What-a Mistake-a da Make-a!

“What-a mistake-a da make-a” was the phrase frequently used by my next-door neighbour when I was a child, which sent me and my brother into fits of giggles. Aunty Rosa added a’s and o’s, in a completely haphazard fashion, to nearly every English word in a sentence and at the time I though how strange it was that she had not mastered English better after 40+ years in the UK. Our neighbour,Uncle Reg, had met the curvaceous, vivacious Rosa Maria Pepe in her native Salerno at the end of the 2nd World War and taken her back to England as the new Mrs Smith. She was my first introduction to things Italian; Panetone at Christmas, delicious tomato and onion salads and real pasta sauces that did not come in a can. She also was a constant source of mirth, and occasionally irritation. I will never forget my father’s face when Auntie Rosa said in front of him;
“Tonia, I saw-a you on de corner-a yesterday, smoking a cigarette wit-a your friend.” It was untrue – I have never smoked, so she must have mixed me up with another girl but, oh how guilty I felt as I tried to reassure my father!
Now, after 24 years of life in Italy I understand Aunty Rosa much better. I have certainly make some big mistakes with my Italian over the years and my accent is not much better than hers was. I think I speak Italian well, until I hear my voice on our answer-machine. I start out wondering who the posh English woman, with an atrocious accent, leaving a message is and then get a shock as I realise it is my voice.
So, today I thought I would treat you to some of my classic Italian mistakes. My son and husband say they are going to put together a book of my mistakes one day!
Italian is a very confusing language for an English speaking person. Everything is either masculine or feminine and most feminine things end in an “a”, such as “donna” (woman) and masculine things in an “o”, such as “uomo” (man). Seems easy right? You think you have mastered that and suddenly there are objects like motorbikes “moto” which end in an “o” but are actually feminine – “la moto”, to come to grips with. There are also things such as tables, wood and chocolate which can be both sexes!
You have to be very careful using the most innocuous-sounding English words in Italian. Figs, peas and birds for example all have sexual connotations, which always makes me scared that I will be misinterpreted! I avoid ordering figs or peas in restaurants and try to identify birds as sparrows or robins instead of using the generic term.
My Scots friends have the advantage on me as regards to pronunciation, being able to roll their “r”s beautifully. I not only find pronouncing double letters difficult, I also cannot hear the difference in most words, much to Guido’s bewilderment. He bombards me with a word, gradually raising his voice until almost shouting it and I repeat what I hear, which is obviously wrong from the look of frustration on his face, until he eventually shrugs and gives up.
I told you in my last blog about the embarrassing incident at the book-launch party, when I muddled up the Italian words for “to rush off” with “to f**k off”. An easy mistake to make as there is only one letter different in the two words. The photo shown here is me realising what I had just said, as I put out books on the table.

Setting out the books

Another error, that I am quite fond of, happened when I had just moved to Tuscany and Guido was driving me down some hairpin bends for an appointment at the hairdresser’s. I was practising how to ask for a trim but, when I said that I would ask for “una sputtanata ai capelli”, Guido howled with laughter and almost drove us downhill the quick way – good job the brakes worked! It seems that I had asked for the hairdresser to put something on myhair that would make me look ridiculous.
Now we are living in Germany for a while and I am having to tackle another language. Since German has 3 genders for me to get muddled up with, I know that it will be almost impossible for me to learn and that I will make a load of mistakes again. However, I will give it a go, and at least I will inevitably have some funny stories to tell you about in future blogs. Wish me luck!

To end with, here is a lovely story of Guido’s. He was flying back to Italy from New York and went to use the toilet. As he tried to open the door an old lady, dressed in black, snatched the door closed again in embarrassment and shouted out,

“Aggio, forgettato e shutar a door!”

This mixture of her native Sicilian Italian and the Brooklyn accent she had acquired in America is wonderful, isn’t it ?

Book Launch Party for “A Whisper on the Mediterranean”

I have been very slow to post this blog about the fantastic evening I had on 20th September. It might have something to do with the fact that 2 days afterwards Guido and I were driving a heavily-laden car through Austria to our new home in Lower Saxony, Germany. Yes, indeed it was a bit of a rush! Then we were without proper internet connection for a while but today I can finally sit and write about the amazing book launch party.
The day started well with a trip to my lovely hairdresser, Marta. Going to her is like having laughter therapy – doesn’t do my wrinkles any good but is great for the spirit! Then, after lunch, friends from Rome began to arrive and so the fun really began.
Around 5pm we made our way to the gorgeous restaurant, “Il Romito”, on the banks of the River Arno. This was cutting it a bit fine because I had invited people from 5pm onwards but, “Hey, we are in Italy – no one will be on time”, I thought. Wrong, there were people waiting for me so I had a mad scramble to set up the books on a table under a gazebo, with a few props to set the scene (life jackets, safety harnesses, photos and the soft toys that we always had to tie on to something aboard so that the baby did not throw them in the sea while we were sailing).
Lots of people began asking for a signed copy then and Guido had not made a speech or read the prologue yet. In my best Italian I explained that I would happily sign copies later and would only sell one copy there and then, to a man who had to rush off early. Perplexed looks and then much laughter followed this anouncement. I had done it again and mixed up my Italian words, swapping the word for “to rush off” (scappare) with the word for “xxxx off” (scoppare). Surely a mistake anyone could make while over-excited on such a special evening?!
Anyway, fortunately other guests then appeared and I was able to “rush off” and greet them.
I was so touched. People had come from as far away as Sorrento to celebrate with me and many of them brought gifts such as flowers, jewellery and (much appreciated) food delicacies we would not be able to get in Germany. In the end there were over 70 people there including friends, local dignitaries and villagers.
I was happy to let Guido take over and read the prologue that he had translated for the occassion into Italian (no chance of embarrasing mistakes there!) and it was great to see the audience laughing out loud at the words I had written.
One of the highlights of the evening happened when Guido had finished and my dear friend from Rome, Alessandra (the first friend I made in Italy and who I had not seen properly for about 18 years) stood up and made an impromtu speech of her own, which was so touching that I cried and made a mess of my make-up for the first but certainly not the last time that evening. How lovely to be surrounded by all these very special people.
Even better was that a lot of them wanted to buy a book too, so I sat down and signed so many copies that my hand started shaking and it was time for me to get a glass of spumante and something to eat from the magnificent buffet which Anna and Simone from the restaurant had prepared.
I do not think my feet touched the ground that evening. I felt very proud of the beautiful book that my publisher, Sunpenny, had produced, relieved that everyone had found the words I had written amusing and buoyed up by the atmosphere of love that surrounded me.
So, thank you to everyone who helped to make the evening so wonderful. I know I will treasure the memories of it in years to come.

Books arriving at the restaurant Books for sale Gazebo with guests Guests 3 Guests in the garden Guests Guido and me with Whisper Julia and Ruth Listening to Guido read My darling Alessandra making an impromptu speech Photo poster in the garden Queue for books Setting out the books Signing Sketch done for me by Marco The buffet, Di and Simone the chef The food