Back when I was in the Navy, I spent three years stationed in Italy. I picked up quite a bit of Italian, though I was never fluent in the language. Often times, the language barrier caused humorous misunderstandings. I've recounted a couple of them in two previous posts. However, not all the gaffs were on the Italian side of the story.
I'd gone downtown with a friend of mine named Jon. Usually, when we went downtown, we took the Metropolitana--or the mass transit train system -- into Piazza Garibaldi, the main square in the center of Naples. But on this day, for some reason we got off at a different station. I don't know why. Maybe we just wanted to see a different part of Naples. Anyway, we walked around a bit, saw the sights, then decided we were ready to go back to base.
Problem is, we were lost. We had no idea where the train station was. We looked for it for a while, then Jon stopped three Italian men and asked them were it was. They were going that way, they said. We could walk with them and they would show us.
While we were walking, one of the Italian gentlemen pulled out a cigarette and lit it. Jon also pulled out a cigarette and asked the Italian man, "Luce? Luce?" (Pronounced LOO-chay) The Italian guy looked confused, and Jon held up his cigarette and made a gesture as if lighting a lighter. The Italian understood that, and lit Jon's cigarette.
Then Jon turned to me and said, "Doesn't luce mean light?"
"Yes," I said, "but it means light like sunlight or a lightbulb. If you want to light a cigarette, you have to ask for a fiammifero (match) or fuoco (fire)."
It had been a damp, drizzly day all day, and about that time, the rain started in earnest. Jon asked the three Italian men if it snowed much in Naples. Mind that all this conversation was taking place in a combination of Italian and English. A couple of them understood some English, but not that much. Jon understood some Italian, but not that much. By combining the two languages, we managed a fairly decent conversation.
So, Jon asked them if it snowed much, and they responded that no, it hardly ever snowed in Naples. With an exaggerated expression of confusion, Jon looked up at the sky, and held out his hands as if to catch the rain.
"Jon," I said, "You just asked them if it snowed."
"No, I didn't. I asked them if it rained," was Jon's response.
"No, neve means snow."
"Neve means rain," Jon argued.
"Piove means rain. Neve means snow," I insisted.
"No it doesn't," Jon said, still arguing.
One of the Italians, the one who spoke the best English, jumped in at that point and backed me up. "Neve is snow. Small, white, cold."
By that time, we were at the train station. We thanked the Italian men, and they went on. We got back on the Metropolitana and headed back to base.
That's kind of the way it was with me, when I was over there. I understood quite a bit of Italian, but was always too timid to try to speak in the language. Jon had no idea what he was saying half the time, but he would talk to anyone--or at least he'd try to.
I wish I'd been a little more like that.