Monday, December 19, 2005

Christmas in Italia

The Romans don't exactly do Christmas cheer. It's true the city is a bit more festive than normal, but uninspiringly so. Yeah, there are white lights streaming overhead on the main shopping drags, a glowing evergreen sits in Piazza Venezia (to me, there's nothing warm and festive about Piazza Venezia, but I appreciate the effort) and you'll see the odd shopwindow xmas tree display. Santa Claus (Babo Natale to bambini Italiani) is around town too. But he's not nearly as grand when you are reminded (more than once) that he is nothing more than a marketing icon invented by Coca-Cola in the 30s.

In contrast, the Londoners were stringing up lights on Regent and Oxford streets on the first of November. And, Paris was all asparkle and aglitter on my trip there a few weeks ago. Ditto, New York (where I will be later this week) will be decked out in holiday cheer. I understand it's more of a northern European/American tradition to lavish street corners with lights and fill the air with Xmas tunes, but it's not exactly an evil import. Ok, not entirely evil.

This was my state of mind last night when, in search of a little Xmas spirit, we went off to a Protestant carol service. When I heard Christmas carols I was sold. This is strange for me. I have a limited pain threshhold for Xmas carols. But you have to hear them at least once or twice in December. The Italians don't do Xmas carols either. Christmas is to be joyous, by Catholic decree, but song is not guaranteed. I didn't know this though. Had I known it, I wouldn't have found it surprising when Xtina pointed out to me that I was humming "Away in a manger" during the service.

You know this song?
, she asked accusingly.


You know Protestant songs?

I think they're traditional xmas songs,
I whispered back uncovincingly. Not necessarily Protestant songs.

Actually, I'm not sure of the origin. But I do know they weren't dreamed up by the Coca-Cola marketing department.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Now showing: German comedy

This weekend I caught a great film -- a German comedy, actually. Yes, the Germans are capable of comedy. What made this one all the more audacious was the subject matter: it's about a Jewish poolhall hustler and his Orthodox Jewish in-laws. To earn the mother's inheritance the two feuding brothers have to sit shiva for a week and reconcile. Zucker, the main character and poolhall hustler, concocts a series of gags to sneak out and get down to the pool hall. It's not quite Woody Allen, but it has some classicly funny scenes.

In Italian, the movie is called " Zucker!...Come diventare ebreo in 7 giorni" or "Zucker, how to become Jewish in 7 days". With a title like that, who wouldn't be intrigued? Director Dani Levi really has a set of palle to go with such a controversial title, I thought. And so I went poking around to see what's being said about the film. The answer: very little.

There's two reasons for the radio/Net silence. Firstly, the film came out in Germany in 2004. Secondly, only the Italians (as far as I can find) have given it this how-to title. In the U.S., it's called "Go for Zucker". And, in Germany "Alles Auf Zucker" ("Everything on Zucker" or some such).

What I can't understand is why the Italian distributors would make such a radical name change. On second thought, I like the Italian title. It's funny, bold, a bit controversial...just like the film. It's what immediately perked my interest. I dunno. Go for Zucker just doesn't quite do it.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Are you a "single"?

The next time I step outside, I will no doubt be struck by lightning for cracking on somebody else's polyglot skills. But I just can't resist pointing out this outfit from Piemonte, known as Italiafor2. (Thanks for the head's up, Jim).

It begins:

Are you a “single”? Do you want to “astonish” someone? Aren’t you a single but do you want to get in touch with someone or a group of friends in a “relaxed” and “charming” moment?

Perhaps the best meeting you can organise is an “Italian dinner” at your home!

If you answered an enthusiastic "si!" to any of these questions, then click Italiafor2

Friday, December 02, 2005

The "ask" of evil

I think it's time we considered abolishing the word "ask" from everyday usage. It's structurally unfair. The "sk" sound is just too difficult to pronounce for most people. (Thankfully, I've got it down. Start with an open "ah" then follow with a hissing "sssss", then tongue-on-roof-of-mouth-"kkkk"-kick.) See what I mean? This word is far too much work. In a language like English where we are constantly making accomodations for new words, why can't we find a simple substitute for this pesky word. Consider this: with just three letters we are asking the jaw, tongue and entire dental arcade to go through a rigorous gymnastic routine. Open mouth wide. "Ah". Thrust tongue forward. Hiss. "ssss". Now roll up tongue and click. "kkk". Exhausting.

If you invert the letters so that the "kkkk" precedes the "sss", you are cutting the number of movements in half. How many times have you heard somebody pronounce this little fellah as "axe"? They're not stupid. They're just conserving energy. They're onto the direct object in one fluid motion. True, "axing" somebody something leaves behind a gory image, but if we use a little less imagination we'll get through this.

Now, why am I bringing this up? Me, a traditionalist when it comes to the spoken word. I'm doing it for my Continental European friends. If you think those tongue movements are difficult for those of us reared on English and its Germanic cousins, it's an absolute axe slaying for those whose mother tongue is a Romance language. Italians, in particular, cannot pronounce either "ask" -- they give it an extra "uhhh" after the "kkk" -- or worse, the past tense, "asked."

I cringed when I read this recent mini profile from the New Yorker on Gianrico Carofiglio, an Italian anti-Mafia prosecutor and mystery writer. Here's Carofiglio on his early doubts about getting into crime novels from the New Yorker interview:

“If somebody asked”—Carofiglio pronounced the word with two syllables—“me some years ago what is my most absurd dream, I would have said presenting a book, my book, in translation, in New York City.”

Don't snicker, Yanks. "Asked", I would say, is not nearly as butchered as the word "gnocchi". There are only 10, maybe 12 Americans, (and even fewer Brits) who can properly pronounce this dish even though everybody loves it. The "gn" in Italian is pronounced "nnnn-yuh" like "yuck" with an an "n" in the front and no "ck" in the caboose. So, gnocchi would be "nnn-yuh-aw-key". Americans have destroyed all kinds of Italian words. You cannot tell me Schiavo is pronounced "Shy-voh". Nope, sorry. All credibility ends right there. If I was covering that story, that's the first question I'd....erm, raise.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Dating tips from the church

Here's an interesting dating tip for us Catholics: don't marry a Muslim. According to Cardinal Camillo Ruini, the president of the Italian Bishops Conference, the children of a mixed Catholic-Muslim marriage may grow up to shun Christianity.

In Ruini's words:

“In addition to the problems that any couple encounters when forming a family, Catholics and Muslims have to reckon with the difficulties that inevitably arise from deep cultural differences.”

Ruini went on to say that if you absolutely must marry Muslim then you should make arrangements to keep the family in Italy. With such an open-minded attitude towards multi-culturalism, why go anywhere else?

The Church's decree comes at a bit of an awkward time. Italy has poor relations with its growing Muslim population. And so, in a gesture of inclusiveness, the government this week has formed an Islamic body that will help Muslims integrate themselves better in Italian culture. Sounds as if this will be hands-off consultation in the strictest sense of the term.