Io non so niente

Although I primarily speak and write in English, I am a bit of a language magpie, collecting words and phrases wherever I encounter them.  These days, I speak enough French to get by in Paris, enough Spanish to struggle through my bilingual Bible, enough Yiddish to entertain myself, and enough Italian to humiliate myself thoroughly.  That is to say, I speak none of these languages at all well, but perhaps better than many Americans do.

When I was working in Italy, I asked one of my coworkers how to say “I am a manager” in Italian.  He smiled, and said “Io non so niente.”  Literally translated:  I know nothing.  From the perspective of a shipyard worker, this was probably an accurate translation.  While the Spanish “no se nada” flows more readily from my tongue, both phrases have become integrated into my English-language conversations for the past few decades.old-spice

But I’m not here to talk about Italy, or even management.  I’m here to talk about body wash.

A few years ago, I started using Old Spice body wash in my shower.  I don’t know if it gets me any cleaner than plain old soap, but my wife likes the scent, and keeping her happy is a primary CTQ in my morning routine.

Recently I was reading the back of the bottle and noticed that the sales pitch is presented there bilingually in English and French, presumably because I live so close to Quebec.  The final phrase (and its translation) caught my eye:

Drop-kicks dirt, then slams odor with a folding chair.

Lutte contre la saleté et les odeurs et les envoie au tapis pour le compte grâce a une impitoyable savate japonaise.

Google translate has a really hard time interpreting this French expression, primarily because it contains two idioms:  “compte grâce”, which is a variant on “coup de grâce”, or “knockout blow”, and “savate japonaise”, which is the French term for karate.  I suspect it’s an appropriate translation for the English that precedes it, which is equally idiomatic.  Both carry militant masculine notes that would carry well with their target audience.  The WWE reference to chair shots is so well-known in the US that it even shows up as a joke in Shrek.

Recently, I’ve been doing some world building for a society that practices matrilineal inheritance, like the Minangs of Sumatra.  Since it’s a desert society, I’ve been trying to work Pinglish names and terms into the cultural backstory.  Imagine Iran with all of its benefits, but with an egalitarian society where all property is owned by women, and you’ll see why I find the idea so appealing.

Still, my struggles translating the body wash bottle have me worried.  Farsi is a right-to-left language with a font my brain simply doesn’t want to parse into distinct letters, and while there are several nice online tools that will translate Pinglish into Farsi, I haven’t found one that will go the other way.  And the most important things, culturally, for which I would hope to use a Farsi term, are concepts that are best translated idiomatically.  I suspect this is going to be a long road, and I hope I can get there without mangling the language too badly.


The Continuing Effects of a Good Reputation

The year was 1950, and Italy was rebuilding after the Second World War.  In the small working-class city of Mestre, a girl was growing up. Like much of Italy, Mestre had its share of American soldiers. They came with money to spend in their caffes, and they brought gifts:  candy for the children, and silk stockings for the ladies.  She had received some of each over the years, and while the young soldiers would often ask for a dance or an evening of conversation, they never demanded anything she was unwilling to give.  Perhaps it was an order from their commanding officer that held them back, or perhaps it was simply a difference in culture, but these young men seemed almost shy when they were around her.autobus-mestre

Fifty years later, the girl had become an old woman. She had married and raised children, who in turn married and had children of their own. Finally her husband died, and she was alone again.

One day while returning from the market, she stepped aboard the bus to return home. The bus was full, as it always was that time of day, but a young man rose upon seeing her and motioned for her to take his seat. Once he saw her seated, the young man lifted his gaze to stare out the window at the passing shops. The man seemed so peculiar, both in appearance and behavior.

Sitting there, it all came back–the soldiers after the war, and how they had treated her family. She looked up at the young man, his hair tousled, his clothing so different from what the other young men in town were wearing.

“American?” she asked.

“Yes,” he replied, and blushed.  She gave the man a gentle smile, and he looked off into the distance again.

Unlike most of my personal stories, the background on this one is mostly fabricated, but I was that man.  Somewhere in history an American soldier was kind to a local girl in post-war Italy, and I have reaped the gratitude he deserved.

It makes me wonder what kindness I can do that someone else may win that gentle smile.

Photo of an  autobus in Mestre cropped from “IRISBUS_ACTV.JPG“, licensed under attribution via Wikimedia Commons.

La Paninoteca

On Via Industrie, near the Fincantieri shipyard, there was a small paninoteca to which the shipyard employees would often go for lunch. Though the other Americans on site often chose a fancier place to eat, I walked there every day because of its proximity and because its prices met my limited budget.

Bread and Mortadella from "momentaneamente" blog. Not quite the same sandwich, but close.Before I could even open my mouth to place my order, the shopkeeper would often recite from memory what I wanted to eat: “doppio prosciutto e formaggio”. I had learned early to order double meat on my panino[1] if I wanted an American-style sandwich. I only wish I knew how to ask for softer bread.

I will never forget my first day eating at the paninoteca. Even before I entered, the strong smell of grappa wafted through the door. While US businesses, even back then, did not want employees to drink during business hours, these Italian shipyard workers thought nothing of a liquid lunch comprised solely of a shot or two (or more) of hard liquor. It made the shipyard men’s room smell like a bar, and I had to wonder what effect it had on shipyard safety.

Beyond this surprise, however, was the unexpected sight when I first stepped through the door. Adjacent to the far wall stood one of the small round tables so common in European restaurants. There were a pair of shipyard workers seated at the table, the collection of empty shot glasses before them testifying that their lunch break was well underway. Norman Rockwell couldn’t have painted a better scene.

Between the men lay an ashtray, full to overflowing with cigarette butts. Both men were smoking, and as I watched one of them casually lit a fresh cigarette from the one he had just finished before adding the depleted butt to the pile. On the wall above the men hung a sign which read “Vietato Fumare” (smoking prohibited) in bright red letters.

I have since come to believe that Italy is a place where nearly everything is illegal, and few people seem to care. At least they were using the ashtray.


[1] For the benefit of American readers, let me emphasize that the proper word for a sandwich is “panino”.  “Panini”, in Italian, is a plural, and it is not meaningful to order “a panini” any more than you could roll “a dice” or raise “a cattle.”

Do y’all have any Marlots?

Some time ago, I travelled to Venice, Italy, to work on the control system of a cruise ship being constructed at the Fincantieri shipyard in Mestre. While I was there, my customer, G, was asked to dinner by his customer, D. Since D was going to invite a “technical” member of his team (T) to the meal, G wanted to do likewise, to schmooze with him–and therein lay the problem.

During his time in Italy, T had established a reputation for being less than pleasant company. As a result, G’s technical people all demurred when invited to join the dinner, which led to him inviting me. I can schmooze, and I like to eat, so I agreed. I was then asked where we should go, and suggested Da Bepi’s, a nearby seafood restaurant that the team regularly enjoyed.

I see online that Da Bepi’s has mixed reviews, and to some degree, I understand. the two Da Bepi brothers who ran the place (mama stayed in the kitchen) ran the place like a traditional Italian home. You show up, you socialize, you eat what you are given, and you eat a lot. When asked for a menu during my first visit, they told us “you don’t need a menu–you just tell us how hungry you are.” If you want to be in control of your surroundings, Da Bepi’s was not the place for you–but the seafood was excellent.

The four of us arrived at about 7pm to find that the place was full, and we couldn’t get a seat. Apparently my customer, who was planning the event, hadn’t considered making a reservation. This was a problem, because a meal at Da Bepi’s often ran for hours. We weren’t getting a table there any time soon.

Fortunately, there was a third Da Bepi brother, the eldest, who had opened a restaurant of his own across town. The Da Bepi’s called their brother, made us a reservation, and sent us on our way. There is something truly beautiful about Italian hospitality.

The Da Bepi’s brother’s restaurant wasn’t quite as fancy a place, and the four of us sat in a booth for our meal. Still, we were happy to be there, and all went well until the waiter came to ask us for our wine order. T spoke first:

Do y’all have any Marlots?

The waiter was perplexed, and the Americans at the table weren’t faring much better, so T repeated himself. We still had no idea what he was asking. In all fairness, T was a Texan, and his thick drawl didn’t help things any. After a bit of discussion, we were finally able to discern that my customer’s customer wanted to order Merlot.

A French wine.

In Italy.

For the benefit of those who have never been to Italy, let me say simply that the Italian wines they send to the United States do not do them justice. From what I can tell, mediocre “house” wine in Italy is better than “good” wine over here. And it’s cheaper than Coca Cola.

There was no chance that the Da Bepis’ brother’s restaurant kept a stock of French wine for American idiots like us.

Our waiter called over the elder Da Bepi from his kitchen–a hulk of a man, looking somewhat like Luca Brasi from The Godfather–and we explained to him what T had requested. Da Bepi spoke to his waiter in Italian, too quickly for me to follow, and the waiter scurried off.

Because of my location at the end of the booth, I was the only one who could see that the waiter ran out the door and sprinted down the street. A few minutes later, we got our bottle of Merlot, which we drank.

Some time later, we asked for a second bottle, which we also drank. At this point Da Bepi showed up at our table again with a bottle of Chianti.

“This is from my own vineyard,” he said. “I want you to have it as a gift.”

Now, it is possible that Da Bepi was just being gracious with us–the other Da Bepi brothers would often open a bottle of their own wine to share with us when we ate with them–but I suspect a more complicated motive was at work.

Da Bepi had sent his waiter out of the restaurant–possibly to a wine shop, or more likely to his own wine cellar at home–from which he obtained the two bottles of Merlot we had enjoyed that night. But it was now 11pm, and the shops were all closed. There was no chance whatsoever that Da Bepi could get us another bottle of Merlot if we asked for it. So, acting preemptively, he gave us something better.

I later learned that Delta airlines had an article in its in-flight magazine about “the growing popularity of Merlot wines” that week, from which we inferred that T was trying to impress his boss. D was apparently none the wiser, and T’s reputation with the rest of us was confirmed.

For my own part, I’d still rather drink Chianti.