Friday, April 18, 2008


When a friend sends you an email, part of which says, and I quote: "We are still waiting for your several times announced visit to Florence," you know you need to get on a cheapo easyjet flight asap. It'd be terribly rude not to, after all.

I found this Italian phrase book, which I think belonged to my grandmother. There's no date on it but it is very certainly from the days of the British Empire, when the sun never set on British soil etc etc. Oh yes, we just blundered around bossing Johnny Foreigner about and maybe giving him a good clip round the ear if he was impertinent.

While this little book has given me hysterical giggles, it also made me feel incredibly uncomfortable about how British people used to treat the rest of the world. Every phrase is an imperious command. Really there's not a per favore or per piacere to be found. I can't imagine my sweet little Granny ever ordering anyone around like that. And the complaining! Often I'm aware of how the world still views the British, but my experience doesn't tally. It all makes sense now.

So here, I give you a few choice phrases from How to Get All You Want When Travelling in Italy.

I will tie the umbrellas together.
(Desidero unire insieme questi ombrelli.)
Why? Is that really something so crucial it merits inclusion in a tiny phrasebook?

Ask the sleeping-car attendant to come to me here.
(Dica all'impiegato dei vagoni-letto di venir qui.)

Send the page-boy to me.
(Mi mandi il ragazzo.)
Sounds a bit dodgy to me.

And now, the draughts section. These are only a few examples of the terror of draughts in a warm Mediterranean country:

There is too great a draught.
(C'e troppa corrente.)

Do you feel the draught?
(Sente la corrente?)

I do not mind a slight draught.
(Una leggera corrente non mi da noia.)

There is a terrible draught.
(C'e una forte corrente.)

Porter! Take my luggage to the custom-house.
(Facchino! Porti i miei baggagli alla dogana.)
Not a per favore in sight.

We shall certainly complain to the British Consul.
(Noi reclameremo certamente al console britannico.)
You don't say.

In the "Hiring a Taxi" section, the xenophobic fear of Italian taxi drivers becomes a tad hysterical:

Your meter appears to be out of order.
(Il suo tassametro sembra che non funzioni bene.)

I shall not pay this amount.

(Non paghero questo ammontare.)

We shall not pay more.

(Non pagheremo di piu.)

We are giving you a great deal too much.
(Noi le diamo gia molto di piu.)

Let us call a policeman.
(Chiamiamo un agente.)

I haven't even started on the "in a restaurant" section. All the things that could possibly be wrong with food, table placement or staff are thoroughly covered. My Italian is too rusty to pick up the subtleties in language that make the phrases sound wrong in modern English. The book uses "desidero" for I want, which I don't think I've ever used. Apart from that I wouldn't notice any difference. I guess I always think of Italian being a more formal language, whereas the way English people speak now is so casual it's like a constant apology. I might take the book to Italy and see if it stops me getting so ripped off by taxi drivers.


ruth-anne said...

very funny..
all ending in 'let us call a policeman!' ;

Anonymous said...

i don't think it is so much a question of xenophobia but rather, the author of the book probably was ripped off by a cabbie one too many in italy...hehehe but tis true....hehehe it does end with "let us call a policeman". nancy

Juliet said...

Well... At least the picture that the rest of the world has from Brits is better than what the rest of the world think of us Finns. As people think that we just sit at home, drink vodka, wear hats of fur , be shut up and think about suicide...

Lola Is Beauty said...

Juliet have you seen the Jim Jarmusch film "Night on Earth?" It has a whole section in Helsinki with a Finnish taxi driver and every passenger is exactly the stereotypes you mentioned! (It's very funny though and does exactly the same to other cities) At least through blogs we can realise that Finns are very stylish and chic actually!

Bombay Beauty said...

Brilliant! No need to worry: bossy British tourists have long been replaced by loud Americans, then tour-group Japanese, then over-styled Europeans loving the Timberland look... But I have it on good authority that the next wave will be Indian and Chinese tourists. Don't know much about the latter, but I can tell you about the former. They will be known for looking for an Indian restaurant in whichever city they end up in, in always crossing the street in the wrong place, and entering through the exit... I'd better stop while there are still a few people in the world I haven't offended! BB

Anonymous said...

BB is right! The tone of your little gem of a book reminds me more of loud Americans than -generally- polite British (except when they are drunk).

la femme said...

brilliant :)

Julia said...

That is the funniest thing ever!!!

Badaude said...

Ha Ha, how hilarious! I was in Italy last week (I am now back in Paris) and have just posted on COMPLETELY LOSING IT with a street seller in the Piazza Navona. Maybe I should just have consulted your post and called for the bell-boy...

paola said...

Actually the Italians say please and thank you much less than we do. Whenever I go to Italy I always feel excessively polite.

And my aunt (from the north, but who lived in Naples for many years) would consider that vocabulary entirely appropriate for interacting with Neapolitan taxi drivers.

Lola Is Beauty said...

BB & Mia: Yes, I suppose the disturbing thing is that we British used to be the Imperial bullies long before I was born...maybe that's why we're always saying sorry now...

paola: My exchanges with Neapolitan taxi drivers have been more along the lines of "Oh my god, slow down, we're going to die, you can't possibly fit between that bus, those three cars and the gaggle of nuns crossing the road." Ah, Naples, where five lanes of traffic squeeze into two.

perfect bound said...

Less talking and more eating! I purchased what I now realize is the audio version of this book and attempted to brush up on my language while driving. Giggles galore! But it all sounds so lovely. Enjoy!