“Gina, are you boring?” my Italian cousin asked me, her eyes worried and sincere.
After regularly repeating this question the next two weeks I lived with her I finally came to terms with the slip up. My sweet, odd Italian relative who I connected with via email was worried about my boredom, not inquiring about my personality.
Anyone who has studied a second language knows that blunders like that are inevitable, necessary even, and yet sometimes when they happen we’d still like to slink back to the Midwestern cave we came from.
After my stay with my cousin, I continued on to Florence to study Italian for the next four months. While there, I bravely agreed on a trip to Cinque Terre with two beautiful Italian men I had befriended during that summer in the Italian Alps. It would just be us three and I couldn’t help but worry about my lack of Italian grammar. I took the regional train from Florence to La Spezia, Liguria, where I disembarked to try and connect with Marco and Umberto. The cheap plastic Barbie phone my school had provided wasn’t much help, but we finally found each other on the station’s grimy platforms. The boys had traveled down from Milan by car and were all jokes and I quickly got caught up in their laid-back attitude. I was pushing my Italian to the extreme, but happy to have the chance to use it, terrible accent and all. As we navigated the car out of the very crowded station, we talked about the constant autumn rain.
“It rains so much,” I complained, “I desperately need extra socks.” I didn’t want regular socks, however, I specifically wanted ankle socks, so I pressed on. “Not regular socks. I need little socks.”
At least, that’s what I thought I said.
Surprise flashed across the boys’ faces before they threw their heads back with laughter. I had no idea what I said, but my cheeks blazed red. No ankle socks of mine had ever warranted such laughter.
But I learned a valuable language lesson that day: the word for ankle socks, or “little socks” as I had tried to say, is just one letter away from the word for “little penises.” Who knew?
I wish I could say that’s the only time I discussed penises and their size in Italy.
Italians have dozens of words for their penises, and the language is ripe with potential. Take the classic penne pasta. In America, we pronounce it “pene,” skipping over the second “n” that is so, so important in Italian. With two “Ns” you’re enjoying a delicious plate of real Italian penne pasta. With just one “n”, you’re saying you’d like a second helping of “penis pasta,” per favore.
You can’t avoid it: the small, tube-shaped pasta is a staple in Italian homes. Its shape and ridges make it perfect for a wide range of sauces, and even in America we use it often. Home cooks everywhere know: when in doubt, whip your penne out.
The language situation is worse when around children. Not because you’re some kind of pervert, but because your move abroad pushed you into a career as an English teacher, a malady that afflicts many expats abroad. One day you’re flying across the ocean in search of adventure, the next you find yourself in a position of supreme power over dozens of small Italian minds. Every day you wish each student a cheery “Good morning!” You sing Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes as well as some new, dare I say avant-garde songs of updated classics like If You’re Happy and You Know It. The song elaborates to include even more English vocabulary: “If you’re sleepy and you know it take a nap!” Which very obviously invites the question, “Teacher, what the hell is a nap?” Remember, English is not the children’s first language.
I turned to Italian to help them understand. “A nap is a little penis,” I coolly replied to a class of 28 six year olds. Once again, the difference between the two words is just one letter. One.
Luckily most don’t listen to me anyway…
Little bird, little pistol, little pea… the variety of nicknames is impressive, the dangers are myriad. Language learners would do well to simply avoid little things of all kind in Italy. Or simply to avoid studying Italian altogether.
Which makes me wonder: are there this many little penises in Germany?