We’ve had our share of embarrassing encounters when we travel, often rooted in language miscommunications… Here are two of our favorite "His and Her" anecdotes, that just (sadly) happen to be male genital-related.
In springtime in Tuscany, you can find the most incredible peas in the shell. Long, fragrant pods that shelter the most sweet, crunchy, earthy peas. Zeneba has a favorite fruit and veg vendor in Pienza. It’s a tiny little shop tucked down a side street, only about 2 people can fit in there at any one time. This is one of those stores in which you are not permitted to touch the produce yourself — you need to wait for them to help you. As a result, the minute you walk in the store you get attention. They help you choose produce, ask you what you want to do with it (cook it? eat it raw? eat it today, or in a day or two?), and then choose the best options for you. Every shopping experience can turn in to a little free cooking lesson, a lovely bonus.
In springtime, this one veg vendor reliably carries these peas, a variety that Zeneba can’t find in every store. So we have on occasion driven well out of our way to shop here, and more than once, we have bought every pea pod they had. Steamed for a few minutes, dressed with a little extra virgin olive oil and salt, served with a hunk of crusty bread and a glass of Chianti….a perfect (vegan) supper.
One day Zeneba had a big craving for these, and we drove about 30 minutes to get to this produce shop. Zeneba was thrilled when she saw a big, overflowing box of these peas on the shelf. She walked in to the store and said in a voice louder than she intended: “HO BISOGNO PISELLI!!!!” (“I NEED PEAS!!!!”)
Guess what “piselli” is slang for in Italian? Penis. (The plural, in fact.) A fun fact we did not learn until about six months later.
After dozens of trips to Italy, and hundreds of conversations with locals at bars, shops, and restaurants all over the country, our basic Italian is now quite functional, if still a bit primitive. We are both classical musicians; in our business, Italian terminology is used regularly. Further, Zeneba had studied the language for a few years in high school; Matt had studied Spanish, which has enough similarities to help him along. But on our first forays into Italy, despite those slight advantages, our language skills were barely better than those of Tarzan.
Zeneba had coached Matt on how to say a few things, mostly related to food and getting directions. But in our conversations, we found that a common question asked of us was, “Che lavoro fai?” - “What do you do for a living?”
On our first trip, following Zeneba’s tips, Matt answered in rudimentary Italian that he plays the cello in an orchestra: “Io gioco cello in una orchestra sinfonica.”
We don’t know how many times we said this to people - a lot. But finally one innkeeper couple laughed and took us into their confidence: “Don’t say this like that anymore.” They then explained what he had really been saying. The word “giocare” means “to play”, but it’s in the sense of playing a game, or with a toy, not playing an instrument. A harmless mistake, and one most Italians understood in the context.
However, that wasn’t the worst of it. When Matt said “cello” (short for “violoncello”) it sounded like uccello, little bird. So he was sort of saying, “I play with a little bird.” That’s still not the embarrassing part, though.
“Uccello”, it turns out, is also a common slang word for - you guessed it - penis.
So, what it sounded like Matt was saying in response to “What work do you do?” was “Oh, I play with my...” Well, you get the idea.
We’re now careful to use the verb suonare (to make sound) and to carefully enunciate the entire name of my instrument, violoncello.
Now that we think back on it, though, we may remember that some people seemed a little too impressed with what Matt told them he does for a living.