‘La Parolaccia’ in Rome, is a restaurant made famous for the fact that its waiters swear at and verbally abuse the clientele. I can’t decide what is more astonishing: the fact that people will pay for this, or the fact that they are able to tell a difference between this and other ‘customer service’ in Rome.
The Romans are a proud people. In fact, to call oneself Roman is to call back on seven generations, many of whom could well still be living above one another in one of the main high rise buildings dotted throughout Rome. However, it is this ‘first’ generation who regularly hurl abuse at each other over the ‘cortile’ whilst all the while the tourists wander by marvelling at the “beautiful courtyards, so peaceful” seemingly immune to the sounds of the blaring televisions and histrionics of daily life. Churches with enforced silences abound whilst outside ambulances scream by. This is a city of contradictions. The Rome of ‘Roman Holiday’, ‘La Dolce Vita’ and, more recently, ‘La Grande Bellezza’ is the beautiful backdrop. Romans themselves take back their city from the tourists by spraying it with graffiti. Rome has often been described as an open air museum, but this is like the Breakfast club invaded the museum.
Rome, the eternal (ly) noisy city where a conversation is an act in a Shakespearean tragedy, where the audience of passers-by need not cross the street to hear the intricacies of any conversation. ‘All the world’s a stage’ and if the accent makes the language difficult to discern, the players thoughtfully add in subtitles in the form of gestures. Beware the unwitting tourist armed with their ‘lingua de Bocaccio’, the purest form of Italian; Roman dialect is a series of grunts and words more masticated than the victim of an encounter with a lion in the Colosseum. Given the adventurous lives of the ancient Romans (and I refer to their conquering of each other rather than countries) it should hardly come as a surprise that La Parolaccia is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the swearing and abuse. And even here, the earnest Italian scholar may find themselves a little confused when listening to expressions such as ‘mortacci tuoi/tua’ a phrase almost impossible to translate into English, but which basically insults your antecedents; a very Roman way of abusing someone.
Swearing frequently takes the form of sexual innuendo and, as with the Spanish, any trip to the market should come with its own advisory warning. Potatoes ‘patate’ refer to female genitalia. There was a famous advert by a former porn star in Italy called Rocco Siffredi. In it he speaks of how he has tried ‘crisps’ (patatine) from all over the world, but his favourite ‘crisps’ are Amica crisps. Beans ‘fava’ (referring to male genitalia); peas, ‘piselli’ (the same) and figs ‘figa’ (an attractive woman but actually more akin to beautiful pussy) are further examples. In a country which produced Berlusconi who once described Thatcher as a ‘nice bit of pussy’, such an emphasis on the vulgar is unsurprising.The list goes on. Given that Italy is home to the Vatican, it is also a curiosity that you will hear levels of blasphemy rarely heard in other languages. ‘Porco dio’ and ‘porca la Madonna’ (largely meaning pigging God and pigging Madonna, but more like ‘f*cking hell’) are two common expressions, particularly in Tuscany and yet sound shocking to largely secular English ears.
It can be no mistake that it should have been an Italian, Marconi, who created radio. Quiet reading is the preserve of the uptight, emotionally repressed English. Mobile phones have now ensured that no Italian need endure a moment’s peace. A visit to Saint Peter’s on Easter Sunday is like a pop concert as Romans throw their phones up in the direction of the Pope giving his address, shouting out ‘Mamma, senti il Papa’ – ‘Mum, listen to the Pope’. Where, on London buses, all look down, reading their books intently, on Roman buses all look up (and down and back up again giving you the quick once over) and the din is overwhelming.
Therefore, when you next consult your phrasebook, it might be worth considering adding a page or two of choice phrases for the next time an Italian tries to mow you down on the zebra crossing. After all, when in Rome….