If you’ve read my blog on ‘bello’ and ‘bruto’ you may be forgiven for thinking that those are my least favourite Italian words. Wrong! Piano, piano is my most hated phrase. Oh, how I loathe and detest it.
Piano, piano – to those who don’t know Italian – generally means ‘Take it steady’, ‘Slowly does it’, ‘A bit at a time’ (you get the picture?). It is mostly used when an Italian is lost for words (and, yes, that does happen). So, why do I hate it so much?
Well, my main reason is that it is superficial and just ‘gloss’. Not wishing to harp on a theme, there are some things that my disability makes very difficult for me – standing being one of them. As soon as I get to my feet I have literally one minute to get to another chair or face the most vicious back pain. So, there I am, face screwed up in agony, frantically trying to get to the nearest chair and all my Italian supporters can say is ‘piano, piano’. I can’t take it steady – I’ve got to get to a chair as fast as I can.
I tell them that after five years of studying Italian – having a private tutor, doing every single exercise in an old-fashioned textbook and four years of living in Italy – I can hardly string a sentence together. What do I get back? Piano, bloody, piano. If I ain’t sussed it after all that, I’m not going to. Piano nothing.
I hate being trivialised and this phrase epitomises that action.
You might be forgiven for thinking that ‘Bello’ and ‘Bruto’ were two protagonists in some Renaissance operatic but you’d be wrong. This unlikely pairing are to be encountered every time you ask an Italian to make a decision. Nothing is ever ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, things don’t ‘work’ or ‘don’t work’ and your taste is not ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Everything is ‘Bello’ or ‘Bruto’.
For example, we’re just having a thermostat control panel fitted in our front room. The electrician, a most knowledgeable chap who knows my views nearly as well as I do, immediately starts off with telling us that one type of panel is ‘Bruto’ and the other is ‘piu bello’. It’s a control panel – it works or it doesn’t work. I don’t consider it a thing of beauty. If I had my choice, the wall would be devoid of switches etc but then we’d have no lights or heating and I would not like that.
The same thing happened when we put in a slotted drain next to the swimming pool. One type was ‘bruto’. Why it was ‘bruto’ goodness knows but the general consensus was that it was.
Ditto again with the layout of the garden which we have deliberately chosen to aid my disability. The location of the paths etc aren’t intended to be ‘beautiful’, they are practical and allow me to have the access that the ‘bello’ option would deny.
So, everything gets labelled ‘Bello’ or ‘bruto’ – from the tiniest screw to the new tractor. To the non-Italian eye, there is absolutely no logic to it whatsoever and, even to those who were born and bred locally, some still ‘get it wrong’ and label ‘bruto’ for ‘bello’ or vice versa.
Have you noticed how the Yanks dominate the expat forums? In the interest of getting and giving help on matters concerning expat life, my wife and I joined an expat forum for our country. It was a busy group with lots of questions and answers being posted daily. Unfortunately when we tried to get involved, we were basically cold-shouldered by the American contingent which had formed cliques with their own indecipherable code.
The only questions which were answered were those put by the US members who all seemed obsessed with finding the latest ‘cool’ places to meet up in. Most of the drivelly conversation consisted of partying and who was seen drunk with whom and there was a self-appointed arbiter of ‘good taste’ who would rubbish anyone whose views differed from hers.
In the end I butted into a conversation and was asked which state I was from. That finished me off. I pointed out that while the Great American Unwashed (and a lot of the ‘Washed’ too) might consider Britain to be a small island off of the coast of Uncle Sam Land where unwanted missiles could be conveniently be located to fend off perceived attacks from the Communist hordes, it was actually an independent monarchy. I wasn’t quite sure why we should be fearing an attack from behind the former Iron Curtain – perhaps these infidels wanted to get their red hands on the apple pie and turkey crops. I also said that I had a degree in advanced flag-burning. That got me drummed off the forum – something which I don’t regret.
What is it with them that they have to invade wherever they go?
Two anecdotes from when I was in my twenties that, perhaps, illustrate my comments.
The first was when I was in Germany. I’d just landed at Frankfurt airport and was desperately trying to find the tube train to the main railway station. Unfortunately there must have been a dozen different tube trains sitting in the underground terminus, none of them displaying where they were going and no platform signs either. An American woman asked me if I knew which train went to the main station – she was going there too. I said I had no idea but would ask a guard. She replied that she would get on ‘this one – it’s bound to be going my way’. Why should she think that the train would go where she wanted to go and ignore the other passengers who ‘must have got it wrong’. I later found out that she headed off in exactly the wrong direction.
The other thing that springs to mind is when I was going to do Voluntary Service in Africa. Our course leader was at great pains to tell us that there were three good ways of ending up in the proverbial missionary’s stewpot. One – get involved with a native lady (AIDS), two – tell the village elders that you don’t approve of women doing all the work and that they should get off of their collective rear ends and help out or, three, associate with members of the Peace Corps. The last of the three being the most dangerous.
I fully expect some xenophobic accusations from this but I stand behind it. My wife is half-American and she agrees with me.
Water cuts are a way of life up here in Umbria.
Don’t know what’s for dinner as the water has been cut off for about the fifth time in as many days. All of our stuff is in the dishwasher which has now gone haywire, of course.
- The size of the tank is based on the number of people who lived here some time ago.
- Those people were not really on mains water, had their own springs and didn’t have modern appliances.
- The pumps are old.
- As soon as the water goes back into the tank, the savvy ones fill up their spare tanks thus creating another shortage.
- We are at the very end of the line.
- Our Comune is very poor and VUS who supply the water are not much better off it seems.
- Half the time the girls who take the calls from people saying there is no water don’t tell the blokes who are actually going to have to fix it.
- At the end of the summer, there isn’t too much water to go around anyway.
Damaris has just phoned again (about 4 hours has elapsed since we reported it). It seems our original call was forgotten and they’ve just noticed it ten minutes ago. That means no water again tonight.
With the advent of Autumn, the hunting season recommences.
Umbrians have a very fixed idea of the value of animals – they are either there to work or to be eaten or preferably both. They have no concept of depletion of species, see no value in songbirds or rare flowers or butterflies. Their only thought is how good it will taste or whether it is in their way.
There are two sorts of hunter. The first is officially licensed by the state and they pay a fee each year for the privilege of wandering across anyone’s land shooting whatever they fancy as long as it isn’t owned by the landowner. This means their dogs run amok and they can just pull up whenever and wander around. The only way to legally stop them is to pay the Comune a fee to have them barred and put up an expensive fence (our perimeter is several miles long). There are very precise rules about how close to the house they are allowed to come, how far they must be before they point a gun towards a property (quite a long way) and where they can park. They are mostly interested in wild boars.
The day of the hunt a sign goes up warning the public and then men in orange reflective jackets accompanied by packs of hounds with bells around their neck fan out into the woodland. Not that either of us approve of hunting but we have seen a wild boar family on our land and know how dangerous they can be to both us, our dogs and our orchard. We don’t lament an organised culling.
The other sort of hunter are basically sneaky. They arrive unannounced at about 5am and hide in our woods unless either I or one of our dogs who also sleeps light hears them. A chorus of the dogs barking and me shouting, “Via – questo e proprieta privata” (Go away, this is private property) usually shifts them although I even caught one once emptying all the rubbish out of his car onto our drive.
They will happily block your drive (something that licensed hunters are forbidden from doing) and will shoot anything which doesn’t move fast enough. This means thrushes and other song birds. One once showed my wife very proudly a mistlethrush he had shot and told her how ‘Good eating’ it was. She got very angry and was nearly sick.
Before we came here, they had nearly depleted our 20 acres of birdlife. After two years of living here, we now have woodpeckers, blackbirds, robins and buzzards again although it is still far from plentiful.
We have made it clear that we have zero tolerance as far as this goes.
They are a strange breed and are very cruel to animals generally. They often have decoy thrushes in cages to lure others to them. Not only that, they throw down poison to kill off competitors’ dogs. We know from speaking to our vet that nothing can be done about this poison and the dog dies in agony over a period of 2 days.
You see these old men (most of them are) in their camouflage gear hanging around the ‘rootin’, tootin’, shootin’ shop’ as I call it where they sell everything you could need for the big hunt. Although there is a growing animosity among younger Italians to this culture, it is still strong here in the mountains – particularly among the older generation who can see no wrong in it.
Looks like the summer’s over. One day we were sweltering with the temperature up in the high twenties/low thirties, next day we were shivering and lighting our pellet stove.
Looks like Damaris may have missed out on her last swim in the outside pool. Despite the solar water heaters, the water is just too cold and last time she swam in water like that (Cambridge) she was laid up for days with agonising back pains. We can’t take the chance. Now we need to get the internal pool finished but our plumber left us on Saturday saying he’d be back in a day or two to clear it all up and now we’ve found out he’s going to be off for at least a month with a hernia operation scheduled for Wednesday! That is typical Umbrian.
It won’t be long now until the leaves start falling off the trees and bunging up the guttering once again. The wind has changed from the South West to a Northerly which means it is coming right off the mountains. They even have a name for it (which no doubt I will spell incorrectly) – the Tramontana. All I know is that it is bleeding cold when you get caught in it. We copped -12C last winter and with that wind blowing as well, we might as well have been at one of the poles.
We had a barbeque tonight but it was too cold to eat outside so we took it into the kitchen. Seems a bit daft, that.
Oh how I try to avoid these people (for the most part). They come out here with their heads full of ‘La Dolce Vita’ and behave like a load of American Peace Corps volunteers. They patronise the locals, are completely naive about the way of life and if anyone dares to say something is less than perfect (and Italy has plenty of things which are far from perfect), they self-righteously pronounce, “This is Italy” as if for some strange reason the fact had escaped me.
Here’s an example of how embarrassing they can be. Some time back we’d stopped at the local pizza restaurant in our village for – guess what – a pizza. We know (as in to speak to) the lady who runs it with her husband. They are very quiet-spoken and, once they get to know you will chat about ‘general matters’ with you. They are friendly but not effusively so. This is typical for our part of Umbria.
A group of middle-aged British ex-pats arrived. 50 years old with IQ’s in single figures. The women were done up to the nines (this is a pizza parlour and most people here wear jeans or some casual attire) and the men were in suits and having mock fights with each other. When they reached the counter, the manageress asked them what they wanted and they replied in spaghetti-English until it came to the drinks. She did the usual – Coke, Fanta or Beer. With that the men sprouted pogo sticks and bounced up and down shouting ‘Birra! Birra! Birra for me!!!!!’ The manageress looked even more embarrassed than we did.
She came over to us later and asked if we were from the same country. My wife said, “Io sono francese’ and I said, ‘Io sono tedesco’. No way were we going to admit to being British.
We’ve lived here for 5 years now and our experience is that Umbrians are generally very friendly but they are largely self-interested (who isn’t?) and they like to be able to wave, smile and exchange pleasantries with you but without having you in and out of their homes.
People coming out here are expected to believe it is all perfect and are criticised heavily for saying otherwise. As I have said elsewhere in this blog, Italy has a lot going for it and I am not sorry we came here. That does not mean that I have to act like the world’s sole surviving brain donor when confronted with Italian culture or customs nor do I have to think everything is wonderful – it isn’t!