Spence Hood was an official CEA CAPA blogger for fall 2016, sharing his story in weekly posts on our blog. A computer science major at the University of Colorado (Boulder), he studied abroad in Florence.
In this week's post, Spence shares a few of the most common words and phrases you'll hear on the streets of Florence, their meanings and an appropriate response.
Strolling through the bustling streets here, the senses are left anything but unentertained. I’ve grown to quite enjoy (oddly enough) the smell of cigarettes mixed with cooked meats and sweet pastries wafting out of every other shop, emphasizing the intricacy of this machine of a city that we’re cogs within. I’ve only recently started smiling at all this stimulation, and I’m convinced it has a lot to do with the slowly but surely dissolving language barrier. I now understand maybe 45% of the chatter around me among locals, turning my wonder about all of the exciting, exotic things that a few Italians could be talking about on the streets of Florence into thorough excitement about being in on the joke. I’ve got a long, long way to go of course, but I figured it may help some future Florentines (tourists or otherwise) to list several of the most common Italian expressions being passed around today.
Beforehand, do bear in mind that this is what’s being said (and in this particular way) in Florence. Florence is a city whose residents have a distinct accent according to Italians elsewhere, and who have a distinct way of speaking about things (very similar to cultural and conversational variations between people from different US cities). Let’s dive in.
“Prego” is a wonderful, catch-all word that you’d be hard-pressed to spend longer than a day in the city and not hear about a dozen times. Strictly speaking, the word translates to “you’re welcome”, and thus often follows a “grazie”, but is used much more liberally. Clerks at shops say “prego” to you when you’re next in line (as in “welcome” or “how can I help you”). Kind folks who step out of the way for you on a narrow sidewalk will often whisper a “prego” as well, as if to say “please, after you.” Think of it as a calm reminder that everyone’s happy, everything’s fine, and you don’t need to worry about having given or taking offense.
"Allora”, though without much real meaning, can be heard all the time in Italian conversation. Think of it as the Italian’s version of “um” or “well then” or “alright”. I still don’t confidently know how to use this word in my own speech, but it’s just a pleasant filler when others use it to separate two thoughts.
“Come stai?” or “Come va?” are easy ones - they mean “How are you?” and “How’s it going?” respectively. If asked this by a cashier or shop clerk, come back with “Tutto bene” (“everything’s good”).
“Va via” could really come in handy. Here’s to hoping you don’t have to use this phrase, but it’s pretty effective if you do. This is a rather stern, borderline rude way of saying “Go away.” With thousands and thousands of tourists come hundreds of street salesmen peddling selfie sticks, roses, and tacky jewelry. They like to hang out around main squares and attractions and approach tourists shamelessly to try and make a sale (I’ve even seen them weave through tables in outdoor seating areas of restaurants - rather disruptive of a nice evening if you ask me). Some of these salesmen can also be fairly stubborn, dangling their products in front of someone’s face until they’ve said “no” about a dozen times. I’ve only heard this phrase used rarely, and only in this situation where a bothersome salesman will not quit pestering someone or a group of people. It does, however, appear to do the trick.
If you’re looking to meet some locals, you’ll have to get names out of the way by asking “Come ti chiami”, which strictly translates to “what do you call yourself”. If asked this in return, you’ll want to say “Mi chiami (insert name here)”. If you’ve got a smile on and are at least feigning an Italian accent, the residents here tend not to mind getting a little personal like this.
This list could go on for another hundred paragraphs, but these expressions should help to get anyone started. As mentioned just above, a little effort in the way of an accent really does go a long way. Anybody can find a Rick Steves article and spend 5 minutes memorizing some phrases, but they often sound so americanized anyway that shop clerks just respond in English to make things go faster. I’ve found that speaking the same way as the locals comes across much more graciously, and is the approach I highly recommend. Happy Ciao-ing!
Spence's journey continues every Monday so stay tuned.