It’s a mistake for Latinos to think they can go to Italy and get by on Spanish alone.
I learned that more or less the hard way when I toured the country in June with my wife, my stepdaughter, and my wife’s sister. We were there for 15 days and went from Milan, over to Venice, down to Florence, where my wife’s sister’s friend met us, to Rome, where my father-in-law and his wife met us, then down to Naples, crossed over to Capri, crossed back to Positano, then back up to Rome.
It was a great time, and the Italians we met were generally friendly and hospitable, though, as tends to be the case with the people in most countries, we ran into some real assholes too. Admittedly I was the stereotypical American: uncouth, brash, loud, demanding — things you can get away with in any real American city east of the Mississippi.
There were some real assholes working the night shift at Bar Longhi in Venice, near Piazza San Marco and right on the Grand Canal. I perceived a tinge of racism in their faces when they spotted me coming in through the hotel with my three beautiful lady companions, but you never can tell who’s a racist and who’s just an asshole. They hardly looked at me though, even when I ordered my drink — and then the second one, and the third — as if I were horribly disfigured, or some schizophrenic hallucination they were trying to ignore. It happened to me in the ritzy part of San Juan, too, but to a lesser degree.
When I got up and went looking for the bathroom, I saw the waiters laughing with the bartender and decided to practice some of my Italian, hoping to get better and trying to be polite. It’s their country, so, you know, when in Rome…
“Doh-veh el ban-yo?” I asked the group.
“El baño?” the bartender sneered as the other guys dispersed. By saying in Spanish what I had tried to say in Italian, he clearly knew where I was coming from and made it a point to one-up me and tease me at the same time by showing me how cosmopolitian he was and how provincial I was. There’s no use trying to convince me otherwise. I’ve been the bully and the bullied at different times in my life, so I know I wasn’t imagining his dig.
What I’m also pretty sure of is how Italians view Latinos. I know what the Italians back in Chicago think of Latinos. My best friend Pancho once dated this Italian girl, pale white with dark hair. Every time they got into an argument she was quick to call him a “spic” or a “beaner.” It never failed. The Italians back home always kept such insults in their back pockets, and us Latinos never forgot it.
Everybody knows that, though they’re looked down on from the north by the Germans and the Brits, the Italians and the Greeks believe they created Western civilization and are therefore the most cultured and civilized in the West, if not the whole world. Assuming this is true, then the Italians definitely believe the people of Spain to be their inferiors, since Spain was colonized by their Roman ancestors, or, as the Italians probably see it, civilized.
And if that’s the case, then Italians must really look down on Latinos, as the mixed-race progeny of lands colonized by the people Rome colonized. Follow me? Like if Frankenstein’s monster then gave life to its own monster — the copy of a copy, which is how I was treated by some of the Italians I came across.
I also met some Italians, the tour guides especially, but also waiters, hotel managers, a gondolier, taxi drivers, et cetera, who not only understood Spanish and spoke it better than me or my Mexican-born wife — the Castilian Spanish, obviously — but also English, French, a little German, and who knows what else, always with an Italian accent.
The accent is catchy. After speaking Italian for so long, so many days in a row, by the time we got to Rome I found myself even speaking Spanish and English with an Italian accent, for more than just kicks. The rhythm helped my Spanish, and gave my English a more pleasant tone and feel on my tongue.
It was interesting to see how quickly some of the Italians figured us for Latinos, or at least Spanish speakers, just by the way we tried speaking their language. No matter how hard we tried to match the accent, it must’ve sounded like Spanish to them. Italian has different vowel endings, for one. Stuff you almost never find in Spanish. Lots of words that end with E or I instead of the usual O or A in Spanish.
Plus they use a lot of different words for things. Reservation in Spanish is reservación — easy enough. But in Italian it’s prenotazione. Italians put an E on the end of everything, to the point where, when they pause midsentence, they don’t go “Umm” or “Uhh,” but “Ehh.” They’re obsessed with the E.
(I just looked up the word obsession in Italian… It’s ossessione.)
That little E gave us a lot of trouble whenever we tried to say “thank you.” The word is grazie. We kept pronouncing it “grazi,” like Nazi, but the Italians kept correcting us, saying it’s “grazi-eh.” We only managed to say it correctly a dozen or so times, out of the hundred-plus thank-yous we gave. The rest of the time we usually slipped and said “Grazi,” or even “Gracia,” the Spanish word for “grace.”
Rome spoke the most Spanish by far. We even met a Mexican within an hour of arriving. He worked the counter at Caffè Eliseo across from our Airbnb on Via Nazionale. We were so glad to find him and so many other Spanish speakers around Rome, and we were so tired of trying and failing to speak Spanish — by then it had been five days since we landed in Milan — that we decided to just ask people if they parlare’d español, which is not how you say it, but oh well. We only asked if they spoke Spanish, and we spoke a mixture of mostly Spanish sprinkled with Italian, when we didn’t know enough Italian or were too exhausted to try speaking it and wanted to avoid using English — we didn’t want to come off as Americans right off the bat.
Thanks to the United States’ shabby reputation, it’s usually helpful for Americans traveling abroad to hide their Americanness. My grandma’s been on dozens of guided tours around the world where the travelers are advised not to have American flags displayed anywhere on their persons. Not a t-shirt, not a pin, nothing. And the Latino Americans are specifically told to say, if asked, that they’re from Mexico.
Speaking Spanish served us alright till we got down to Naples. The Neapolitans, I was informed by the cab driver who took us from the train station, are a proud people who don’t really consider themselves to be Italians in the same way that, say, the Romans or Milanese do. Eighteen seventy-one, it turns out, is not the year Italy was unified but the year that Naples and the rest of Southern Italy were finally subdued by the Northerners.
And whereas, up north, Garibaldi’s name is treated like Washington’s is America, in Naples his name is mud. On the car ride from Positano back to Rome, our driver, who was born and raised in a little town at the tip of the Sorrentine Peninsula, even explained to me how all of Garibaldi’s supposed bribing and double-dealing with different groups gave rise to the modern mafia. “Garibaldi wasn’t even a good general,” he said, “only a thug hired by the House of Savoy.”
I had such a hard time in Naples. Most of the Neaopolitians acted like assholes if you couldn’t speak Italian. I forgave them after I realized that they weren’t really assholes, just extremely and defensively proud of their culture. A napulitano doesn’t want to decipher an American’s mutilated Italian any more than a catalán wants to work out an American’s garbled Spanish in Barcelona. Italian was a space neither of us wanted to be in, and here I was forcing them to meet me there, in their own home, with its own, unique language.
I’ve never been so helpless verbally as I was at a barber shop in Naples. The man’s name was Giuseppe, I know that much, only because it was displayed in decals on the window. He told me to call him Pepe. He was a short old man with black Adidas sneakers and a wall of trophies and certificates he apparently won for being such a damn-good barber. He was pretty friendly, but the fact that I’m Black — I don’t think I saw many of me over there in Italy, maybe a handful — and I didn’t speak Italian made him look at me sideways. That look he gave me reminded me of the old-school mafiosos I’d seen in Scorsese’s movies — and that he was a barber really brought it home.
“Parlare español?” I asked him.
“No,” he said.
“Ehhh, parlare inglese?” I said. I was desperate.
He seemed to think for a split second, but then said “No” again.
I got him to understand that I was there for a haircut, of course. “Tagliare mi capelli?” I pointed to my head. “Zero tutti, zero tutti,” I said, going all around my head with imaginary clippers — I’ve kept it shaved since high school.
“Sì,” he said, twisting his face and nodding, as if to say “Of course, no problem,” though he seemed annoyed.
Once I was in the chair, he asked me something in Neapolitan, but I had no idea. A lot of Neapolitans talk fast and will huff and roll their eyes if you make like you can’t understand them, at which point they’ll simply repeat themselves at the exact same speed. Again, maybe they did that to me because I’m Black or an American or both, who knows. But I found that to be the case more than a handful of times, and I was only in Naples for a day and a night, and only talked to about a handful of Neapolitans while I was there. Frankly, after five or so tortuous interactions, I avoided speaking to them.
Anyway, it turned out that Pepe was asking me if I sailed boats, or if I came on a cruise, something like that. He said something about “nave” and made a gesture with his hands like he was steering. I waited for Google Translate to tell me what nave meant — seems obvious now — and then said, “No, no,” and just listed all the cities we visited and planned to visit.
“Ah,” he said, and then cut the rest of my hair in silence. I was so thankful for that.
When I paid I tipped him an extra five euros. He smiled and winked, so tenderly, as if I were his own grandson or something. It creeped me out a bit. I blushed and clasped my hands in front of me, shaking them, and bowed my head and got out of there.
On the island of Capri, the last night we were there, we met some servers at the Ristorante Panorama who spoke Spanish perfetto. The only two among us Latinos who had better Spanish were my suegro and his wife. The kid, I forget his name, loved Bad Bunny and spoke Spanish more with a Puerto Rican accent, unlike the older guy who spoke the typical Castilian.
When the kid, who was from Naples, found out I was Puerto Rican, his eyes lit up. “I’ve always wanted to go to Puerto Rico,” he told me in Spanish. “It looks beautiful. Precious.”
“But you’re here in Capri!” I pointed out to him. We both laughed.
They told us how they were hoping to meet some American girls in Capri that they could marry so they could move to the States. The grass really does seem greener on the other side of the fence, even when your side is an island as stunningly and painfully beautiful as Capri.
“You wanna live there and we wanna live here,” I told them in Spanish. “We should switch places.”
It was my stepdaughter’s 18th birthday, so they brought her a small lemon cream cake with a lit candle in and played “Después de la Playa” over the speakers, which happens to be her favorite Spanish song at the moment. They only played it till she blew out the candle, since, as our waiter friends explained, the old man didn’t want them playing “that kind of music” in his restaurant. They quickly switched back to Dino or whoever they were playing — they play a LOT of Italian-American music over in Italy, at least in the touristy spots.
As we were leaving, our waiters sent us off with a “Ciao! Adios!”
“Buona notte,” I said, and led the group back down to our rented villa on Via Truglio, our shoes clicking against the cobblestones and the occasional seagull laughing overhead.
Featured image: The author drinking a cappuccino at Caffè Florian in Venice, Italy, June 2022.