I’m staying in a hostel in Siracusa. It’s a couple of days before Ferragosto and the place is packed with people from all different countries: France, Germany, South Africa, England and Italy – and that’s just in my dorm. I’m humbled by the language skills on display here. In the main the travellers are in their late teens or early 20s, and most of them speak English nigh-on fluently. Interestingly enough, though, Italian not so much. When I speak Italian to the desk clerk he’s both surprised and gratified to hear somebody speaking his language. As an English speaker I could choose to go pretty much anywhere in the world and not bother to learn any new languages at all. For the record, this is not something that either pleases or excites me. In fact, the reason I’m in Siracusa is that I’m on my way to Taormina to enrol on an Italian language course for three weeks. Take that, crappy language skills!
Walking past a cafe I see a tall, elderly man in conversation with a short young woman. As I pass I hear her call to people inside, come si dice ‘la mattina’? Ridiculously enough, I’m the most qualified person to answer, so I leap in. Morning. A big grin crosses the girl’s face and the man turns to me in relief. It turns out that the girl – tattoed, über-cool, beautiful and friendly – is the cafe owner. The man, meanwhile, flustered and out of his depth with only a few words of Italian at his disposal, none of which include times of the day, is Australian. The cafe owner is trying to explain to him when the cafe is open for food. Tomorrow evening, apparently. What time? calls out the Australian man’s wife. I ask the cafe owner and receive the answer, translating it for the Australian couple, who potter off happily.
In a glow of self-satisfaction, I head inside the cafe to order a drink. Fish juice, please! The cafe owner smiles and raises an eyebrow. Do you mean peach? We both collapse in giggles. Karma’s a bitch, but just occasionally she has a wicked sense of humour.
Embarrassingly enough, this isn’t the first time I’ve made this mistake. To a native English speaker, there is little difference visually between the words pesce (fish) and pesca (peach). To an Italian, however, the different vowels at the end of the word change the preceding ‘c’ from soft to hard. Pesce = pe-shay while pesca = pe-ska. The meaning, of course, changes even more. One day I’ll get my come-uppance and be served a glass of fish juice. Maybe then I’ll remember which is which. The trouble is that every time I stop to think about which word I need, the difference escapes me and I blurt out the wrong one. Moral of the story? Ask for apricot instead.