Say What?


Learning Italian in Italy

When you learn a foreign language, it’s difficult not to despair at first. How do you know which words you’ll need? One of the first sentences I learned in French was a question. Where is the library? In hindsight, I now know it would have been more practical to learn Where is the bathroom? A pal in high school taking German impressed me at lunch one day with a complete sentence. When I asked him what he said, he smiled and translated: How many fingers has Anne?

Much of my Italian I learned at the dinner table. Food Italian, it should come as no surprise, has come in very handy. Over the years I’ve branched out a little bit. I’ve learned to talk with some fluency about work, travel, and family. My limits, however, are always very much in evidence. The other day I told someone my parents died in the year 1215.


When my wife and are in Italy, I not always fully there. Some days I’m more observer than participant. I listen but I do not always hear. Talk about limbo.

“I’m sorry, I don’t understand what you said.”

Usually that’s my line.

One day our rental car starts saying that to me, in Italian.

“Mi displace, non ho capito cos’hai detto.”

My wife and I have just pulled off the Autostrada. I’m delivering her to her favorite hair salon in Pesaro. At the toll both, I must have touched something somewhere in the car and turned on the Fiat lady.

My wife says, “What did you do?”

“Beats me.”

“Mi displace, non ho capito cos’hai detto.”

“I wasn’t talking to you.”


“Fiat lady,” I say. “I wasn’t talking to Fiat lady.”

“Mi displace, non ho capito cos’hai detto.”

“Maybe she thinks you want to make a phone call,” my wife says.

fiat 2

She points at the little display window on the dash. It’s mostly dark. Along the bottom there’s writing and icons neither of us can decode. For one thing, we’re not wearing glasses. In addition, neither of us speaks Italian car. So far we’ve gotten along okay. The car beeps and chirps like a normal car to tell me stuff. A beep means Fasten your seatbelt. A chirp means either Door open or Trunk not latched. (It doesn’t tell me which.) Along with these auditory reminders, on the driver’s display are dinky little blue and red icons I can’t see without a magnifying glass. There’s probably a trunk icon. I just can’t see it. The other day I heard a long artificial tone when I pulled out of my parking spot. I couldn’t get the car to go faster than walking speed. I floored it. We just ambled along. The tone–and there was probably an icon–told me why, a message, damn it, how was I supposed to understand? Finally I pulled off the road, shut the engine off, and restarted it. And away we went.

This is the first time the car has talked.

“Mi displace. Non ho capito cos’hai detto.”

“Let’s just go,” my wife says. “I need to get to Marcello.”

“I didn’t say anything, Fiat lady.”

“You’ve been talking nonstop.”

“Not to her.”

I reach for a radio knob and turn the volume down. In the glove box is the Fiat manual. Read that later? I get a headache just thinking about it.

Late that afternoon we walk up the street from our apartment to the local church. There’s a memorial mass for my wife’s departed uncle Giuseppe. In one of the little side chapels we join her old aunt, a few cousins, and a dozen people from town who enjoy a good six o’clock mass. My wife and I sit next to the old parish priest, Don Peppino. They whisper greetings to each other and visit for a minute or two, until a deacon walks in and takes a seat.

Ready? the old priest says.

The deacon nods. They launch into a rosary.

Wait, I thought this was a mass, I want to say to my wife. Thirty minutes and out. If it’s rosary and mass I’m in for long slog.

I’ve been to enough Italian funerals to know the rosary in English; in Italian I can pick out only a few key phrases: the fruit of your womb, the hour of our death, amen. Mostly, in Italian, the rosary for me is an endless droning verbal muddle. In the States I think they have both a short and long version. When I hear the word “mistero” I panic. We’re doing long form.

flat shoe

Times like this, I amuse myself by looking at people’s shoes. It’s an old crowd. On the ladies I see nice black flats, pumps, mules; on the men mostly shiny brogues and loafers. The deacon’s brogues are impressive. They’re scuffed, they’ve seen a lot of road, the lace ends on one shoe look frayed. The drone goes on. How many more joyful mysteries could there be? I’ve counted three so far. High along the wall we sit next to are stained-glass windows. Across from it the interior chapel wall has three shelves big enough to hold life-size statues. There’s a friar, a Mary, and a Jesus holding a baby. Or maybe Jesus is the baby, and Joseph, the invisible man with no lines in the drama, has made an appearance. The deacon sits on a folding chair beneath the Jesus shelf. The shelf is low enough, and the deacon is tall enough, I’m worried he’ll bang his head when he stands up. I picture him keeling over, falling unconscious to the floor, blood spurting from his head.

After the fifth mystery, more than enough mysteries for me, we wrap things up. The priest and deacon quit the room. The rest of us all sit in silence. No one moves.

“Is that it?” I whisper to my wife.

She shakes her head.

“Where’d they go?”

“The sacristy,” she says, “to get ready for mass.”


“Robes,” she whispers. And tells me to shush.

In the back of the chapel a nun dressed in a casual gray habit takes a seat in front of small electric keyboard, plugs the device in, and opens her music book. Just then the deacon and the priest come back in, with a third priest.

I’ve been to enough Catholic masses back home to know it in English. In the States they make at least a half-assed effort to emphasize the bright side of things–alleluia, joy, resurrection. In Italian, judging by the tone of the language, it’s totally different. It’s all out mournful. I sort of know what they’re saying. Sin. Death. A woman gets up to read from the old Testament. I get the text is Daniel; I make out furnace and Nebuchadnezzar (in Italian!).


The third priest, prematurely old, officiates, consecrates, does his best to out-sad the deacon and old priest; the nun plays the organ, one dirge after another in which there’s melody, sort of, but no chord changes. A whole hymn in the key of A? Really? Another one all in the key of F. And all so dreary. Basically everything sung in the key of death.

Near the end of mass, when the third priest’s robes swish open, I see he’s wearing bright green running shoes.

That night, more babble. A first (for me, anyway): my wife and I go to a movie. It’s called “Raffaello il Principe delle Arti,” about the painter Raphael. Supposedly it’s in 3D. Before we go, we can’t figure out if the movie is drama or documentary. I’m really hoping for drama, with lots of straightforward, everyday dialogue.

“I’m skipping church today.”

“It’s been a good year for the cheese.”

“Who’s this Michelangelo guy everyone’s talking about?”

“I’m leaving for Rome in the morning.”

The film is on big screens in all of Italy for only three days, which makes no sense to me. It must have something to do with cinematic supply and demand. We go, along with a cousin, to the last showing, starting at 9:30 p.m.

The screening room is downstairs. It’s a large space with a low ceiling, reminding me of a church a basement. Supply and demand indeed: when the lights go out, the room is packed, and people are still arriving. I was seriously hoping to see a room full of Italians wearing 3D glasses, but the film we’ll see, it turns out, is 2D, a 90-minute documentary narrated by a nattily dressed art historian named Antonio Paolucci. There are no subtitles. (Why would there be? These people speak Italian.) Anyway we’re sitting far enough back in room, to please my wife, I couldn’t read them it there were.

Before I drift off to sleep, I amuse myself by watching Italians in this setting. Shoes, of course. But also, the extraordinary chaos of getting themselves all seated. It’s Sisyphus revisited. Once the lights go out, they continue to arrive and mill about in the aisles, iPhone flashlights switched on, talking talking talking. No one can find their seat. No one is acquainted with the idea of assigned seats. (Row and seat numbers are indicated on the bottom of the ticket, in fine print, in very fine print. Fila: that means row.) For ten minutes, first in low light, then the dark, a gentleman in a yellow sweater and fashionable red glasses leads his wife from row to row, looking for their seats. He, at least, seems to be enjoying himself.

After a lengthy visual prelude, with copious explanation, most of which I do not understand, Antonio Paolucci comes on screen in full gesticulation, gushing about Piero della Francesca’s painting “The Ideal City.” A few minutes later I open my eyes again and see Raphael’s “Marriage of the Virgin.” Back on screen, Paolucci goes at it, explaining in a rapture of appreciation. He’s way more fun to watch than the priest in the green shoes, but all the commentary, for me, remains a linguistic muddle.

At some point, between naps, I make out the word “la fornarina.”

Hey, I know that word. Wake up.

all fornarina

Fornarina is a thin pizza bianca served in some restaurants here, just after you are seated. It’s flaky, with a sprinkle of oil olive, and emits an intoxicating fragrance of rosemary.

Also: La Fornarina is a restaurant in Urbino where we’ve eaten pasta with porcini mushrooms, pork roast and field greens. Satisfactory house wine. Fourteenth century room just below street level; arched ceiling. A very cool place.

Also: La fornarina is the eponymous baker’s daughter, model for one of Raphael’s most famous paintings, along with, I gather, quite a few Virgin Marys.

I open my eyes. There she is on screen, the baker’s daughter, in a vignette, played by a comely young woman sitting at the edge of a mountain stream, bathing her feet in the water. Raphael approaches her. They exchange chaste glances with each other. There’s no dialogue. Any minute I know Paolucci is going to weigh in.

Say something, you two, I think.

“I’m skipping church today.”

“It’s been a good year for cheese.”

“I would like to paint you.”

“This water is really cold.”

No chat. The film shifts back to a museum. And then we’re in Rome, the Sistine Chapel, the Raphael rooms. I look, try to listen. But it’s enough for one day. In a little while I’ll be back in the Fiat. It will be a 40-minute drive home. I hope Fiat lady keeps quiet.


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