Blogging around the world: Mozzarella Mamma

 

One of the most inspiring expat blogs I’ve come across in Italy must be Mozzarella Mamma which is the creation of Trisha, an American journalist who has been living and working in Rome for the past two decades. She’s an inspiration simply because she has managed to juggle being a professional, bringing up three children, life in the eternal city and has become fluent with Italy on many different levels. It was a real pleasure to fling a few questions at Trisha via email, here’s our interview.

Trisha the gal behind Mozzarella Mamma
Trisha the gal behind Mozzarella Mamma

Do you consider yourself an expat and if so did you make a conscious decision to live the expat life and how did you end up living in Rome?

I do consider myself an expat. I didn’t make a conscious decision to lead an expat life. I met my Italian husband while we were both in graduate school at Columbia University in New York. We met in the US and married in the US and agreed that we would live the first five years of our marriage in Rome and then spend the next five in the US and try to go back and forth. We figured we both had pretty movable careers. I am a journalist, he is a professor economics. When I moved to Italy with my new husband it was a bit of a culture shock. It was only then that I began to grasp the whole Italian men and their Mamma business. In the end we have remained for 20 years living in Rome (near his Mamma) and only returning to the US for holidays. I would love to spend a few years in living in the US, but I have finally accepted that that is not going to happen.

For a more colorful explanation, you can check out my blog post How I ended up in Italy.

How would you describe Italy to someone who has never visited? Are the people welcoming to foreigners?

Italy is a fabulous place ­­ filled with art and history, fantastic food, gorgeous cities (Florence, Venice, Ravello, Perugia etc etc). Italians are blessed with having both mountains and sea ­­ there is the Mediterranean and Adriatic coasts with magnificent beaches (Cinque Terre, Amalfi Coast, Sardinia, etc etc), and the spectacular Italian Alps. The Italian people are probably the best part ­­ they are friendly and welcoming eager to share their language, culture, history, food and their country with anyone who is interested.

Name five things I should see and do in Rome?

Well there are the standard tourists spots that one must see: The Coliseum, the Roman Forum, The Campidoglio. I love all the Roman piazzas ­­ Piazza Navona, Piazza del Popolo, Campo Dei Fiori, Santa Maria in Trastevere, the Trevi Fountain, The Spanish Steps.

I also am a huge fan of Caravaggio, so I would suggest hunting down the Caravaggio masterpieces in the Roman churches. Here are a couple of my blog posts on that:

Cooling down with Caravaggio and Caravaggio and Women.

Of course you can’t visit Rome without seeing the Vatican, and the Sistine Chapel. I suggest to people­­whether or not they are Catholic­­ that they try to catch the Pope’s Weekly audience on Wednesday’s or his Angelus from the window of the papal apartments on Sundays. It is fun to be a part of these events and to see the new Pope Francis.

 

St Peter's unmistakable dome, Roma
St Peter’s unmistakable dome, Roma

 

What should I taste/eat in Rome?

Oh gosh, everything. I guess I would start with the coffee ­­ espresso, cappuccino, Caffe Latte, and of course have a cornetto with that. Moving on to lunch ­­ pasta in a Roman Trattoria, then an apertivo sitting outdoors at sunset watching the pinks, orange colors on the ancient Roman monuments. For dinner there are so many restaurants ­­ Rome’s Ghetto has some fabulous places. One of my favorite restaurants is a bit out of the way, is called Ristorante Caprera and it has fantastic fish dishes.

 

If I was coming to you to do this interview where would we meet and what would we be drinking?

We would meet at the Tree Bar ­­ a little restaurant/bar in a park near my home. I would be drinking a pro secco or an aperol spritz.

 

Do you suffer from (US/Italian) culture shock or do you find there is something common ground with your current adopted home?

I have suffered from much culture shock in Italy. I get frustrated at the insane traffic, the pharmacy, the food rigidity, the pressure on women to be beautiful and sexy, the constant need for bella figura. I will copy some blog posts of that below. I think the common ground is always humor. I laugh at myself, Italians laugh with me, not at me, and they are easily able to laugh at themselves.

See Nico’s Traffic Rules, Fumbling in the Pharmacy, Espresso, Corruption, Murder and the Bella Figura, Linguini and luscious legs, Something Fishy in Rome, The Fine Art of the Christmas Broth.

 

Do you ever suffer from homesickness and how do you cope with it?

I miss my family in the US a lot, but I talk to them regularly on the phone and communicate on email on a daily basis. But there is no time for homesickness. I have a job, an Italian husband and 3 Italian­American children plus a blog that occupy my every waking moment.

 

What do you think about the expat life? Why do you think so many people choose to be expats?

I am different from many expats in that I don’t lead an expat life, hanging out with other expats and doing American things. I am fully inserted with my Italian husband into an Italian lifestyle.

 

Did you have much of a problem with learning the language, what advice do you have for English speaking expats?

The great advantage in learning Italian is that Italian’s are so nice about it. They don’t care if you make mistakes, they are happy that you are trying. I have had a lot of difficulty with some aspects of the Italian language ­­ the subjunctive, the Lei formal tense, the imperative­­ still I always muddle through.

Here are some blog posts on that: Lei ­ Language Confusion and Swallowing Toads and Seeing Green Rats

 

What’s been the most rewarding/high point and then the most frustrating/low part of your time in Italy?

It has been very rewarding working as a journalist and covering events in Italy and the Vatican. The experience of traveling with Pope John Paul II, covering his death and funeral, traveling with Pope Benedict XVI, covering the election and the Papacy of Pope Francis has been extremely satisfying. In addition I have covered everything from Italian politician Silvio Berlusconi to immigrants arriving on the Italian island of Lampedusa and the Venice Film festival. I love all the news I get to cover. You can see from my blog that I often write about my experiences working in the field. I also have been given contracts with Italian television to serve as a political analyst during the US elections commenting on Italian TV explaining our the political system works in the US. It is satisfying to me to be able to explain US politics to Italians in their language.

You have been living in Italy for 16 years where you have worked as a journalist and brought up three children. How on earth have you managed that?

It is actually 20 years now, I came to Italy in November 1993. I don’t know how I’ve managed it. A couple of key things ­­ I’ve learned to drive in Italian traffic and don’t get upset when stupid jerks on mopeds yell and curse at me. I don’t let myself get cut off by people in fancy Mercedes of BMW’s­­ my little Fiat is a fighter. I’ve learned to argue and gesticulate in Italian. My life is a big juggling act and I always have a lot of balls in the air ­­ they fall all the time, but I try to laugh, pick them up and start again.

Do you feel more American or Italian these days?

I always feel American and very proud to be so. Many people say I speak more like an Italian now (talk fast and gesticulate a lot) and tend to be more argumentative, and I tend to dress more like an Italian (no sneakers and sweats), but my heart and soul will always be American.

See blog post: Sweats at the Supermarket.

 

Epic, timeless Colosseum of Rome.
Epic, timeless Colosseum of Rome.

Since you are a journalist and write about events in Italy I simply have to ask you a few quick questions about current affairs in Italy, if you don’t mind:

A) What do you think of Renzi?

I like Renzi. He is young and ambitious and doing everything he can to bring Italy out of its economic crisis and I hope he succeeds. I did not like the way he stabbed his fellow­party member and former Prime Minister Enrico Letta in the back to get where he is, but perhaps that is they way Italian politics works (a tad Machiavellian).

B) How do you think Italy will manage to come out of the Economic crisis?

No clue. You can ask my husband that question. He is a professor of economics at the University of Rome Tor Vergata. His blog is www.gustavopiga.it

However, my gut reaction is that Italians always muddle through ­­ as I said above they have great food, an amazing cultural patrimony, and a gorgeous country. There is also a combination of the black market business and traditional Italian attitudes of family safety net that help keep the economy from sinking.

C) Do you think there is a solution for the refugee problem? And why do the Italian and international press exchange the word ‘migrant’ for ‘refugee’ so easily?

I have no idea what the solution for the “refugee” problem is, but I think the way it is being handled right now is not working. Italian Navy and Coast Guard ships are fishing hundreds of “migrants” in rickety old boats out of the Mediterranean every day (I get their videos sent to me every day in this period when the weather is good). I think the key is giving more aid and investment directly in the countries that the migrants are coming from. “Migrants” and “refugees” are different. Migrants are people who are coming usually for economic reasons, refugees for political reasons. I have seen hundreds of North Africans arrive who are mostly looking for work, and hundreds of Eritreans and Sudanese escaping from dangerous political situations. But among the North Africans some can be political refugees as well. It is impossible for a journalist or rescue workers to know in one boatload who is a migrant and who is a refugee­­ that takes days of interviews to sort out.

I have also done a lot of blog posts on Lampedusa and the refugee situation.

Ceramics Santo Stefano

Tell us about your book “Mozzarella Mamma: Deadlines, Diapers and the Dolce Vita,” how’s it coming along?

My book is now officially going nowhere. I’ve given up on it. Most of the best parts are already in my blog anyway. I’ve decided to dedicate myself to my blog and I will wait until I retire to write a book. However, if a publisher contacted me and offered to publish my book, I would re­work it, but that is highly unlikely to happen and I do not have any free time to get into the act of trying to find an agent and get published, that in itself is a full­time job.

What led you to the world of blogging?

I started my blog as a way to attract a publisher for my book, but as I said in the answer above I have now given up on the book and the blog has taken on a life of its own. I now consider my blog as a way to keep a diary of both my professional and personal interests and experiences ­­ this can all be eventual material for a new book.

How would you describe your blog, tell us about it …

Well, my blog is all over the map. It started out being funny tales about trying to be a working Mamma in Italy then it has evolved a bit into background descriptions of news stories I am covering. However, I think my best posts are the humorous accounts of trying to be a good Mamma and maintain the Bella Figura in Italy.

Have you ever had negative experiences with blogging? Tell us about it, how did you handle it?

I really have not had negative experiences with blogging, it has been all positive for me. I have had so many contacts with wonderful people from around the world ­­ Australia, India, Turkey, and the US ­­ to name a few. My blog has opened up a new world for me.

Actually there is one small negative aspect ­­ blog guilt. Once you start blogging you feel like you need to do it all the time and you start feeling guilty when you don’t post. Sometimes I am just too tired, or too wrapped up in personal things, or just don’t have anything to write about, but I still feel guilty for not posting. But there is also the reverse side of that, when I do a post that I feel is really good, the writing is sharp and the pictures are strong, it gives me enormous satisfaction.

What kind of blogger are you, is it about getting a zillion visitors or subscribers, selling your books or is it all therapy?

As I was saying above, I am not aiming for getting visitors or subscribers and am not aiming to sell books. It is not even therapy for me. I consider a diary of my life.

You have quite a good following on your blog, any advice for the rest of us?

I am not sure I have such a great following on my blog. My only advice to other bloggers would be try to enjoy it, do not give up, do not worry about who is following you or numbers of visitors or subscribers. One of the best parts of blogging is the friends you make­­ enjoy the comments on your blog, respond to them all, and try to read other blogs and comment on them. I have a lot of fellow­ blogger friends who I have never met in person but I feel fond of them, I enjoy reading their blogs and commenting on them, and I am pleased when they comment on mine. It is hard though, for many people blogging is a full­time job and they have more time to blog and comment on other people’s blogs­­ for me it is an effort, but an effort that is worthwhile.

Books can take us places without leaving home, do you have a favorite travel book which you think best describes a particular place or the art of travel in a particular way for those who are unable to travel.

I am not really into travel books­­ I do love historical fiction and biographies that take me to another time and place. I just finished reading “Catherine the Great” by Robert K. Massie which I loved. One of my favorite books is Louis De Bernieres’ “Birds Without Wings” which takes place in Turkey at the beginning of the 20th century. Another favorite about a childhood in Africa is Alessandra Fuller’s “Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight.”

As far as books on Italy are concerned, here are some of my favorites: “The Agony and the Ecstasy” by Irving Stone, “Umbertina” by Helen Barolini, Naples’ 44 by Norman Lewis and Alexandra Lapierre’s “Artemisa,” Lynn Rodolico’s “Two Seas” and the Italian classic Luigi Barzini’s “The Italians.”

So what’s coming up on Mozzarella Mamma that we can look forward to …

Yikes, not so sure what is coming up on Mozzarella Mamma. I am going on the Papal plane to the Mideast with Pope Francis at the end of May and I will definitely blog about that. I am also doing some research of Livia, the wife of the Roman Emperor Augustus and will eventually blog about her. I am also contemplating a couple of silly posts, the first on dealing with my teenage (now 19­year­old son) and the complicated questions of when the girlfriend sleeps over, and another one on Italian with­the­dog­in­the­park culture.

 

Have you discovered any other wonderful travel/expat or writing blogs that we should be reading?

About Turkey: http://archersofokcular.com/

About Renovating in Italy: http://www.renovatingitaly.com/

Hilarious accounts of being an expat in Italy: http://marriedtoitaly.com/

Stunning sunset in Rome bathing the monuments in golden light.
Stunning sunset in Rome bathing the monuments in golden light.

Thanks so much to Trisha for taking a moment to answer my questions. I wanted to thank her for her blog apart from being an inspiration for me Mozzarella Mamma is a wonderful mix of observation, current affairs and culture shock with a pinch of humor and irony.

Trisha has the answer to one of the most difficult questions a female expat can ask. Mainly: ‘how does a woman adapt and change to meet the demands of one society while trying to maintain her core beliefs, values and cultural traditions? [Her] own answer to this question has always been, with good friends, humility and a sense of humor.’

Words to live by.

Much gratitude and good karma to you Mozzarella Mamma, I look forward to hearing more about your journey in ‘Bella Italia.’

 

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Quirky questions about life in Italy

Today I want to tackle your questions about living in Italy full-time. To be honest I haven’t been asked many questions so I got my virtual and real Facebook friends to send me some random ones, which I’ll answer below.

 

Life in Italy

Maryann asks: How is the plumbing and the water?

Well, the average Italian bathroom is made up of a strange contraption called a bidet, which is parked beside the toilet, not it’s not an alternative place to do your business but rather a spot to sit and wash your intimate bits. You can also close the bidet’s plug to wash your smelly feet after a day of sightseeing or do a rinse of dirty socks or underwear, quite versatile really!

In private homes the hot water system is usually manually turned off and on as required. This is a money-saving device as electricity is so expensive in Italy (which is also partly the reason for the lack of air conditioning along with the fact Italians think cold air can make them sick, but this is a whole other topic to explore!) So you need to think at least twenty minutes to half an hour ahead before you want a shower, unless you don’t mind cold water.

You will find the water pressure totally piss weak compared to the U.S or Australian standards, so try to do one thing at a time, either wash your hair or give yourself a shower as you won’t be able to rinse well.

The drinking water here is awesome and there is plenty of it! Water restrictions and filters don’t need to exist here and in most major cities there are public water fountains overflowing with mountain spring water which are regularly controlled by the local authorities. Yes, you can even drink from a tap at the Trevi fountain, obviously it doesn’t come from where all the coins are thrown but it is from the clean source which comes from the original roman aqueduct.

It is an excellent sign when you see locals waiting in line with their water bottles in hand, it’s like drinking Evian, but it’s free!

Sharon asks me: Do you think in English or Italian?

Well, I obstinately think in English, simply because I read it and write it so much.

I quickly translate into Italian in my own head, I’ve been doing it for so long that it’s pretty much instantaneous.

I sometimes dream 50/50 Italian and English.

When my brain isn’t working I’ll accidentally slip in an English word or do something silly like pronounce an Italian word with a particularly heavy Australian accent which gets me some puzzled looks.

Why not check out our expat blogging group C.O.S.I’s last post about what it’s really like to learn Italian in Italy. See Tongue tied in Italy for more insights.

Michelle asks: Do you have pasta for lunch and dinner?

It’s true Italians love pasta and I think Sicilians would love to have it for breakfast, lunch and dinner if they could. I have overdosed on pasta and try to avoid it but the locals usually do have pasta at least once a day.

They are also big on bread. As if the pasta doesn’t make you gain weight, the bread will! After a plate of pasta there is usually a second course of either meat or salad in the summer and don’t get me started on their roasted vegetables usually conserved in extra virgin olive oil, their predilection for all things fried and cold cut meats!

Yes, my waistline has been gradually let out through the years.

Jason asks: Do all Italian men exude romantic charm?

Well, what a surprising question, coming from a guy too!?!?

I’m sure the majority of Italian men believe they are romantic and charming. But girls keep in mind Italian men are extremely sleazy, their ‘romantic charm’ is all an act to try and charm your pants off. Now there’s nothing wrong with that if that’s all you want, just don’t think you’ve found the love of your life or expect to be taken home to meet the family. If you want an Italian husband be prepared and expect a long hard road to be excepted into the family!

My Sicilian husband is quite shy and reserved and he doesn’t have a romantic bone in his body (we have a rule, if he wants to buy me a gift I have to be there to choose it or else he will get something I don’t like!) I guess I got ripped off with the whole ‘romantic charm’ quota, but at least I can trust him and he stands out from all those other Italian peacocks!

Aron asks: What are the biggest differences between here (Australia) and Italy?

Wow! Now that’s a huge question and I’m constantly making comparisons between my native Australia and Italy. It’s kind of tricky as over the past decade the Australia I fondly remember has changed a lot, it isn’t as relaxed as I recall it, Oz too is going through the same economic crisis as Europe and it has become a terribly expensive place to live amongst other things (which is yet another topic to explore!)

The biggest difference comes from the very distinct cultures, a general topic which trickles down to form the many bumps and pot holes in the road of expat adventures in Italy. The constant culture shock between Italy and Anglo-Saxon expats makes everyone around you think differently, behave bizarrely and confuse the hell out of you constantly.

One real shock for expats and visitors from outside of Europe is the discovery that Italy is a living breathing museum. Like the rest of Europe, Italy is a place where people have lived since prehistoric times and where history and people have left behind their junk. If you dig a deep hole in Sicily you will probably find pieces of Greek ceramics, Roman coins and Etruscan tombs. There are many stories of construction workers or farmers digging around who have discovered complete Roman villas and valuable archeological sites by mistake. The Roman villa filled with the best preserved mosaics from the late roman empire in the whole world at Piazza Armerina near Enna, Sicily was buried under twenty meters of earth, local farmers had been cultivating crops on top of it for generations without knowing anything about its existence.

Cultural differences

Those are the end of the questions I received but here are ten more funny and infuriating cultural differences off the top of my head which I’d like to dedicate to anyone thinking about moving to Italy:

1) Italian’s don’t walk around without shoes, they take it as a sign of poverty/barbarism and if gals take off their shoes in the front of a guy it will be taken as a sign you want to have sex!

2) Italian’s are superficial, appearance is vital to them. They never do their shopping in a track suit and sneakers with morning hair. I’ve seen women do their grocery shopping in high heels, sequins and freshly dressed hair!

3) Food is a religion in Italy. Don’t you dare overcook the pasta or else you will be ostracized. It’s ‘al dente’ or die of shame. Stick to the cooking time on the pack!

4) Italy can be as dirty as a teenagers bedroom floor, recycling is a new concept and many Italian’s are used to other people cleaning up after them, which is never the case in the real world.

5) Italian hospitals are scary places, avoid them if you can.

6) Customer service is a foreign concept in Italy, as is politeness along with the words ‘please’ and ‘thank you’. You will be pushed aside on trains, others will jump the queue in front of you, doors will be slammed in your face and bank tellers will pretend you don’t exist and close as you reach the teller.

7) It is still fashionable and socially normal to smoke in Italy so you will have to put up with smokers puffing in pubs, restaurants, bars and people polluting your house and car.

8) Italian’s aren’t into sport as a pass time (of course there are always exceptions to this, especially when it comes to soccer or cycling.) So you won’t see many sports activities or clubs happening on the weekends.

9) Italian bureaucracy features heavily in Dante’s Inferno.

10) As of 2020 the act of breathing will be taxed in Italy.

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Tongue tied in Italy

It is always a challenge for non native speakers of any language to learn and assimilate into a new country but Italy has its own particular surprises reserved for struggling expats.

  COSI language collage

Before moving to Italy permanently I thought I was quite savvy with my Italian. After all I had almost majored in Italian, lived in Bologna and did the usual Florentine study thing. Heck it would be a breeze. I’m Italo Australian for god’s sake, how hard could it be to become fluent? A few more months of should do it, right?

Man, I was never so wrong about anything in my life. I soon discovered, Sicily isn’t like the rest of Italy, it is another planet.

Sicilian’s don’t know how to handle foreigners trying to learn their language, they will pretend not to understand you, furrow their brows, pick your accent, painfully point out your terribly foreign sounding voice and try to charge you triple price.

A world away from my beloved ‘Firenze.’ I remember one time in Florence while ordering an iced tea drink, I accidentally said I wanted a ‘pesce’ (fish) flavor instead of pesca (peach)! I got a strange look from the barista but the charming Florentine smiled and corrected my mistake in the nicest way. He said I shouldn’t lose heart and told me if it wasn’t for the mistake with the words he wouldn’t have picked me for a foreigner at all *gush*.
Meanwhile in Sicily when I open my mouth it’s:
‘Your not from here are you?’ After the first syllable.

There are Sicilians who are dipped in a thick syrupy dialect. Most people have grown up speaking their local tongue at home and look at you strangely as you speak Italian to them. If you think learning Italian is going to be difficult, going all feral and trying to learn a dialect is nearly impossible, it takes years of practice to speak a dialect well and it helps if you’ve been born speaking it too 😉

So how did I handle my first moments of living in Italy full-time? Very awkwardly and shyly. At first I didn’t speak too much, thank goodness hand gestures are big in Italy. Then one day I just told myself to stop being a big baby and stop caring about making mistakes. Even native Italians aren’t perfect while speaking ‘proper’ Italian and if the only thing they can say is I’m a foreigner well, then that really is the truth and why should it bother me so much. So that’s been my attitude until this day and it seems to work fine.

The one thing bothers me still is the lack of actual Italian lessons I’ve taken while living in Italy, which is none. So in a vain attempt at perfecting my Italian I searched out courses for foreigners, the closest school was at Taormina and now there is another place at Cefalù but both are terribly far away from me and expensive.

Taormina art studios

I thought about going back to University and enquired at the language faculty at the University of Messina. I wanted to study Italian as a second language and perhaps pick up French or another European language. It was an ambitious idea, but surprisingly enough even if the course was taught in Italian they didn’t offer Italian as a second language. So I’d be doing everything in Italian and studying English, French and German. It wasn’t going to work for me!

This left me with the long hard old school of language learning known as ‘total emersion.’ I had a basic grammatical foundation so I spoke only Italian, watched t.v and as a workout made my way through the convoluted journo-speak of Italian newspapers.

Now after twelve years of living, working and interacting with Italy I can say I am a fluent speaker but I still feel insecure as I lack a certain level of academic or intellectual polish. I’d love to write in Italian but I am lost when it comes to the conditional tense which is used to express opinions, wishes and hypothetical ideas. Those pesky reflexive verbs give me the creeps as do feminine and masculine word endings and other tricky stuff which doesn’t exist in English.

Santo Stefano Ceramics

I’m trapped in the present tense and simple past participles as my grammar is very basic. It’s enough to get by and understand the world around me but I hope to study more to wrestle this monster that is Italian language.

Not to mention what it’s doing to my English! I often reverse my syntax and it seems I’m inventing my own personal dialect. When I can’t think of the word in English I will throw in an Italian one into the mix. I think I may be accidentally teaching my young son pigeon.

My son has begun to attend school here so I can always learn Italian with him as Italian school children study truck loads of grammar. Most high schools who are geared to preparing students for university do Latin, which is like the ultimate grammatical workout for Romance languages. Could I go back to High School? Hummm, perhaps I should simply invest in an online language course!

One thing is for certain, you never truly finish learning a language and there are no secrets to it, you simply need to dive in or else you will lose your independence.

And above all ‘Nil carborundum illegitimi’ (Don’t let the bastards get you down) as everyone has their own special way of acquiring language it’s an individual journey, enjoy it!

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Sicilian word of the day: Scirocco

 

The sun burnt landscape of the countryside near Nicosia, Enna.
The sun burnt landscape of the countryside near Nicosia, Enna.

 

The scirocco is an infernal African air current from the desert who whips up the heat in the Mediterranean to unbearable levels during the summer . If this hot wind is still the day is pleasant but if it is on the prowl it makes the air too hot to breathe.

Someone who is sciroccato has fallen victim to the scirocco, literally withered and windswept by the arid breeze. A victim of this Sahara based hurricane isn’t a good sight to behold, tired out, dehydrated and perpetually perspiring. The best cure is to bathe in the cool sea, find some shade under a beach umbrella, drink plenty of water and wait for the first rains of August.

In Italian someone who is sciroccato is a dazed and confused person who behaves in a bizarre and incomprehensible manner.

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Sicilian’s flare for uttering profanities

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When I was a child I had an Uncle who was terribly capricious, a real joker (he still is until this day) and he took great pleasure in teaching my brother and I all the colourful Italian swear words possible. 

My Uncle thought it was all terribly funny and hoped we’d use them in front of our mother who as a former primary school teacher would be appropriately shocked.

I recently read an article which suggested people who use swear words have down to earth, truthful and logical personalities and using bad language has nothing to do with being bad mannered as traditionally thought.

Cussing is really about being to the point and realistic and simply being rude. This is an interesting take on the subject and I have found people I know who use ‘colorful language’ are genuinely no nonsense types who cut through political correctness with a knife and get to the rough truth below ornamental politeness.

 COSI language collage

I’m not looking for an excuse to launch into a litany of four letter words but when it’s needed and apt ‘cuss’ can be more powerful than all the words in a thesaurus.

I have discovered Sicilians have a particular flare for inventing swear words, curses and such phrases, mixing everything with a pinch of blaspheme for good measure.

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My education in vivid ‘Siculu’ cursing has come about thanks to the Sicilian men surrounding me, who could probably write many volumes dedicated to this particular lexicon!

I have heard swear words that are so offensive they would make a sailor blush, I have even heard women use particular words regularly which refer to male and female genitalia.

Sicilian and Italian swearing combines the holy and profane which kicks and spits out venom onto Saints, the Virgin Mary and God himself. I am not going to write any swears here but I will filter them to give you an idea of what I mean (people easily offended can skip the following paragraph.)

When things go wrong Sicilians curse the Saints and certain body parts (usually genitalia), the Madonna and certain animals (mostly pigs) and if they want to be particularly offensive it gets more personal with references to ‘your sisters privates.’

There I said it, I have never heard such colorful cuss words as here in Sicily, it’s ‘profanely’ confusing!

Thanks to the Sicilian’s curses I’ve learn the filthiest words possible about certain body parts, the names of animals, apparently animals with horns are particularly offensive as they refer to ‘cuckold’ men (an archaic term in English referring to a husband with an adulterous wife). Ridiculing Saints seems to be a popular way of insulting others and letting off steam when things are not going your way.

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Images c/o: http://youngadventuress.com/ and http://italianowithjodina.com/

 

Picking up a Sicilian vocabulary

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Lately I’ve noticed a new development with my language skills. I think I’m going native. Many missionaries from past centuries wrote of how after years of living with a foreign culture and language they have felt like a constant outsider until the day when they realise their tongue has somehow assimilate elements of the local dialect, to make them connect and communicate in a way that they almost feel like part of the local community.

This is a new stage of language acquisition for me, like dreaming in another language. I find I dream in both Italian and English, mostly in English and never in Sicilian.

Well I’ve inadvertently begun to insert certain Sicilian phrases and words while talking to locals and I haven’t been met with hysterical laughter or suggestions to stick to standard Italian.

 Manago' Ceramics Taormina

I can hear my mother crying out in tears, ‘But she used to have such a beautiful Florentine accent!’

Do not worry Mum, I am learning more Italian every day, but I have discovered it’s fine to pick up new accents and understanding different dialects is helping me to discover new elements of Italian culture.

The Sicilian dialect has a long and proud history which dates back even before the Florentine school. Sicilian’s were writing poetry and sonnets long before Dante or Shakespeare and their language incorporates many elements of European and Middle Eastern cultures.

Sicilian is part Arabic, French,Germanic, Spanish and North African, incorporating different elements of many civilizations and wisdoms.

I grew up listening to an archaic form of Sicilian which my maternal grandparents spoke and combined with English. Today Sicilian has melded more with the standard or ‘Tuscan’ Italian but the sounds are still similar to me.

Sicilian puppets always an evergreen!

As a child I used to spit out ‘nozzuli’ from grapes and would get ‘spine’ stuck in my fingers from the rose bushes.

Nowadays if I speak to the people in my Sicilian neighborhood I sprinkle my phrases with a local accent and convert the verbs into Sicilian.

Photo by Rochelle Del Borrello
Photo by Rochelle Del Borrello

I say things like:

Amunini – instead of andiamo (lets go)

Shalare – instead of divertire (to have fun)

Capiste – instead of capisce (do you understand)

Cosa facchiste? – instead of che cosa hai fatto? (what did you do?)

Cosa succediu? – instead of che cose’ successo? (what happened?)

Scantare – instead of spaventare (to be afraid)

I’m far from fluent but I understand every word and find it fascinating to listen to even if I am still not Sicilian.

Strangely enough Sicilians have a real problem with my name, Rochelle is simply too foreign for them and Del Borrello despite seeming to be Italian sounds too Spanish for them, I am often mistaken for a ‘Borello’ which is a local family who run a local restaurant. So despite my learning their language I’m still very much an outsider.

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N.B: Sicilian unfortunately is considered a dying language because it is no longer read or written extensively. Apparently when a language is only spoken without a certain level of grammatical knowledge or development it is in danger of disappearing, which would be a terrible tragedy. I thank goodness for organizations like: Arbasicula a journal of Sicilian Folklore and Literature edited by Gaetano Cipolla based at St John’s University Languages and Literatures Department in New York, it is a non-profit International Organization promoting the language and culture of Sicily. Arba Sicula is published both in English and Sicilian and is such a worthwhile project, offering a way of recording this ancient language.

Finding your bearings with language

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Well, I survived my latest translation job. I have to give it all a read through today and send it off tomorrow. With the aid of a translating program I ran the science article through to literally translate it word for word and then spent the week going through it all.

The pieces of the elaborate puzzle took a while to come together as scientific reports are so long winded, repetitive and filled with jargon.

There were many moments when I just went WTF and had no idea where to start, like when I read this phrase:

‘He highlighted the importance of microbiota acquisition from mothers prior to or during delivery that provide first stimuli for the maturation of the intestinal immune system and development and conveyed that establishment of microbiome contributes to the maintenance of intestinal homeostasis and mucosal barrier function and any aberrations in that may lead to non-optimal microbiota and predispose them to subsequent diseases.’

Other times I was surprised by my own ability to nail a sentence without pouring over a dictionary like this little beauty:

‘Microbial symbionts have been evolutionary adapted to provide the required organic compounds (essential amino acids, vitamins) and the ability to obtain energy from different sources.’

Or my translation:

‘Nel evoluzione i microbi simbiotici hanno la capacita’ di fornire la necessaria composti organici (aminoacidi essenziali, vitamine) e possano prendere energia da fonti diverse.’

I kept myself amused by learning the Italian words for gastroenteritis, diarrhea, gut, carrier, brain storm, networking, long term well being, etc.

I had a little laugh when the translating program translated the word for ‘stools’ as the defecation sense into the word ‘sgabelli’ which is in the sitting down sense, two very different meanings!

On the whole my job was a healthy mental work out and while I was undertaking it I couldn’t wait to get it over and done with, but now that it’s done I can see the benefits!

Next time I’d like to reserve my skills for the translation of some beautiful prose or poetry. It would be lovely to translate a beautiful new Italian author into english, like D.H Lawrence did for the poetry of Salvatore Quasimodo. Now that would be an awesome gig, sharing something new with an english audience. I wish!!

After my last post I was asked how long it took me to become fluent in Italian and how I got there. The thing about learning languages is it has to be done with a certain level of passion and determination as the learning never ends.

I suggest to start off with some kind of formal language course with a mother tongue speaker and when you get a good foundation of the grammar the rest is up to you.

To become a good speaker of a language when you immerse yourself completely in the new language, watch the t.v programs,write new words and phrases down, try to read the newspaper and mix with native speakers. Don’t be shy of trying and make as many mistakes as possible, as it’s the best way to learn and you will get plenty of help as people love to see foreigners trying to speak their language.

If you want to write in a new language then read everything you can get your hands onto, do plenty of translations and try to do as many professional language courses as you can as this will take you much longer.

As with most things in life the rewards will be seen in the long run.

Unwilling expat

Antipodean Endearments: Homesick for Australia

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Expansive Australian Sky in the Swan Valley, Western Australia.
© Rochelle Del Borrello 2013

I recently found an old diary of mine with a list of things I miss about my hometown Perth, Australia and concerns I had for myself as a new expat in a non english speaking country.

The list is nearly a decade old written when I first moved to Sicily and I am amazed at how naive it is, I certainly had a romanticized idea of Australia. Reading this list made me realise how homesickness is caused by an inability to let go, like all forms of depression or grief. Home is where I make it and it is contained within myself, it is no longer a place I write elegies for.

The main part of feeling homesick for me nowadays has to do with friends and family they are the main things I miss. I do my best to keep in touch thanks to blogging and social networks and if I feel particularly in need of hearing an Australian accent I surprise my friends with a phone call or Skype call.

In my diary entry I was being terribly honest and expressing real concerns about being an expat living in Italy so I thought I’d share.

Here is the full diary entry:

Coming back to my house in Sicily I write a list of the things I miss most about home in Perth, Australia.

● The expansive sky which makes up half the landscape, together with the flat stretch of the terrain, full of endless space and possibilities. This broadness in the landscape is echoed in the broad Australian accent, the relaxed life style and in the space to be yourself.

● The wild nature of the countryside, like an unconquered land: bare, sandy and endless in its vast and expansive nakedness.

● Listening to the radio in my car, the music I love.

● The books and bookshops I love to browse in.

● Sleepy Sunday afternoons listening to chamber music concerts followed by milky coffee in trendy cafés.

● Goofing around with my friends and my brother.

● The cooling sensation and freedom of walking bare foot in summer.

● The smell of summer mornings, crisp and cool. The smell of the baked earth which has cooled during the night like the aroma of an exotic new dish being roasted in the oven.

● The wild flowers, banksias, kangaroo paws, gum nuts, desert peas, wattle. The exciting alien Australian vegetation I have grown up with, which looks like something invented by a props master for a science fiction film from the nineteen sixties.

● The freedom of taking off in my car on wide easy streets, uncrowded by confusion and uninterrupted by traffic. The road which promises to distract you away from your problems by giving you the freedom you need in that uniquely expansive space which stretches out to the remote horizon.

● The flatness, the broad endless land. Seeing the Perth city lights in the distance, glowing in the night sky. The blue florescent incandescence from the tops of skyscrapers that mark the highest point in the C.B.D. They shine like halos of imaginary angels. In my memory the mirage of the city is so close, like reaching out for the end of the rainbow just out of grasp. Go a little faster, just around the corner and you will see the spectacular Xanadu, city of light, floating above the river, luminous in the dark sky like ghostly sepia shadows in old photos.

● I miss the freedom of feeling like myself. Here I am full of limitations because of my lack of control over the language, myself and this place.

● I miss the multicultural nature of Australia; eating Asian food, enjoying the freedom of having Greek, Italian, Spanish, Indian and African friends. Sicily is painfully mono-cultural with a threatening racist underbelly.

There are changes in me here. I am becoming more introverted, shy and I have no friends like me.

Here I have no tongue. I am learning half a language. In my head there is nothing but half sentences, half ideas, badly expressed. I cannot express myself as I am used to, something that I value with all that I am. It’s as if I’m losing half my identity.

My tongue is broken into small segments like a piece from the once uniform jigsaw of the one universal language represented in the Bible by the story of Babel. When man’s tower of pride tried to surpass heaven, the language shattered into fragments Failing in its endeavour to transcend god the edifice fell to the earth and the once united language became jumbled. Thus the tongues of the world were created, each piece of the tower smashing the languages and dispersing them throughout the globe.

I have a faded memory of this once universal language, yet when I try to speak it the holes in my memory are so great that I only recall small simple words which are insufficient to express the emotions, opinions and memories in my mind. This broken language I own is only enough to express my basic needs, trapping me within myself rather than sending me out into the world of words and expression.

One day, feeling homesick, I start to write, deciding the beginning of my story is the discovery of what Sicily is for me, of my place, or lack of place, within it. I want to write about what Sicily means to me, apart from the alienation, frustration, suffocation, guilt and my struggle with my desperate desire to go home.

Sicily is where part of my origins are, but it isn’t where I want to stay forever. It is a forgotten place, alien to me. My desire to explore it is strong, but I’m tired and ready to leave behind the past to create my own stories instead of hearing other people’s. I resolve to explore everything that I see here, even the ugliness and despair. There is the great beauty here but there is also great ugliness and danger in Sicily too.

Every time I’m back at home in Perth Western Australia I always discover endless possibilities and ideas so much so that I am beginning to believe it is the font of my creativity. Yet when I travel back to Sicily it is with a surreal sense of whimsy. I know how life in Sicily is but when I travel back from Australia it’s like I’ve forgotten everything and I’m making my maiden voyage .

Perhaps Sicily really is the island that robbed Ulysses of ten years on his journey home to Ithaca and I too am under the influence of the same ancient magic spell.

I am tantalised by the conversations of Italian jet setters at Dubai and Bangkok. Their smooth Italian dialogue seduces me and makes me wonder if I’ve been mistaken about Sicily. Whether I’ve missed something more valuable or elusive, a more profound element, like I need to descend deeper into its heart.

I wonder if I’ll find that Sicily has changed as I always find Australia in constant evolution, transforming itself into new suburbs and developments. I want Sicily to be more like Australia. I want to fit easier into its arms, rather than feeling so awkward, isolated and stifled.

Unwilling Expat

Now that I got it all off my chest why not crave something more delicious here: http://wp.me/p2pBNK-4A

and top ten of things I miss here and what I’m going to do to make up for all this moping!!