Thursday, July 25, 2013

Magic words in France and Italy

Traveling can be an enriching experience, not only from seeing new sights but also by learning new customs. My language skills in French and Italian are limited. I have taken French lessons at my local Alliance de
--> Française, but I realize that my grammar is still rustic and rudimentary.
I do my best to use as many French words as I know, and with the best pronunciation as I can muster, knowing that if I am patient enough I will manage. I learned early on that the French people are formal and that you must start every interaction with "bon jour." If you do not begin with that nicety, you are considered rude.
I can respect wanting a formal greeting. It is a cultural difference and this may be a source of some friction Americans have when they visit France if they do not recognize the cultural expectations of the host country. Americans are much more casual and we will chat with anyone, and even think about needing to start a conversation with a greeting of "good day."
Many times we will be at a store, say a coffee shop, where we are staring up at the menu. Then, when we are greeted and asked for our order, we are more likely to answer with the drinks we want than to start with "Good day, I would like to have..."
During my first trip to France in 2007, I did my best to use bon jour with every interaction I had with a French person. It was when we were in the Midi-Pyrenees region and at farmer's markets that I discovered a different phrase, that of
--> bonne journée. (It is pronouced bun jour-nay).

A farmer's market in Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val.

At first I thought they were wishing me to have a good journey. I wondered how obvious it was that I was on vacation. Later, much later, I realized the significance of bonne journée. 
It is the feminine version of bon jour and the polite way of ending a conversation by wishing someone a good rest of their day.
Get it? Start with the masculine bon jour and end with the feminine bonne journée. It is like book ends to a conversation.
In 2011, when I returned to France I used bonne journée instead of au revoir to say good-bye. The reaction was startling. I found that in the villages, my wishing bonne journée was treated as if I paid them a high compliment. On more than one occasion, the person's voice went up an entire octave and they trilled out "Aussi!  Bonne journée!" (You too! Have a Good Day!)
Seriously. Americans have become so jaded and cynical that wishing someone a good day or "have a good one" is fodder for stand up comedians. Yet, that simple nicety will endear yourself in France with the locals.
My Italian is more sparse than my French. It consists of a few all purpose words such as buongiorno, buena sera, grazie, ciao and prego.
Having learned my lesson in France, I did my best to start any conversations with Italians with buongiorno or buena sera. 
The word that surprised me as to its usage is "prego." I feel it is the Swiss Army knife of words in Italian.
It is used to say please, thank you, and you're welcome. I have had waiters come to my table with their pad in hand and simply say "prego." It might translate as please, but it has so many more uses.
Tasso Ristorante Pizzeria in Sorrento, Italy

If you are traveling in Italy, know that prego is used far more often than per favore.
During our trip this summer we visited our exchange student and his family. While he was living with us in California, I saw him use his cell phone for reading texts, emails, etc., but do not remember seeing him talk into the phone. In Italy, I saw him answer the phone a few times and was surprised at his greeting.
Not buongiorno or salve, but pronto.
It reminds me of the old greeting, "go ahead, it's your dime."
The other day when I had a phone call from an unknown user, I decided to use "pronto" as my greeting. The caller was flummoxed and hung up on me. Just as well, I think it was a telemarketer and I am on the "do not call" list.

Does anyone have any other "magic" words they learned in a foreign country they would like to add?



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