Italy and Italian

Learning Italian

Different things work for different people, but Da Capo, is the textbook I enjoyed most. It goes very fast, and is probably suitable for people who already know at least one foreign language already and thus know what tenses and moods are.

As soon as you are able to, you should start reading material entirely in Italian. I'm not a big fan of reduced vocabulary readers - you ought to be able to find genuine Italian stuff which isn't too hard if you look around. Try buying L'Espresso. Umberto Eco's column La bustina di Minerva is usually worth a look. Don't worry about the tits and bums on the cover - Italian weekly news magazines all have tits and bums on the cover.

Finding an Italian partner or going to live in Italy are of course the ideal things to do... but if you can't manage either of those you could (a) watch videos and TV in Italian whilst wearing headphones or (b) try to find some opportunity to talk Italian with people whose English is worse than your Italian.

Some other nice books:

Cassell's Colloquial Italian
Concentrated goodness. Contains some misleading or inaccurate information, but more than makes up for this by its overall quality. Go and buy it at once!
Dizionario delle difficoltà e ambiguità nella lingua inglese, Carlo Rossetti (Mondadori)
A masterpiece. Buy it immediately! Feltrinelli probably has it. It is chock-full of truly excellent advice, and the author covers some very subtle things. It contains some wonderful examples of bad translations. ("Home-made sausage" -> "salsiccia di carne umana" is the best). There is also a parody letter at the beginning of the book which is very funny.
L'inglese - lezioni semiserie, by Beppe Severgnini
This is a rather entertaining book, mostly based around the ideas that you only need to know 50 words to communicate in English, and that almost all the grammar you need to know can be found in the titles of songs and films. The author gives two samples of entire conversations made up of song/film titles.

Later in the book Severgnini becomes more demanding. I particularly like the chapter in which he analyses the poster which was used to publicise the "You can't go on like this" campaign (to "regularise" illegal immigrants) a few years ago. He finds a lot of mistakes, including some extremely serious (red pen standard) ones. He offers some possible explanations for the quality of the translation.

There is an interesting list of Italian idioms with an "almost English" translation (used by many Italians) and an "English" translation (what a native speaker would actually say). I do not always agree with him, but then I'm quite a small sample and I have been in Italy for too long.

I think almost anyone can learn something from this book. I know I did. I find it useful to buy Italian books about English because the "problems" tell me things about Italian. I think, for the same reason, that it could be useful for Italians to look at English books on Italian, such as The Italian Language Today by Lepschky and Lepschky (sp?).

Don't bother going to see high street-cred films by Fellini unless that's the sort of thing you really like. If you prefer True Lies or Ghostbusters, you might as well go to see those in Italian if you can find them somewhere. Or try some relatively lowbrow Italian films. (Strane storie is entertaining enough, and Carlo Verdone is lots of fun and also gives you the chance to learn some romanaccio). I really mean it about the headphones, by the way... when I was a beginner I could understand TV and radio only if I wore headphones. TV is easier when you're a relative beginner, and you can get some RAI stations via satellite. You can try listening to Italian radio if you have a short-wave receiver, but the stations I have tried have always been fairly weak - and background noise is a killer for beginners.

If you're reading this, you presumably have Net access. In that case, why not sign up with an Italian BBS accessible via telnet? Agorà has the advantage that the base fee is zero, so you can use its chat and local conferences without paying anything.

Awful translations I have seen

Moving to Italy

If you really want to do this, try to get as much of the insane bureacracy done before leaving home. In the Italian consulate they can send you from one floor to another, but in Rome they will send you from one side of town to another. In particular, try to get your degree or other qualifications declared equipollenti before you go to Italy. Italy doesn't like recognising foreign qualifications, and I have heard of people being asked to go to an Italian university for a couple of years to bring their feeble foreign degree in line with a virile thrusting Italian one.

Getting a permesso di soggiorno involves going to the local Questura and queuing up for a LONG time. The last time I did this I joined the queue at about 4.30 in the morning and got my permesso after midday, but I'm told for Europeans things have improved a lot recently.

If you're anything except white, expect hassle. The last time I flew to Rome (from London), all the Asian and black people on the plane were stopped by customs and everyone else went straight through. There is essentially no racial integration in Italy. Blacks and arabs (and Poles and who knows who else) you see in Rome will almost all be washing car windscreens at traffic lights, or trying to sell you paper hankies, and most of the others are doing awful jobs, possibly illegally. Italians in the 20-30 age group tell me that everyone in their class at school was a white Catholic Italian. I expect that when there are more second (and higher) generation immigrants around things will improve.

Things to do in Rome

Things to read/see in Italy in general

Il Giornalino di Gian Burrasca
This is a children's book written very early this century. I asked quite a few Italians what they thought were the best Italian books for children, and this, Cuore and Pinocchio were mentioned by almost everyone. I think this is the best of the three. Giannino Stoppani, the protagonist, is a 9 year-old boy whose relatives call him "Gian Burrasca" (John Storm) because of his destructive power. He is essentially a turn-of-the-century Tuscan version of Calvin, and the book is his diary. He often does things with the best of intentions, especially when he takes adults' instructions at face value ("always tell the truth", for instance) but somehow succeeds in shooting relatives, causing his sisters' boyfriends to break up with them, blowing up his house, and much more besides. Obviously, the language is both archaic and regional, but you should be able to find an edition with footnotes and illustrations easily enough. There is also a cartoon film of the book, and a TV series starring Rita Pavone.

Carlo Verdone
Carlo Verdone is a Roman comic actor who has made quite a number of films. I've only seen a few of them, but I'm told the others are also reliably high quality. You will pick up quite a bit of romanaccio from his films.

Borotalco stars Verdone as a total loser who works as a door-to-door salesman. One of his non-customers teaches him to bullshit in a big way, and leaves Verdone in charge of his house. Verdone then sets out to win the girl of his dreams (a successful door-to-door salesperson for the same company)...

In Acqua e Sapone he plays a school caretaker who pretends to be the English teacher (who is a priest) in order to get a job as tutor to a 16-year-old supermodel.

Not the dreadul children's book, but the left-wing satirical newspaper. It's green, and you can find it in edicola virtually anywhere in Italy. I don't think it's all that funny, but it's worth knowing about it. Disegni and Caviglia do very cruel cartoon strips in it. Il Male was of course much better...

Things to avoid

I cattolici popolari
Very nasty group. Possibly not quite as nasty as scientologists, but well worth avoiding all the same. At first sight, some kind of Catholic student group or similar, but actually to all intents and purposes a cultist movement and/or mafia-like organisation. Avoid at all costs.

Autonomi, La pantera and so on
Two extreme left-wing student movements, although la pantera will have changed its name by now. The autonomi are only students in the sense that they have registered as such. They don't usually do any studying or exams or whatever - they like hanging around, protesting against things, and trying to get beaten up so they can complain about police brutality. Even the educated ones will cultivate horrendous Roman accents and use romanaccio as much as possible to try and sound more proletarian, in much the same way that Well-Meaning Guardian Readers(TM) at Cambridge try to sound working class.

Very unfunny cartoonist, beloved of left-wingers. His main character (at least historically), Cipputi, is a mechanic in a FIAT factory. He also does a lot of cartoons for Linus, the left-wing magazine which also contains lots of cartoon strips. I've never found anything he has done in the least amusing. His characters frequently stick umbrellas in each other's bottoms, for instance. I have noticed, however, that Italian political cartoons often feature employer's anally raping employees, Berlusconi anally raping political opponents, and so on. Hilarious, eh?

The buses which go from the Colosseum to the Catacombs are the most pickpocket-filled in Rome. I think the numbers are 180 and 280. There are some scumbags who spend all day going from the Colosseum to the Catacombs and back again. They aren't even subtle - they just open people's backpacks and take things. The 64 (Roma Termini to the Vatican) has a bad reputation but I took it all the time and never saw anything.

If you see a crowd of small, dirty children holding newspapers, be careful. On a good day they will hold the newspapers up so that you think "Why are these children holding newspapers in front of me?" and they will then try to pick your pockets. On a bad day, they will just surround you and pick your pockets. Adult women gypsies sometimes do the same kind of thing using a baby instead of a newspaper (usually to female victims). You can generally avoid trouble by looking at them in a way which tells them you know who they are. They normally go for people who aren't paying attention. If you look as though the idea of dismembering small children doesn't upset you, they will go nowhere near you. You'll almost certainly never need to hit them - just looking as though you might will make them avoid you. If you do hit them, no-one will touch you. A policeman told a friend of mine "You shouldn't hit these children like that: you should hit them much harder". I once saw a woman on a bus kick one down the stairs when he tried to grab her handbag. Onlookers applauded.

Am I a racist? I don't think so. I've no idea what gypsies in general get up to, and if warning people about mobs of dirty children with newspapers is racist then I'm happy to be racist. Their ethnicity is of no interest to me, only the fact that they are best avoided. If you think I'm exaggerating, walk from the Colosseum to Piazza Venezia and think again.

Also, if you get on a bus carrying a newspaper or unfolded map, expect people to watch you with extreme suspicion.

Breathtakingly dire board game aimed at girls, produced by an Italian games company. There are various magnetic cards representing boys and girls, and the aim of the game is to try to arrange successful dates between them. To find out how successful a date is, you have to put the cards representing the two halves of the couple together and insert them in a machine. This then plays different recordings depending on how well things have gone - people phoning up to ask for date and being turned down, date accepted but person not turning up, etc. Actually, though, the game would appear to be secretly subversive, because if you put two boys' cards or two girls' cards in the machine, the date is much more likely to go well. This could have something to do with the fact that the interests and hobbies mentioned on the cards depend strongly on gender, so same-gender couples are much more likely to work.

Internet access from/to Italy

There are quite a few service providers in Italy these days. I've only got direct experience of two of them... which is why only two entries below are hyperlinked. NB The information below dates back to 1995.
Big Rome BBS. Base price for accounts is zero, so if you live elsewhere and want to practise your Italian in chat mode or in conferences, this is a good way to do it. The base price doesn't cover email to or from other systems, ftp, or anything except local stuff. But if you're telnetting into AgorÓ you don't need ftp, mail, etc.
no direct experience of this one

The other big Rome BBS. For 200 and something thousand lire a year you get email, slip, local conferences, news, ftp, gopher, etc. etc. I have an English area on it.