How to make a dreadful mistake learning another language.
We set off, hubby and me, with car and caravan, for the Amalfi coast, Italy. People who have caravan rigs 40′ (12 metres) long shouldn’t go to the Amalfi coast, but that is a different story. We parked at a campsite near Naples. With me I had my trusty dictionary and my trusty phrase book, items I make sure I have with me wherever we go because – for me – part of the fun of being in foreign climes is trying to speak the lingo. All the way down the motorway I had driven my poor husband mad by saying everything with an Italian accent.
Anyway – I speak Spanish, and one thing I had rapidly learnt is that you can frequently take a Spanish word, change it very slightly and – hey presto, you have the correct word in Italian. Some words are identical, and some change just the spelling and, although the overall gist of Italian is totally different, and the two nations cannot understand each other, many words are very very similar indeed – adio is goodbye in Italian, adios in Spanish. And so on.
The campsite was a small family-run affair, perfectly acceptable, plenty of charm. I wandered down to the cliffs and tried to sketch for a while and then set off for the reception area where I purchased a post-card for my mother. In my Spanishified Italian I managed to explain to the man at reception, a large chap aged in his early fifties, that my mother spoke Italian and that I would like to send her the card in Italian. Would he help me compose a message ? Sure he said. No problem he said. And he started to dictate: Cara Mama ….. the weather is fine, the area is lovely …. and so on. All of a sudden his wife burst in to the room, red with fury, and shouting at him in Italian. Lots of hand gestures, lots of shoving him on the shoulder, and from what I could gather she was telling him it was typical of him to waste time chatting to the likes of me instead of doing whatever it was she had asked him to do.
What a pity. What a shame. I put my pen down and tried to apologize – I had had no idea. Now, the Spanish for “what a shame” is “que pena“, and the Italian for it was clearly “que pene“.
“Que pene!” I exclaimed, “que grande pene!”
They both fell silent and stared at me. Ah, my Italian is obviously better than I had realized!! They were impressed. Indeed they were open-mouthed. I laboured on. I’m sorry, I meant no harm, I said, this is all such a big shame ….. And, having mollified the situation, I bade them farewell, picked up my post card and headed back to the caravan.
Back in my deck chair, I dug out my dictionary and phrase book in order to continue learning the lingo. I was annoyed that I hadn’t been able to say “I meant no harm” clearly, and I looked up what I had said:-
“What a penis!” I had exclaimed, “what a big penis! …………….”
We left the next day.
If you enjoyed this item please share.
Catherine Broughton is a novelist, a poet and an artist. Prefer France to Italy ? Visit www.seasidefrance.com