By Dianne Hales
When I first went to Italy twenty-some years ago, I knew only one Italian phrase: Mi dispiace, ma non parlo l’italiano. (I’m sorry, but I don’t speak Italian). I practically wore it out by using it so much. I also learned an important lesson: the more Italian you know, the more you will enjoy Italy—and the Italians.
Just to get by, I suggest memorizing the numbers from one to ten (uno, due, tre, quattro, cinque, sei, sette, otto, nove, dieci), the interrogative pronouns, such as where (dove) and when (quando), and the days of the week: lunedì (Monday), martedì (Tuesday), mercoledì (Wednesday), giovedì (Thursday), venerdì (Friday), sabato (Saturday) and domenica (Sunday).
A small Italian-English dictionary with a pronunciation guide is essential—as are the following quintessentially Italian phrases.
1. Per favore (please). Common courtesies go a long way in any language. In Italian, they’re obligatory. Preface a request with per favore and respond to any kindness with grazie (thank you). If someone thanks you, say prego (literally “I beg”), which can mean not just “you’re welcome,” but also “please”, “not at all”, and “excuse me.”
2. Mi chiamo (I call myself). This is the Italian equivalent of “My name is…” To find out someone else’s name, ask, “Come si chiama?” If you don’t understand, say, “Non ho capito.” You also can try asking, “Può ripetere, per favore?” (Can you repeat, please?) or “Parla inglese?” (Do you speak English?)
3. Buongiorno (Good Day). Although “ciao!” has become world-famous, the correct formal greeting is “buongiornio,” used until after lunch or late afternoon, depending on the region. You then switch to “bonasera!” (Good Evening). An alternative salutation that you’ll hear Italians exchange with each other is “Salve!” Take your leave with a cheery Arrivederci (See you again! Goodbye!)
4. Mi piace (I like). Italians don’t say they “like” cheese, wine or a work of art; instead they say that it is pleasing (piace) to them. If you take a sip of prosecco or a bite of prosciutto and like it, “mi piace” expresses your appreciation. If it’s not to your liking, say “non mi piace“. When ordering in a restaurant, vorrei (literally I would want) translates as “I’d like”.
5. Va bene (okay). Literally “goes well”, this is the answer you can give to all sorts of queries, from how things are going (Come va?) to whether the hotel room or restaurant table suits you. Another very Italian option is, “Tutto a posto” (everything’s in order). If someone asks how you are (“come sta? “), you could reply bene (well), molto bene (very well) or non c’e male (not bad). My favorite oh-so-Italian response is, “Non mi lamento” (I don’t complain).
6. Aiuto! (Help!). In an emergency, it’s good to know how to get help in any language. If you’d simply like help at a shop or on the street, ask, “Scusi, può aiutarmi? (Excuse me, can you help me?) If you need directions, say “Scusi, può indicarmi la strada per…” (Excuse me, can you indicate the way to…) To acknowledge the kindness of a stranger, say, “Lei è molto gentile” (You are very kind).
7. Quanto costa? (How much does it cost?). This is a smart question to ask whenever and wherever you go shopping. You might also want to know Posso provarlo? (Can I try it on?) Posso pagare con la carta di credito? (Can I pay with a credit card?) If you like it, tell the clerk, “Lo prendo!” (I’ll take it.)
8. Che ore sono? (What time is it?) Literally, this translates as “What are the hours?” Italians officially employ a 24-hour clock (orologio) so that 6:00 p.m. is 18:00 (diciotto). When they do use the American-style 12-hour system, Italians stipulate morning, afternoon, evening and night, as in le nove di mattina (nine in the morning) or le dieci di notte (ten at night).
9. Sto male (I’m sick). Common complaints include headache (mal di testa), stomach ache (mal di stomaco), fever (febbre) and pain (dolore). “Ho bisogno di…” translates as “I need”—a doctor (medico), hospital (ospitale), aspirin (aspirina) etc. Generally the best place to turn is la farmacia (pharmacy), where you can find professional advice as well as medications for any ailment.
10. Che bello! (How beautiful!) Memorize this all-purpose compliment—and another exclamation, such as Che meraviglia! (How marvelous!) Stupendo! (Wonderful!) or Favoloso! (Fantastic). With any luck, you’ll have many occasions to unfurl these words of praise and delight.