Thursday, February 17, 2011

My history of Ciao...and then some!

Photo of album cover with title song "Ciao Amore, Ciao" by Delida

While living in Los Angeles, and just before I moved to Italy, I beefed up my vocabulary by slipping in the word ciao—here and there—when greeting friends and family; a simple acknowledgment that wasn’t new to me. I had often heard it used while strolling down the boutique lined avenues near my office in Beverly Hills or while enjoying a California Cobb salad at my favorite Rodeo Drive sidewalk café. I was charmed, and somewhat entertained, to see fashionably dressed men and women greet their friends with this foreign four-letter word and accompany it with a double-cheek kiss. So cosmopolitan I thought, and knowing I would soon be immersed in the Italian way of life I felt it was my right to dive in and make the greeting mine! At the time I wasn’t very concerned about how it was spelled, or where in Italian history it originated. I just liked the way it sounded when it rolled past my lips.
When I moved to Italy it didn’t take me long to learn that this little word was bursting with vowels and wasn’t written the way we Anglophones pronounce it. Phonetically it sure seems to call for a ch and it certainly rings out like the twice repeated name of those fluffy purebred dogs; or Purina’s bestselling moist and meaty; and I mustn't leave out the noodle dish that brings red-lanterns, chopsticks and fortune cookies to mind. So one would naturally think that the friendly greeting would be spelled the same way as these others: c-h-o-w.  But, that’s not how the Italian language works.
It is common knowledge among Venetians that the word ciao derives from an expression in the Venetian dialect—yep they get credit for this too—s’ciàvo or slave; schiavo in Italian. (Note: “ch” in Italian has a “k” sound, and “ci” has a “ch” sound like chocolate) At its inception this tiny word, which is as much a part of Italian culture as pasta, referred to the people of Slavic origin, hence slaves.  The greeting s’ciào corresponded with the slaves' acknowledgment to their owners as your servant or at your service.  I’ve been told by my Venetian friends and family that over the centuries the greeting spread and was used as a form of respect by all classes of society before being shortened to the word as we know it today. It is curious to think that in our contemporary times ciao is considered an informal greeting reserved for close family and friends. No one I've spoken to seems to know when that transformation took effect. However, today when making new acquaintances it is considered proper etiquette to use the greetings buon giorno (good day) and arriverderci (until we see each other again) and never ciao.  
As anyone who has been to Italy can testify ciao is used by Italians dozens of times in any given day: It is echoed across school yards by backpack carrying children heading to their classrooms, waving goodbye to their mothers, and racing to catch up with their classmates screaming out the same; by women in the marketplace, weighed down with bulging bags of fresh produce, who chant the greeting across ice covered fresh-fish stalls to grab the attention of an old friend; by businessmen and women who glancing up from reading the local newspaper spot a colleague enter the local bar where their morning ritual calls for a marmalade-filled brioche washed down with a steaming cup of espresso before they head off to the office; or by carefree groups of friends whose salutations fill the air and bounce off the majestic façade of St. Mark’s square as they call it a night. Yet, if anyone were to ask me what my favorite ciao of the day is, I’d have to tell them that it’s the one that comes with a kiss and the word amore tagging along. Ciao...a sweet welcome or farewell that lets the giver and receiver know they are among friends. Ciao!

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Playful Differences & Similarities of Italian vs. American Life

Twenty-four years. I simply can’t believe I’ve been living in Venice for twenty-four years!

January 31, 1987 was a warm, sun drenched day in Los Angeles when I kissed my family and friends goodbye at the Los Angeles International airport. I had all I needed with me: a one-way ticket, a few treasured belongings boxed and stored in the cargo hold of a PanAm jet, my wedding dress wrapped in a garment bag and held high above my head, and the man of my dreams by my side. I was leaving my world behind and was headed for the unknown.

We landed the next day on a fog covered winter morning in the city by the lagoon; two bone-chilling weeks would pass before the sun I left in Southern California finally came to our aid and turned the gray Venetian sky blue. It was a grim introduction for a young woman who was used to spending her workweek in a high-rise Beverly Hills office and her weekends sitting by the pool. But it was my new world and my new lifestyle, and it turned out to be the best choice I’ve ever made. Thank goodness my wonderful, patient partner never tired of me asking the question: Why? You see everything was different and being new to all this, and the nothing is impossible analytical type, I’m sure there were times when I drove my future husband crazy.

While tripping over the language (for the longest time I avoided using a spoon because it was too hard to pronounce cucchiaio…way too many vowels) I was prepared to pull everything I saw wrong with Italian bureaucracy into shape. Just give me six months I said, and I’ll have this place organized. How arrogant of me to think my way would be better! That’s not to say there isn’t a lot that could be done differently here, even the Italians will tell you that, but it took me a few years to realize there is a reason why countries, cultures and people see and do things differently, and that what works for one may not be right for another. And there are so many, many things I would never want to see change.

I have been asked countless times in the last twenty-four years by both Italian and American friends: Where do you like living the best, and what are the differences between your two countries?  I honestly love them both. How lucky am I to have two fabulous countries to call home?  I’ve made a short, playful list to give you an idea of the differences and similarities I’ve come across in the last two decades; differences that are now the norm for me. I’m sure there are many more, so feel free to add some of your own!

Coffee is not sold in paper cups                              
It is considered uncivil to set a lunch or dinner table without a table cloth               
Most Italians take a long vacation in August                                              
Beer with pizza and sandwiches; Wine with everything else; Milk is never served with meals                             
The majority of couples decide to only have one child
Grandparents take the place of daycare                                           
Soccer is the number one sport and has an 11 month season                                                           
Public transportation is used by all                                     
Consumers often seem to have fewer rights than the service providers                                                   
Old buildings are cherished and restored                             
You bag your own groceries and pay for the bags                                        
Slow-food is a way of life                                                    
Everyone drives as if they’re in a Ferrari                                         
People don’t really care what you do for a living                 
Baseball makes no sense to Italians                                    
It is acceptable to leave work in the morning to pick up your family’s daily supply of fresh baked bread
In larger cities people walk more than they drive
Pets are welcome in most restaurants                                                                     
Public schools are considered better than private                 
No one is without good healthcare
Meetings are scheduled to schedule meetings

Similarities between U.S.A. & Italy                                          
Women love shoes and handbags made in Italy
Most women work outside the home
Everyone loves gelato and pizza!    
Pets are like family members
Basketball fans love the Lakers (this would be more Italy/L.A.)
SUVs are popular
Most don’t trust politicians
Everyone has a cellphone, or two
People dislike call centers
Most high school grads go on to college     
Bruschette, risotto and pasta!
Gyms, yoga and wellness centers
Italians love the U.S./Americans love Italy!