Passionate Italians and Hand Gestures

My friends can see me talking from a mile away, even with my back turned. I’m the one with my hands gesticulating in the air, sometimes with elegant precision as I speak on my cell phone, sometimes with wild abandon as I’m ordering a sandwich. That’s because I was raised in an Italian household. Italians are typically expressive, passionate, and animated when communicating with others. It’s a demonstration of engagement and interest. Have you ever seen an Italian converse with his or her hands in their pockets? Never happens.

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Italians, young and old, male or female, gesture naturally. Whether they’re busy licking a gelato, smoking a cigarette, or zipping a manual-shift car around a hilltop town, Italians are quite adept at pairing any activity with vivid hand gestures when engaged in conversation. Writing letters must drive most Italians crazy, as expression is limited. I regularly use emoticons when dashing off an email or posting on social media, because sometimes words are just not enough, and it’s the closest I can get to gesturing.  ;-)

Most people shake hands, but Italians typically grasp the other’s arm at the same time. Eye contact is important to them, and so is close personal contact. In fact, once a relationship is established, even if an acquaintance, a kiss on both cheeks upon greeting is the norm. Public displays of affection among Italians are prevalent, both among couples and families. Sons and daughters are equally apt to hug and kiss their parents as a sign of respect and affection, and strolling arm and arm through Italian towns as an expression of companionship is practiced by neighbors and friends as much as by Italian couples, who typically prefer a lip lock and tight embrace as further acknowledgement of their mutual affinity.

Americans are known to gesture on occasion, such as a flipped bird (raised middle finger) during rush hour traffic, or pressed thumbs and knuckles in the shape of a heart from a mother to her child on the school bus, or the peace sign from a graduate accepting his diploma, among others. But here are a few Italian gestures you may or may not be aware of:

  • To gesture “Come here,” instead of beckoning with an index finger, an Italian sweeps an entire arm downward.
  • That beckoning index finger might signal a romantic enticement in both cultures. But in Italian culture, one might also do the same to signal that he or she wishes to convey something very important to another.
  • Index fingers pressed against the thumbs with a slight waggle of both hands means an exasperated “What do you want from me?”
  • The index finger twisted into the cheek means something is good, lovely, or tasty.
  • Tapping one’s wrist means “Hurry up.”
  • Two open hands stands for “What’s happening here?”
  • Waggling two hands pressed together as if in fervent prayer begs the question, “What do you want me to do about it?”
  • The backside of one’s fingers brushing the chin is a classic blow off, as in “Who gives a flying fig?”
  • My grandfather used to pat his throat, and say “gola, gola,” meaning that he had chocolate candy or decadent cookies to share. And my nana would simply throw her arms wide, demonstrating the need for a grandchild’s hug.

No matter the exuberant gesture, signal, facial or bodily indication, of which there are hundreds, Italians use them to enhance communication in an uninhibited, liberating way. Take it or leave it, we’re just letting you know how passionate we are on a subject.

SIENA’S PALIO: THRILLING TRADITION, COMPETITION, & PRIDE

Imagine that your hometown team will be competing in the biggest sporting event of the year, as it does every year, right in the center of town. Pack the venue with over 50,000 spectators, both local and international, all there to see your team participate. Now bring on all the fanfare and hoopla in the days leading up to the main event, including an open-air feast and a ritual blessing of the key player. Now imagine that this monumental sporting event lasts just seventy-five seconds…

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For the people of Siena, Italy, this fantasy is a reality. Considered Italy’s most famous annual sporting event, Palio is a horse race that combines pageantry, competition, and civic pride. The Tuscan hillside town of Siena fans out from the central, shell-shaped Piazza del Campo town square, where the race is run. It extends outward, through the maze of cobblestone alleyways, stone houses, shops, and smaller piazze. Siena is divided into seventeen contrade, akin to the boroughs of Manhattan, in which neighborhoods aspire to a passionate regionalism based on centuries old tradition. Since the Middle Ages, ten of the contrade vie one another for bragging rights achieved by a victory in a bare-back horse race that’s one lap around the piazza. The first horse to cross the finish line, with or without the rider, wins.

The race, held twice a year on July 2 and August 16, is preceded by as much pomp and circumstance as the post-race victory parties. Participants and spectators have been brought to their knees over a loss, or a win. Every stage is critical, from the initial presentation of the horses, to the “tratta” in which the horses and jockeys are matched. It continues with the five preliminary runs, to the final rehearsal dinner, to the blessing of the horse and jockey inside the contrada’s parish church, and finally to the race.

Palio July 1981

I attended my first Palio with my dad when I was ten years old. With my Aquila scarf wrapped securely around my shoulders, I cheered parade flagbearers marching down the ancient cobblestone streets while my gelato ran down my arm. We watched a trial run. Serious business, as men in suits converged to hash out the players’ worth, similar to a football draft, only with horses. My favorite part was the pre-race dinner. I couldn’t believe that with all the eating, the drinking, the singing, and the cheering, they had yet to run the race! Though we missed the main race, I’d experienced something truly memorable.

Palio Aug 1995

Years later, my husband, Jamie, and I made it to the big event. We packed into Piazza del Campo with my cousins in early morning…and waited. For hours beneath the August sun, the piazza filled with spectators, standing shoulder-to-shoulder, or peering out from hotel windows overlooking the track. Fans from competing contrade would argue, laugh, make bets, and proudly wave their flags’ colors. At dusk, the tension was palpable. The crowds roared as the horses cantered into the piazza. The tradition of centuries past, and the competitive spirit roiling between the contrade, and the anxiety built up over days of preparation all came down to a race lasting just over a minute. In one mad dash around the track, colors blazed past us in a blur. Men, women, and children shouted and chanted the names of their contrada. Cameras flashed. Hoof-beaten dust flew into the humid Sienese twilight. I don’t remember who won. But I bet it was Aquila.

Like a good thriller, Palio’s suspense builds to a satisfying climax that resonates with fans until long after it ends. Want to live the thrill? Head to Palio. Want to read about it? My latest mystery novel, FORMULA, features Palio, and it’s coming soon!

Wicked Good Italian Dialects

A recent visit to my father’s hometown of Abbadia San Salvatore in Siena gave me interesting insight into the concept of dialect. Family had taken me to a local restaurant, and the cousins who’d since moved out of town ordered “una latina di Coca Cola” or a can of Coke. Those relatives who still resided in town similarly ordered Cokes, but pronounced it much differently, dropping the hard C sound entirely, instead asking for “O’a-Ola.” As any native Bostonian knows, dropping a letter (like an R) gives the English language a certain flair all its own, and certainly gives the listener an indication of your proud heritage.

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A map of Italian dialects (click on image for larger version – courtesy zingarate.com)

As a native of Buffalo, where the words “merry,” “Mary,” and “marry” are pronounced the same way, and where “pop” means “soda,” and the word “hot” and “cod” take on a nasally, back of the throat twang, it’s clear to me that my husband, Jamie, who hails from north of Boston, speaks differently. When he says the word “pattern,” I must rely on context to determine whether he’s saying “Patton,” “pattin’,” or “patent.” When I first met my husband’s mom at the Cape, she suggested, “Go put ya shahts on [for the beach],” I merely stared back at her, confounded. Jamie translated, “Gina, my mom’s asking you to change into your bathing suit,” so I smiled and nodded, and she and I have gotten along swimmingly since then. The same is likely true for many Bostonians and their extended families. Their backgrounds – whether they were born in Boston or in Italy, or whether residing in the North End or Braintree – determine their particular pronunciation, grammar, or vocabulary. But just like Nonna’s minestrone, it’s the variety of the flavors that makes the mixture so delightful!

The factors that typically influence the development of dialects in a region or country include: geographical location (people living in close proximity to each other, as well as people living in isolation from others); socio-economic conditions; complex colonial history; movement of ancestry; strong regional loyalties; and the cultural influence of nearby communities. In such regions or countries, a dialect that is commonly used in the media (as in entertainment and news programming,) may be very different from the dialect used in official government business, in schools curricula, and in everyday street language. For example, a Boston news anchor may articulate the English language differently than a meter reader in Quincy. Either way, they both get their points across, perhaps one more colorfully than the other.

There are two major groups of Italian dialects -Northern and Southern, divided by the Spezia-Remini line. The northern groups are either: a) based in Veneto and speak a Venetic dialect; or b) of the Gallo-Italic group that encompasses most of the rest of the region, and is influenced by Celtic speech. As for the rest of the boot, the most common Italian dialects include: Tuscan (most of Tuscany); Abruzzese, Pugliese, Umbrian (near Tuscany); Laziale, Central Marchigiano (in and around Rome); those common to the southern part of Italy (like Napolitano); or those indicative of the outermost regions of the south, including Calabrese, Apulian, and Sardinian dialects. The rich variety speaks to the turmoil that Italy endured on the way to its unification in 1861. Only an official republic since 1946, Italy’s cultural pride is highly regional to this day. Where the Tuscan dialect is considered the national language or the “lingua italiana,” perhaps because the area is considered the birthplace of Italian literature (as in Dante, Petrarca, and Boccaccio,) still, different regions proudly embrace the differences that distinguish their manner of speaking from others in their country, much like Bostonians.

There are many other countries with multiple dialects of the same language, including Spain (10 recognized dialects), India (400 languages, and an estimated 2000 dialects), Asia (Japan has dozens, and China has at least 200 dialects), and many more all over the world. Dialects add color and diversity to language, and infuse flavor into one’s culture. After all, wouldn’t you rather have a “wicked good” cannoli than just a good cannoli?

Going to the Movies, with Some Italian Flair

Ah, going to the movies…the big screen, the packed seats, the laughter and the tears from a great film, the whispers of “whodunit?,” the couples holding hands, and the wafting aroma of…marinara sauce?

One of the pleasures of Italy is going to the movies. It’s an experience all its own. I love movies, and while studying in Rome in the 90’s, most weekends I’d frequent a movie house in the Trastevere neighborhood. “Il Pasquino” showed American movies, typically ones I’d already seen, but it was a great taste of home.

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My first time at Il Pasquino was the most memorable, because I had no idea just how different movie theaters in Italy are from those in America. My boyfriend at the time (now my husband, Jamie,) and I bought tickets at the entrance, and then we settled into our seats for a showing of Balla Coi Lupi (Dances with Wolves.) Typical screen, typical seats, and that’s where the similarities ended. While waiting for the projector to start rolling the reel (yes, I’m dating myself,) an elderly couple showed us their tickets and told us we were sitting in their seats. Assigned seats? Apparently, Italian cinemas are big on assigned seating at most movie theaters, to this day.
movie theaterAfter we cozied into our new seats, the movie rolled, and I can tell you, Kevin Costner never sounded so good. That’s because even though the movie was in English, Costner’s voice was dubbed over by an Italian voice actor, known as a doppiaggio. This dubbing practice is prevalent, even today, and Italian cinema and television prides itself on its voice actors, who usually follow the real actor’s movie journey throughout his or her career. A funny side note: it’s tricky making a movie featuring both DeNiro and Pacino as they’re both dubbed by the same voice actor. (So, if I plan to cast DeNiro and Pacino in movie versions of my novels, the same doppiaggio can dub both The Race and The Sculptor.)

Jamie and I soon got used to the Costner stand-in and enjoyed the movie. That is, until the smell of marinara wafting in from the lobby made our stomachs growl. We’d both seen the movie before, and we decided to wait until after a major scene to dash out to the lobby for a bite. But just as the character named “Stands with a Fist” so intimately shares conversation with her handsome male lead, the film stopped, mid-scene, with a frame that read “Intervallo” (intermission!) Then and now, Italians stop their movies mid-way, regardless of the artistic timing, and grant their patrons about five minutes of freedom to move about the theater or to chat with friends on their opinion of the film thus far.

marinara with red wineBut before Jamie and I could dash to the lobby to surmise the source of the aromatic sauce, a concessionaire toting a box strapped around his neck, similar to a sporting event, began selling bags of popcorn, chips, and soda. On subsequent visits to Il Pasquino, I did determine the root of Grandma’s exquisite sauce aroma – the lobby sold hot food too: arancini or suppli (breaded orange-size balls of rice and mozzarella, with marinara sauce for dipping,) as well as eggplant and zucchini fritters, among other delectable munchies. My father told me that when he was a kid, smoking was allowed in Italian cinemas. Also, standing room only was common for big releases because of the difficulty some theaters had with keeping track of tickets sold. Today, the overall experience remains the same in many Italian cinemas: assigned seating, dubbed voice actors, intermission, halftime concession, and diverse food offerings.

The interior of an Italian movie theater is similar to that of an American one. The difference lies in the exterior: Italian ones are usually smaller, more intimate, local one-screen playhouses in each community, whereas American movie
theaters are often times multi-screen mega-plexes. Italians seem to prefer the experience of the smaller playhouse, though “Cinecity” mega-plexes are sprouting in bigger cities up north. If you’re headed to Italy, here’s a great link for finding a cinema near you: http://www.cinematreasures.org/theaters/italy

I’ve experienced similar great experiences here in the states at local art houses and independent cinemas, intimate theaters that show current mainstream films as well as throwback-era gems, independent films, documentaries, and foreign classics. On a recent visit to my hometown of Buffalo, NY, I enjoyed an evening viewing of Life Is Beautiful, an Academy-award winning Italian film by Roberto Benigni, in the historic and recently renovated The North Park Theatre, a richly detailed single-screen theater with an Art Deco marquee and an ornate interior that exudes warmth and nostalgia, lending to the viewing experience. No matter your taste in film or the time of year, it’s always the perfect time to go to the movies…with or without the marinara.

Open Air Market Treasures, in Italy and at Home

Just like fresh air revitalizes the soul, open air markets stimulate the senses. Rain or shine, tented tables regularly bring neighbors, tourists, and communities together from spring to fall, providing a taste of Earth’s bounty and a vast assortment of handmade collectibles and vintage wares. Grab your family and meet your friends at an open air market, because a visit is not always about what objects you procure but rather the experience you’ll savor.

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Crates overflowing with just-ripened fruits and vegetables, iced pallets of succulent seafood pulled from the water earlier that morning, and bunches of aromatic flowers at the peak of color abound in a random assortment of tables along the street or grass. Artisans and collectors mingle, too, celebrating hand-made works, like tapestries, pottery, jewelry, or paintings that are all unique among any other. Vendors also pile tables high with vintage items like leather goods, music, small appliances, shoes, ravioli cutters, or any odd thing — sometimes authentic and sometimes not. Here, one person’s “stuff” is another person’s treasure.

In Italy, one doesn’t have to venture far to find a local open-air market, but there are some in bigger cities that are worth noting for their size, variety, and ambience, such as Campo de’ Fiori, a fish and vegetable market in Rome dating back to 1869. Open from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m., Monday through Saturday, the cobblestone piazza is filled with vendors even before the sun comes up. An Ape Piaggio (one of those compact, three-wheeled trucks) sits beside nearly every tent, piled high with crates of fresh food. Before it opens, restaurant buyers examine the selections for the highest quality ingredients, and by noon, tourists stare in awe at the shouting matches between the elderly locals haggling with vendors in preparation for their pranzo meal.

The Porta Portese market in Trastevere, Rome, open Sundays, showcases table after table of anything imaginable, including terra cotta, oil lamps, and toothbrushes. In college, that’s where I bought a cheap bootleg copy of Sting’s The Dream of the Blue Turtles cassette tape (yes, cassette tape!). When I got home, I was disappointed to learn that the B side of the “hot” tape featured an entirely other band, named Zucchero. Little did I realize that this was one of Italy’s hottest musical names, and that I would later watch both Sting and Zucchero perform at Rome’s Stadio Olimpico, spurred on by this bazaar treasure. The value of some things truly surpasses dollars and cents.

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A few years ago, my parents accompanied my family to Venice, where we hit the famed Rialto Market early enough that the garbage boats were still hauling away rubbish left by the overnight revelers. Vendors slapped enormous large fin salt-water monsters onto their tables of chopped ice, while my dad giggled like a kid in a candy store. My children’s eyes were almost as big as those of the enormous, multi-colored fish they ogled. After a couple hours, I spied my mom and youngest sharing a lovely moment beside a canal, legs dangling over the Adriatic inlet, red juice dripping down their fingers, their only market takeaway having been a quart of the juiciest strawberries sold beneath the Rialto Bridge. Some treasures are meant to be consumed without delay, and with abandon.

The town of Camucia, near Cortona in Tuscany, opens its market on Thursdays, cordoning off about 10 city blocks. Here, a delectable pulled pork sandwich is just as easy to find among its multitude of merchants as a new suitcase. And in Palermo, Sicily, one can peruse seaside tables of sea urchins and other such delicacies that are just as plentiful as oranges. The art of seeking out-of-the-way treasures may be just as decadent as the object itself.

But, one need not venture far for a great open air market. There’s probably one within driving distance from you, and it’s so worth the time and gasoline.

Growing up in Buffalo, my dad used to drive my grandpa to the Clinton Market whenever it was time to buy the perfect crops for their new gardens. Now, my brothers take my dad whenever they’re ready to plant theirs. Easter week, my family would head to the Broadway Market for freshly packed sausage, homemade bread, and the best fire-breathing horseradish around. We still go there, but now we also frequent the food trucks and vendors at Larkin Square and Canalside, among many others. The buddy-system always makes for a memorable market experience.

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Haymarket, Boston’s historic market near Faneuil Hall since 1830, is renowned for its produce and fish at bargain prices. Haggling here is a must-see tourist attraction in the city. Head over to Copley Place Farmers Market in the Back Bay for homemade apple pies, jams, and spreads, or armfuls of bright yellow sunflowers. Lose yourself for hours at the SoWa Market (“South of Washington Street”) for an eclectic mix of handmade items, like jewelry, crafts, pottery, shoes, and baked goods, as well as antiques and fresh produce. Other local open markets include the Salem Open Market, the Cambridge Open Market, the South End Art Market, the Greenway Open Market, and the South End Food Trucks.

If you’re like me, an Italian who loves to buy fresh and buy local, you’ll want to be sure to experience a glorious open air market near you, as the season warms and the treasures are ripe for the picking. Bring your family and friends, and revel in the spirit of “abbondanza!”

“Bocce, Anyone?”

Bocce is a competitive sport, a strategic game, and a leisurely pastime, all rolled into one ever-popular activity. Dating back to the Roman Empire, bocce, in all its derivations, has since captured the hearts of players and spectators the world over, no matter the age or skill level, where the objective is to roll balls on a court as close to a target ball as possible to score points. And, if you peek into some of the backyards or parking lots of local hangouts across America, it seems the popularity of bocce has recently shifted into high gear.

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I have fond memories of running through my grandparents’ backyard as a young girl, tossing the tiny white pallina through the freshly mown grass of summer, while the adults chased after it with their teams’ heavier, larger, red or green balls in hopes of scoring points during a weekend pickup game in my mostly Italian neighborhood in South Buffalo, NY. Friends and neighbors would join in on the fun all day, some recounting how they used to play in their local piazza back in Italy. It was a chance to be together, and to catch up on each others’ lives. And no matter how old you were, it was an opportunity to forget life’s pressures and just play outside with your friends.

My husband, I later learned, did the same thing as a kid in Lawrence, Massachusetts. So, a few years ago, when my parents gave us a bocce set for Christmas, we decided to carve out a corner of our own yard for a court. When the ground thawed, we hooked some railroad ties together with rebar, and we spread some stone dust on a scrap of yard under some trees–instant bocce court! (Here’s a link on how to build your own court and how to play.) Now, every summer we pull up a few lawn chairs for our family, neighbors, and friends, and we roll out some fun. Our children are outside, getting fresh air and exercise, enjoying friendly competition with their buddies–they think it’s cool. Who am I to tell them it’s old-fashioned? Actually, it’s very cool these days. While still a regular fixture at many senior centers and public parks, now bars and restaurants are sacrificing parking space and rooftop accommodations for bocce courts because the demand is so high. Move over darts and billiards, bocce’s in town.

Major League Bocce is an organization, founded in 2004, that promotes bocce leagues for sport and fun across the country. Check out their website or Facebook page for locations around the country. The United States Bocce Federation, established in 1977, is the preeminent organization that sets the rules, promotes the sport, and establishes guidelines for players on the countrywide and international levels. This year, the Methuen Sons of Italy, Lodge 902 is hosting the 2015 U.S. Bocce National Championships, June 22-27. For the first time ever in New England, the championship will host over 150 elite bocce players in five different events over the week. If you think that you’ve got what it takes to compete with the best, or if you simply want to join in on the fun of watching the best, be sure to check it out!

Bocce’s come a long way, and now, more than ever, it appears that future generations are guiding it along to a thriving tomorrow. Perhaps soon, “Bocce, anyone?” will become just as likely an invitation as any other.