An ode to a donkey

Sicilian donkeys on a mountain road

 

I am in love with the humble Sicilian donkey which once were something of a status symbol in the agricultural based Sicilian culture of last century. These animals are no longer seen much around the island as they are mainly kept by hobby farmers and those with a passion for animals.

I was absolutely thrilled to hear a wonderful folk song in praise of the donkey which has quickly become my five year old sons favorite ditty to sing. It is an old Sicilian song from the period when donkeys were readily found around the island, a poor farmer has lost his beloved ‘siccareddu’ who has been killed. The words are quite heartfelt … ‘what a great voice he [the donkey] had, he seemed a great tenor, my beloved donkey, and when he sang he went [braying sound], how can I ever forget you.’

Poignant stuff.

Man riding on a donkey province of Messina

It is hilarious song, my son bray’s his heart out in the chorus, it’s truly wonderful.

A heartfelt ode to a Donkey in Sicilian, Italian and English.

U sciccareddu / L’asinello / Donkey  

Avia nu sciccareddu / Avevo un’ asinello / I had a little donkey

davveru sapuritu / davvero saporito / really special

ora mi l’ammazzaru / adesso me l’hanno ammazzato / and now it’s been killed

poviru sceccu miu / povero asino mio / my poor little donkey.

Chorus:

Chi bedda vuci avia / Che bella voce aveva / What a beautiful voice he had

paria nu gran tinuri / pareva un gran tenore / he seemed like a great tenor

sciccareddu di lu me cori / asinello del mio cuore / donkey of my heart

comu ju t’hai a scurdari / come ti potrò mai scordare / how can I ever forget you

e quannu cantava facia: / e quando cantava faceva: / and when he sung he went:

iha, iha, iha… / iha, iha, iha… / hee-haw, hee-haw, hee-haw

sciccareddu di lu me cori / asinello del mio cuore / donkey of my heart

comu ju t’hai a scurdari / come ti potrò mai scordare / how can I ever forget you?

Quannu ‘ncuntrava ‘ncumpagnu / Quando incontrava un compagno / When he met another friend

subitu lu ciarava / subito lo odorava / he would get along with him

e dopu lu raspava / e dopo lo grattava / and he would caress him

ccu granni carità / con grande carità / with great tenderness

(Chorus)

Here are two versions I found on You Tube, the first is a traditional interpretation complete with extensive and impressive donkey braying the second is a more serious Operatic interpretation by American tenor Charles Castronovo which shows how versatile Sicilian music can be.

 

 

 

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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.

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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Sicilian saying of the day: Learning

 

Olives 2015

U lignu si torci quannu e’ virdi

 

Literally the wood is moulded when it is green.

Sicilian wisdom is practical, true and often uses metaphors from the natural world.

This phrase is symbolic of the islands basic ‘folk wisdom.’

In fact habits and character are best moulded in youth.

 

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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 the 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) flavour 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:
‘You’re 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 truckloads 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? Hmmm, 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.