During lockdown, with time on my hands, I have been working on improving my Italian language skills. This week one of my assignments was a written comprehension exercise on an extract from “La testa degli italiani” by Beppe Severgnini. Some of you may have read his “La Bella Figura”, published in English. The extracts from “La testa degli italiani” were amusing, informative and struck a chord. I thought I would share them with you. If you are going to be visiting Italy, whether you intend to drive or just be a pedestrian, you should read it. You can read the Italian version here.


“In streets all over the world, cars generally stop in front of the pedestrian crossings. Where it doesn’t happen it is because they don’t have pedestrian crossings, or they don’t have roads. In Italy we are special. We have roads (crowded) and pedestrian crossings(faded), but cars rarely stop. They anticipate, postpone, slow down, circumvent. They pass behind, splash in front. The pedestrian feels like a bullfighter, but at least the bulls can be impaled.

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Sometimes, however, a saint, a madman or a stranger stops. Watch what happens. The following drivers brake, showing that they are irritated: they risked a rear-end collision, and for what? For a pedestrian, who could basically wait until the road was clear. The pedestrian, for his part, takes on a pathetic air of gratitude. He has forgotten that he is exercising a right. He sees only the concession, the unusual privilege, the personalized treatment: cross and thank the driver. […]

An American journalist wrote about thirty years ago: “It is not chic to be a pedestrian in Italy. It is in bad taste. ” If anything has changed, it has changed for the worse. In the brutal hierarchy of the road, mopeds have joined in between cars and pedestrians (bicycles are not: those are your companions of misfortune). Of course, compared to then, cars brake better. But discovering that ABS functions well two meters from your ankles is not a consolation. Unless you are one of those who arrive in Italy and find everything picturesque. In this case you deserve everything that happens to you. And on an Italian street, I don’t know if you have understood it, anything can happen to you.

If humans express themselves through the vocal cords, the tongue, the eyes and the hands – says the writer John Updike – cars use horns and headlights. A short sound means “Hello!”. A long sound “I hate you!”. Flashing with the headlights means “You can pass”. What is there to say? Updike has written masterful novels, but his automotive semantics is elementary. Look around. In Italy the cars not only speak: they comment, insult, rebel, insinuate, hold university courses. […] And we understand them.

With the horn we compose symphonies. We use it less than before, but it remains an expressive, allusive, occasionally offensive tool. A dry sound indicates “Hey, I saw that parking lot before!”, Or “Wake up! The traffic light has turned green! ”. Another sound, long and desolate, asks “Whose car is in front of my door?”. […] It is not a disturbance of public peace. It is an unnecessary form of virtuosity: not the only one in Italy.

What about flashing lights? It does not mean “You can overtake”; it means, instead, “I am overtaking” (the foreigner who ignores this difference, does so at his own risk). On motorways, in the fast lane, it means “let me pass”. When it appears unmotivated, it serves to signal the presence of a traffic police patrol. It is one of the rare cases in which we Italians – happy to defraud the established authority – join forces, showing solidarity with strangers. It is a case of uncivilized civism. Someone should study it.”
By Beppe Severgnini, from “The head of the Italians”, BUR

(Any translation errors are all mine, my Italian speaking friends are welcome to send me suggested corrections.)

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