When my wife and I made the decision to ditch our careers in Canada to start a tour company and vacation villa in the Abruzzo Region of Italy, we knew that we would have to learn a lot of different skills.
For me, the top priority was the language. Our operations would be in English as most of our customers would come from North America and the UK, but the business language in Italy, especially southern Italy, is Italian.
We’d been going to Italy yearly since 2006 since we reconnected with my wife Lisa Grassi-Blais’ extended family in the Apennine mountain village of San Sebastiano about 120 kilometres east of Rome. And I had taken a beginner Italian course in Ottawa, so I had developed a very basic understanding of the language.
I could understand the dinner specials in a restaurant, most of the time, follow directions when I got lost, and order a beer, but that was about it. As far as speaking goes, periodically after a few glasses of wine, I would unleash a mixture of Italian, French, Spanish, English, hand gestures, facial expressions and charades on unsuspecting people and hope for the best.
Sometimes it worked. Most times it didn’t. Often, people were mildly amused with my bizarre approach and simply ignored me as you would a crazy or drunk person spouting nonsense. I was quaint.
However, a few times my language skills prompted different reactions.
This included outright hilarity like the time I thought I was ordering “penne” arrabbiata (pasta that looks like a pen with spicy tomato sauce) but instead ordered “peni” arrabbiata, which translates into angry penises, or even better, hot and spicy penises, depending on the context.
It didn’t help that when I first said this, I took the waiter’s stunned silence as confusion, so I repeated it five or six times while making hand signals showing a pen – or phallic symbol depending on your perspective on the matter. The waiter eventually couldn’t contain himself any more, burst out laughing and had to leave the table. He disappeared into the kitchen and returned with the chef to whom, in frustration and confusion, I dutifully repeated my desire for angry penises.
“Peni arrabbiata?” he asked incredulously.
“Si, peni arrabbiata,” I insisted.
At that point, they started laughing so hard, they had to support each other to keep from falling down. When they were able to catch their breath, they bailed me out by explaining my mistake.
As other diners in the restaurant watched, they repeated “penne” while holding a pen and “peni” while pointing to their crotches and making dick gestures.
When the food came, the waiter continued the joke asking several times if I liked the penises, were they hot enough, were the penises at this restaurant different from other penises in other places etc.
This was not an isolated example either. I once mixed up liver (fegato) and cheated (fregato) in a conversation with a contractor. For about five minutes, I kept repeating “I don’t want to be liver. I don’t want to be liver. I want the same price as everybody else. Don’t liver me.” For the life of me, I couldn’t understand why he switched the topic to blood tests, cutting down on alcohol, and that there was a good doctor in town.
I also once repeated an unmentionable sexual-religious expression in polite company because I though it was only a mild curse. (I am very sorry Mother Mary. I do not really think you are like that.)
And I’m pretty sure a couple local ladies from our town of Torre de’Passeri are still talking about their encounter with me while they were out for a walk in the summer of 2015. They stopped as they were passing by and said that they liked the work we were doing on the villa. I thought I was being polite by offering to bring them inside and show them the bedrooms in our villa, but by the looks on their faces and just how fast they walked away, I could tell they thought I was interested in showing them a hell of a lot more than just the bedrooms.
So, that was enough of that.
If I was going to make it in Italy, I couldn’t have people thinking I was a spicy penis eating, womanizer, anti-Catholic jerk with a liver problem.
I needed to go to school.
Next week: This is not what I expected.