the Boboli Gardens in Florence...a beautiful setting for beautiful food and beautiful people just like you (park on the sidewalk, by the way)...has the flags of Italy and Britain to guide you.
This website for the vaporetto service in Venice has a drop-down box for you to select from Italian or English.
And on some sites, you see just abbreviations like "It" and "En" on which you can click.
The Universal Languages
And then there are two other, more universal languages with which you are already familiar.
A pat on the back for man's best friend says, 'Good doggie!'...
...and the universal language of music needs no translation...and you will find it on almost any piazza or campo in the evening.
Sometimes, Just Give Up
As I say, sometimes, just give up. Here is one of those instances.
This poster recognizes that an election is approaching. As we can't vote, there isn't much point in being able to read all it says. But, I just wanted to show you this poster because of the political parties...there are twelve represented here, along with their slate of candidates. Thank goodness for the two-party system...I guess.
Having Said All That...
Yes, it is fun to learn something new, and Italian is no exception. Go to almost any guide book and you will find phrases for various situations (e.g. ordering food, taking a taxi, getting emergency help, asking directions [women only, please], etc).
Go to your local bookstore, or order on line, and you can use CDs and books to learn a bit more. I haven't learned all of the conjugation and tenses, but I could use the bit of wording I know, plus some charade-like pantomiming, to get my point across if it came to that. And, I believe it shows a bit of respect for the host country to use their language, if at all possible.
But again, its not essential for all of the reasons I've outlined above. And for sure, don't let your lack of the Italian language keep you from heading to Italy, and then enjoying yourself while there. As they say, 'A life lived in fear, is a life half lived' -- and we want to live life to the fullest -- so pack your bags without apprehension and just do it!
If you need some help, and you happen to see me there, call me over and we can surely get something worked out.
Ciao or now,
ps: By the way, it's 'per forvore', 'grazie', and 'dove il bagno'.