How Italian works.

Ha ha!  I can’t help you here.  I have no idea how Italian works.  I’ve been studying it for a long time and I am still almost completely clueless!

But, I persevere.

I thought I’d share with you on this sunny Sunday afternoon, something about how Italian is explained to me on a daily basis by my Italian teachers and textbook.  It’s extremely confusing.  Maybe its just me.

OK, so Intermediate Level, book 1.  We shall discuss how to decide to use which of 2 auxiliary verbs when forming the past tense.  That sounds simple enough.  Ready?


My book explains that

  1. some verbs use (or “take” in Italian) only AVERE (to have)

2. Some verbs use only ESSERE (to be)

3. Some verbs use both interchangeably

4. Reflexive verbs always use ESSERE

But then the fun stuff starts:

5. The passive form in the past tense is created using ESSERE even when the verb normally takes AVERE

6. Some verbs use AVERE when transitive and ESSERE when intransitive

Here my textbook veers off the complicated path to remind us what a TRANSITIVE Verb is, and what INTRANSITIVI VERBI are like.  I won’t bore you with the details since I barely grasp the concept anyhow.


Then my textbook goes back to the complicated path and reminds:

  1. The first group of verbs only uses AVERE**

**But remember, all transitive verb use ESSERE when

a. passive or

b. reflexive


2. The 2nd group uses ESSERE

3. The 3rd group uses either ESSERE or AVERE

4. The 4th group uses AVERE when transitive and ESSERE when intransitive

5. The 5th group involves the “verbi modali” which is 3 verbs: POTERE (to be able to); VOLERE (to want to); and DOVERE (to have to).

You’ll be relieved to know that the 3 modal verbs always use AVERE

except: when making the past tense, then you use whatever auxiliary verb the infinitive of the verb you are using normally takes.

So, for example, you might normally say Loro non sono rimasti. But if you want to use a model verb to give nuance to your phrase, then you might say Loro non sono voluti (see that! the normal past participle is voluto, but you needed to change it to plural male or voluti) rimanere.

So, to recap, you could happily say Loro non sono rimasti (they didn’t stay), but if you want to say They didn’t want to stay, then you have to make some adjustments.  In that case you would say, Loro non sono voluti rimanere (they didn’t want to stay).

My advice is just to skip the subject and accept that they didn’t stay but you have no idea what their motive was.




Aprile in italia

Aprile, apriletto, un dì freddo un dì caldetto” –(April, oh April, one day you’re cold, the next you’re warm.)


The weather has been all over the place lately, exactly like it is supposed to be in April! Sunny and almost hot and then windy, rainy and cold.  Infatti, Aprile is quite notorious and has a pretty wild reputation in Italy. There are an astounding number of old Italian proverbs devoted to this wily month:

Aprile e Maggio son la chiave di tutto l’anno (April and May are the keys to the whole year).


And then: Aprile fa il fiore e maggio si ha il colore (April brings the flower and May the color.)


One I really like is: Aprile carciofaio, maggio ciliegiaio. (In April, artichoke. In May, cherries.)


April rains are their own category of proverbs. To wit:

*Aprile piovoso, maggio ventoso, anno fruttuoso” — Rainy April, windy May, fruitful year.


*L’acqua d’aprile, il bue ingrassa, il porco uccide, e la pecora se ne ride” — The water of April, the ox grows fat, the pig dies, and the sheep laughs.



*Quando tuona d’Aprile buon segno per il barile’ — When it thunders in April, it’s a good sign for the barrel (of wine).


And the weather can be a guide to men as well:  “Gli uomini sono aprile quando fanno all’amore, dicembre quando hanno sposato.“– (Men are like April when they flirt/court; like December once they are married.)

Hang on, May is almost here!

Paradise: a walled garden.

Villa Gamberaia in Settignano is truly a paradise for me.  But what on earth (ha ha, get it?) do I mean by “paradise?”


I mean a walled garden where tranquility is found.  A refuge. A place to restore.

In fact, the word “paradise” entered the English language from the French paradis, inherited from the Latin paradisus, from the Greek parádeisos (παράδεισος).  The Greeks borrowed the word from an Old Iranian paridayda meaning “walled enclosure.” By 500 BCE, the Old Iranian word had been adopted as Assyrian pardesu or “domain.”

In general, “paradise” was first used to indicate the expansive walled gardens of the First Persian Empire. The garden is constantly used as a symbol for paradise, with shade and water as its ideal elements.  ‘Gardens under which rivers flow’ is a frequently used expression for the bliss. The four main rivers of paradise are traditionally thought to be , one of water, one of milk, one of wine and one of purified honey.

This is the origin of the quartered garden, which were divided by means of four water-channels and all contained within a private, walled enclosure.


With or without masses of blooming flowers, Villa Gamberaia is paradise to me.  Even without literal rivers of milk and honey. :-))  Quiet and birdsong is enough.


The great, big world of citrus…

Think of it: every time you go to the fruit section of the grocery store, you are offered so many choices of citrus that it’s mind-boggling.


And there are often new varieties you never heard about before: Cara cara oranges; Meyer lemons; blood oranges.

It is astounding to think that the whole smorgasbord began with 4 humble taxa: the four core ancestral citrus taxa are


1.  citron (C. medica)




2.  pummelo (C. maxima)



3.  mandarine (C. reticulata)



4.  papeda (C. micrantha)



For a thousand years the citron (a kind of lemon) was the only kind of citrus fruit in Europe, nor did not lose its monopoly over the Italian peninsula until Arabic invaders brought lemons and sour oranges to Sicily.

Today, authorities agree that all citrus species are native to Southeast Asia, where they are found wild and in an uncultivated form. The citron had begun its journey to Calabria by migrating slowly into China and across India. The climate it encountered outside Assam was so much hotter, drier and more challenging that it couldn’t survive without human help, but what possible appeal could it make to a farmer?

-Would you choose to eat its fruit? Not really.

-Was its wood good for burning? Not very.

-Was it useful for building? Not at all.

-Could anyone find shade beneath its branches? Certainly not.

-Did it at least live for a long time? No.

So it was a practical failure, and yet…

…there was something miraculous about it that could not be ignored. It had an almost supernatural ability to bear a full cargo of beautiful flowers and enormous golden fruit simultaneously throughout the year.

Everything about it was scented – its pale waxy flowers, its dark green leaves, its fruit and even the wood itself – and like a glamorous woman, it was constantly surrounded by a miasma of perfumed air.

Finally, the fruit seemed eternal, neither rotting nor falling from the tree.

Although it had no obvious practical use, the tree’s mysterious habits gave it a powerful and peculiar appeal, so that people seem always to have felt compelled to cultivate it, imbue it with symbolic significance, paint its portrait and include it in ancient stories.

The citron spread gradually from India into Persia, its fruit stowed deep inside the saddlebags of merchants moving along the caravan routes that ran from the Punjab in upper India through Afghanistan to Persia and Mesopotamia (between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Iraq), or flashing gold among the cargoes of boats carried on monsoon winds from the west coast of India to Oman, before being taken overland to Iraq and then Iran.

And, citrons travelled well: they were slow to decay and their seeds were protected by the fruit’s enormous carapace of pith and peel.

The trees were fully acclimatized in Persia and Media (north-west Iran) by the fourth century BC, when Alexander the Great came storming through with his armies and a vast retinue of scientific experts. The scientists were commissioned by Alexander to record every aspect of the flora and fauna, geography, people, mineral deposits and infrastructure of the regions they passed through in the wake of his armies. 3 They were on the lookout for useful trees or crops that might be

Much of the above is taken, with my edits and additions from Wikipedia, from: Attlee, Helena (2015-01-05). The Land Where Lemons Grow: The Story of Italy and Its Citrus Fruit (Kindle Locations 2687-2695). Countryman Press. Kindle Edition.


A primer: Where did the Italian language come from, anyway?

The history of the Italian language is naturally incredibly complex.


However, the modern standard of the language was largely shaped by relatively recent events. The earliest surviving texts, dating between 960 and 963, and which can definitely be called Italian, as opposed to its predecessor Vulgar Latin, are legal formulae from the region of Benevento, about 50 km northeast of Naples.


Even more importantly, during the 14th century the Tuscan dialect began to predominate.  This was due to at least 2 major factors: 1: the central position of Tuscany in Italy; and 2: the aggressive commerce of Florence, Tuscany’s most important city.

In fact, Florentine culture produced the three literary artists who best summarized Italian thought and feeling of the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance: Petrarca, Boccaccio and, especially, Dante Alighieri. It was Dante who mixed southern Italian languages, especially Sicilian, with his native Tuscan, which was supposedly derived from Etruscan and Oscan, in his epic poem known as the Commedia, to which Giovanni Boccaccio later affixed the adjective Divina.


During the 15th and the 16th centuries, grammarians attempted to codify the pronunciation, syntax, and vocabulary of 14th-century Tuscan. Eventually this classicism, which might have made Italian just another dead language, was widened to include the organic changes inevitable in a living tongue.

In the dictionaries and publications of the Accademia della Crusca, founded in 1583,  compromises between classical purism and living Tuscan usage were successfully integrated.


In 1525 the Venetian, Pietro Bembo (1470-1547), set out his proposals (Prose della volgar lingua) for a standardized language and style: Petrarca and Boccaccio were his models and thus became the modern classics.


In fact, the 1st edition of an official Italian vocabulary, published in 1612 by the Accademia della Crusca, was based on the Florentine works: Divina Commedia by Dante, Decameron by Bocaccio and Canzionere by Petrarca. Today, Toscano is still considered the “cleanest” of all Italian dialects, as it is the most similar to the original or classical Latin.


However, it was not until the 19th century that the language spoken by educated Tuscans  became the language of a new nation. The unification of Italy in 1861 had a profound impact not only on the political scene but also socially, economically, and culturally. With mandatory schooling, the literacy rate increased, and many speakers abandoned their native dialect in favor of the national language.


Long live Italian!

Back to school! Italian lessons 101.

So, two days ago I became a student again.  To learn to speak Italian. Ayyyyyyyy! Madonna!


My school is about a 10 minute walk from my apartment.  I go for 4 hours a day, 5 days a week, for two weeks.  Then I see if I think it is worthwhile and can either enroll in another two week course or wing it in Florence and hope for the best.  In any case, I’ll be hoping for the best!


I think it would be fun to enroll in a course on how to speak like an Italian with your hands.  Lord knows Italians have very verbal hands!  It is such fun to surreptitiously watch them talk to one another. Even if I don’t understand what all the words are, I can usually pick up the drift of the conversation from a few words and all the gestures.

Why do I do all this, expend all this energy, for Italy?  It’s simple really.  I drew you a picture.