Sicilian saying of the day: gossiping

Sicilian rock partridge

A pirnici canta tri voti io iornu e sempri a danno so

The partridge sings three times a day and always to his own disadvantage.

Another beautiful natural image, this time of a wild bird widely hunted throughout Sicily and seen as a metaphor for the unattractive habit of malicious human gossip.

Any suggestions for an english equivalent?

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By the way the Sicilian rock partridge is native to Sicily.

Conversations with Elio Vittorini and his critics

Elio Vittorini

Elio Vittorini’s Conversations in Sicily has been on my reading list for a while and I was delighted to find the original english translation in the Amazon Kindle store compete with an introduction from Ernest Hemingway so I immediately snapped it up.

However for some unknown reason it was never delivered and after several emails I never got any help or explanation why. Since my credit card was never debited for the purchase I simply dug out my Italian paperback version and I am eternally grateful I did.

Conversazione in Sicilia is such an enigmatic work, at times I loved it and lived the pleasure of this natural conversation between elderly mother and grown up child, between Sicily and Sicilian, yet other times I got lost in the complicated connections, the shorthand, repetition and long windedness of the dialogue confused me. These conversations, like many real ones are fleeting, flippant, mundane and they slip beyond our grip and understanding.

Silvestro is a lost and disillusioned Sicilian living in Milan who gets a letter from his father saying he has left his mother and so he clumsily journeys back down to the island guided by a mixture of nostalgia and indignation for life.

The journey of a long lost Sicilian son who has moved away from his beloved island for many years, retraces his steps back down to his Mediterranean home recalling the harsh desert landscape of the summers in his childhood near Syracuse. Silvestro finds his mother deep in winter hibernation entrenched in timeless Sicula habits, eating food gathered from the countryside, telling mundane personal and family stories, using the ancient dialect, she is a stoic aging Sicilian woman filled with pride, yet with the defeats of life accumulating before her.

Listening into the discussion is like hearing real Sicilians talking, few words are used, they are repeated often, at times there is latent anger or the energy of a forceful interrogation, yet the intonation and energy of the human spirit behind them gives them compelling meaning.

Reading Vittorini’s work in Italian turned out to be a blessing as I think this would be terribly difficult to translate, the cadences of the conversation could be easily lost and the historical context is also tantamount to the correct reading of Conversazione in Sicilia.

We are talking about Fascist Italy and Sicily, a period of great upheaval, Vittorini reflects the disillusionment of his generation, the intellectual wasteland created by the Fascist regime. Silvestro is a victim of ‘estranged furies,’ a sense of loss and slavery, life has lost its meaning, hence the return to his past in the hope of finding some piece of mind.

Elio Vittorini himself (1908-1966) was an influential voice in the Italian modernist school, Conversations is his best known work and he was jailed when it was published in 1941 for its subversive nature. Vittorini was born in Syracuse and moved often around Sicily with his father who worked on the railway. He often ran away from home, leaving Sicily permanently in 1924, eventually settling in Florence. Vittorini’s work began to be published in journals from 1927 and many of his novels and short stories were not published until after the second world war due to Fascist censorship. He learnt English and in 1939 moved to Milan, translating many english language writers works into Italian, including D.H Lawrence, E.A Poe, Faulkner, Galsworthy, Steinbeck and Defoe (some of which also had a profound influence on his own work.)

Peeling away the layers of Silvestro’s train journey down to Sicily in Conversations there are motifs of poetry which takes the reader into the memories of his personal past to witness the discrepancies between memory and real life. The protagonist’s Sicily lives very much in his own memory, a personal myth filled with romanticized memories from the Shakespearian quoting father, to the music of the crickets in the summer and the Zampogne Sicilian bagpipes played during the festive season.

The ambiguous nature of Vittorini’s Conversazione has created scores of interpretations of this book, which adds a wonderful element of depth to this work. Some critics see Silvestro as a mythological hero going through a journey of self discovery akin to Ulysses from Homer’s Odyssey, while others see it as a political work with anti fascist undertones and references to the Spanish civil war, there is also a wave of critics who say the work is echoes the works Vittorini was translating in the same period including Faulkner, Hemingway, Lawrence and Eliot.

What I experiences was a wonderfully concise piece of literature which captures the voice and spirit of a mystifying Sicily while commenting on the contradictions in the Italian society of the fascist period in Italy, like the Italy of today it can be confusing, mind boggling yet ultimately intriguing.

Vittorini has now become one of my Italian literature favorites together with Quasimodo, Pirandello, Verga and Tomasi di Lampedusa. I look forward to discovering evermore in this amazingly rich oeuvre…

 

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For more reading see Michael Dubdin’s review for The Guardian and Conversations in Sicily is Sicily is available through Amazon.

There is also this fine essay about Vittorini by Eric Darton on Frigatezine.

Sicilian saying of the day: the humble jackass

 

Piazza Armerina, Enna

U sceccu porta sempri u barduni

A donkey always carries the load.

Yet another folk saying to do with the humble donkey, a symbol of hard work and stubbornness.

Simply put, a jackass will always be an ass.

Hummmm, a leopard doesn’t change its spots, simply doesn’t have the same directness does it!?!?

For the record a ‘barduni’ is a type of saddle especially made for donkeys to carry heavy weight and keep the animal from being distracted as they apparently can be quite feisty and single minded.

 

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Sicilian saying of the day: Bad habits

 

Sicilian donkeys

U sceccu chi si mancia a fichera u viziu si lu lava quannu mori.

The donkey who eats figs is only rid of the habit when he dies.

The humble donkey used to be the work animal of choice in Sicily, able to carry heavy loads and negotiate the mountain terrain common on the island it was a source of pride of every farming family. But a donkey who ate the figs off the fig tree was a real pain as the precious fig was a major part of the Sicilian’s die,t dried out in the sun they were preserved and served as a valuable nourishment in the harsh winters of the last century.

So the Sicilian agricultural and natural world gives us this metaphor, someone who has a bad habit will never give it up.

A guess for an English equivalent … a leopard never changes it’s spots.

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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.

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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’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.

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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.

Literary Islands: Giovanni Verga

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Most language students who study Italian at university level are familiar with Giovanni Verga as his short stories in the simple realist style are a perfect introduction to Italian Literature as they are easy for first year students to follow.

Verga’s short tale Cavalleria Rusticana was made into an opera libretto which together with the music of Mascagni makes up part of the popular Italian repertoire to this day. Another short story La Lupa was developed into a full length play by David Lanfor for the Royal Shakespeare Company. There are also several film adaptations of Verga’s work so he is still very much a vibrant part of modern culture today.

Verga has many full length works that are more challenging to get through, some I still haven’t found the time to read, yet one which has found a place in my heart is the world of small town Sicilian fisher men in I Malavoglia, translated in English as ‘The house by the Medals Tree.’ I prefer the Italian name of the Malavoglia, the surname or rather nickname of the starving family so sick of being poor that their very name literally reflects how uneasy, cursed and sickened they are of their own poverty.

What draws me into the world of this rustic village is the energy of the local dialect which is liberally sprinkled through the original Italian text. The vibrant Sicilian voice has its own vivacious energy, an innate determination to withstand anything the world throws at it. There is so much wisdom, love, hate, eternal energy and strength in those quips, sayings and pieces of advice which permeate the local conversations.

The quintessential impertinent nature of the Sicilian nature has been captured perfectly by Verga’s language. It is intriguing to read and enter into the insidious way everyone talks and criticizes one another in irreverent small town chatter.

The fate of the Malavoglia is tied to the destiny of their island, they are irrevocably connected to Sicily that any effort to move away or improve themselves is somehow doomed to fail. Their restlessness is subdued by their inevitability of their destiny to remain firmly in the village playing out their part in the insular life of Sicily.

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There is an exciting new translation of The House of the Medlar Tree (I Malavoglia) published by the University of California Press, translated by Raymond Rosenthal which I think would make a beautiful addition for anyone looking for additions to their library.

D.H Lawrence was also a lover of Verga’s prose and translated his short stories as the Little Novels of Sicily, they are a little clumsy sounding but are readily available as part of Lawrence’s complete works on Amazon kindle.

 

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(Image from Google images)