Archive for the ‘Living in Europe’ Category

“I find television to be very educating.  Every time somebody turns on the set, I go in the other room and read a book.”  –Groucho Marx

Television as a way to learn a foreign language is by no means a new concept.  Since its inception in the late 1940s, newcomers have been using TV as a means to help them absorb their new language, and more importantly, to assimilate into their new culture.  The conventional wisdom of linguists is there’s no relationship between watching television and mastering a language.  I beg to differ.  Based on only nonscientific anecdotal evidence (me), I assert that watching TV is a super supplement to other means of learning because it gives the viewer verbal as well as visual cues.  You can look at it as a “workbook” in a box.  With respect to colloquialisms that are spoken in everyday life, what better place to soak up slang than from a reality show or afternoon soap opera?  After all, if it’s your intention to fit in and become part of your community, you’ll want to become familiar with the common vernacular.

Pantofolaio (Couch Potato) Beware!

Of course, it’s important to take an interactive role in your “boob tubing”.  Passively sitting back and letting the information wash over you isn’t going to cut it.  Obviously television alone cannot replace formal training in grammar and vocabulary.  However, if used deliberately and thoughtfully, TV can be an effective way to enhance your proficiency in three particular areas: pronunciation, commonly used expressions/vocabulary and popular trends.

Italian All day, every day

Wake up and turn on your television set.  You don’t necessarily have to be watching it to get the benefit – the background noise of Italians in conversation is seeping in.  By bombarding your brain with the spoken word, you can train your “ear” to the musical rhythm and cadence of this beautiful language, and repeating words and phrases out loud helps with pronunciation.  It’s like gymnastics for your tongue – reminding you of the importance of enunciating each and every letter to avoid changing a word’s meaning entirely, i.e., penne (a kind of pasta) and pene (penis).  Otherwise, dialogue at the supermarket could get pretty interesting.

Are you listening to me?

Eavesdropping in public places – awkward.   Watching a talk show in your living room – a much more relaxing way to pick up idioms in context (and with the accompanying hand gestures).  Once I’d heard a phase used over and over, I would ask a friend its meaning and how to use it.  For example, “Secondo me” came up a lot on political talk shows.  I learned that it meant “in my opinion/in my view”.  Once it made sense to me in its proper context, I could begin using it with confidence in my own conversations.

Around the Water Cooler

You get a pretty good idea of the political climate of the country, its mores, values and attitudes with a healthy diet of current affairs programming.  Who and what are in fashion can easily be gleaned from entertainment news and nighttime talk shows.


CATEGORICALLY SPEAKING…Types of Shows that give you the most “bang for your buck”:

#1 – Trivial Pursuit (Trivia Shows)

Millionario is one of my favorites.  Gerry Scotti, (the Ryan Seacrest of Italy) hosts this country’s version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire”. The beauty of this show is that along with the questions posed to the contestant, you can read the question and possible answers on the screen. Are you a genius in English and Italian?

#2 -Games People Play (Game Shows)

La Routa della Fortuna is the Italian “Wheel of Fortune”Enrico Papi is clever and better looking than Pat Sajak, but the real fun is kooky Victoria Silvstedt, a former Swedish Playboy Playmate ( “Vanna White‘s” counterpart).  It turns out crossword puzzles are a lot easier in your native tongue.   This show is a surprising mixture of trash TV and educational programming rolled into one crazy format.  A wacky way to learn vocabulary!

#3 – Series, Seriously (Episodic Series)

There’s a plethora of serial dramas and sitcoms – many imported from America – that are broadcast weekly (Commissario Montablano, CSI, Law and Order, House, Friends, etc.).  I discovered that you can set most televisions to the closed captioning mode which allows you to watch and read the programs in Italian at the same time.  It really works!

Television Tower of Babel

It all comes down to one thing: communicating.  It seems television has become our modern day Tower of Babel that works to promote understanding by uniting people while acting as a sort of cultural equalizer. TV can make the world seem not just smaller, but downright miniscule.  So, stay tuned!
by Toni DeBella


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The letter from the Consolato Generale D’Italia a San Francisco arrived in the mail today. The words inside the envelope were a culmination of three long years of hard work and dogged determination: 31/08/11 Dear Ms. DeBella: “I am pleased to notify you that your Italian citizenship has been recognized and that your certificate(s) have been forwarded to the Italian municipality of CORLEONE (PA) for recording.”

Somehow I envisioned this auspicious occasion much differently. There were times when I wondered if this day would ever come. And if it did arrive, I imagined it would be filled with much fanfare, jumping up and down, and screaming. Instead it was a quiet moment. A solitary moment. A very personal moment. It was a time to reflect on what it took for me to get to this place: Patience, tenacity, belief, humor, and a clear intention. August 31, 2011 is the day I became a citizen of Italy.

Italian by Blood Jure sanguinis (“right of blood”) contrasts with jus soli (Latin: “right of soil”) in that citizenship is not determined by place of birth, but rather by having a parent (or decendent) who is a citizen of a nation. In Italy there’s no limit to the generations that can obtain citizenship via blood (except for specific constraints which did not apply to me). Furthermore, because the U.S. and Italy have a reciprocity agreement, one is allowed dual citizenship.

After tracking down my grandparents’ birth certificates (likely located in books archived in church basements of Corleone and Contessa Entellina), respectively, I gathered together some twenty other documents (i.e., birth, death, divorce) for both myself and members of my immediate family. Translations and Apostilles followed, along with a list of discrepancies and misspelled names (of which there were many). And don’t even get me started on the rabbit hole that is the U.S. Department of Homeland Security! This part  of the process took a little over a year to complete. Then there was the waiting period (one-and-a half years, to be exact) for an appointment to personally submit my application to the Italian Consulate.

The procedure was daunting, frustrating, and at times discouraging. When I felt like giving up, I thought about the finish line — life in Italy — which helped to spur me on. I suppose that if becoming a citizen of a country were easy, everyone would do it. You really have to want it!

The Gift

I Nonni DeBella, San Jose, California

Throughout these three years I’ve been fortunate to have the support and encouragement of friends and family, both in the U.S. and Italy. But it was my grandparents, Jake (Gioachino) DiBella and Emma (Ninfa) Pizzo, who deserve my utmost thanks and gratitude for without them none of this would be possible. In the late 1880s, they came to this country as young immigrants from Sicily. They married, worked hard, and raised a family of ten children. I wonder what they would have thought about their granddaughter one day returning to the land they left behind.

It appears that the DeBella family, in the not-too-distant future, is about to come full circle.

by Toni DeBella

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I have never been overly-superstitious and take great pride in my healthy cynicism.   I don’t throw salt over my shoulder or avoid black cats.  As a muralist, I walk under ladders frequently and don’t believe I have ever fallen victim to the evil eye.  Thinking or saying something out loud does not make it come true.  If it did, I’d be a size 6, rich and living in a palazzo in Orvieto.  But I digress.

My grandmother was normally a very serious and solemn woman.  One day a year she would transform into a madwoman, wielding a broom and running in circles shouting and screaming like a banshee in an effort to ward off the evil spirits who had apparently taken up residence in our cellar.  It was spring cleaning run amok.  I don’t know much about the tradition that had this small, fragile and shy lady fearlessly take on a bunch of ghosts in the basement of our house.  I wonder if it was folklore passed down from her childhood in Contessa Entellina, a small Sicilian town 80km from Palermo.  I did a little research and found quite a few references to sweeping away evil spirits with a broom — a common practice especially among southern Italians, but was unable to find any mention of the “screaming and running around” part.  Perhaps that was my grandmother’s own personal stamp on the custom.

Superstitious Minds

A superstition is a belief in something that has no rational foundation in science and is most often based on the prevailing religion or culture that contains these otherworldly beliefs.  The word comes from the classical Latin superstitio, meaning “a standing over [in amazement]”.  Greek and Roman pagans were believed to have scorned men who displayed a fear of the gods and thus, the behavior came to be referred to as superstition. This could explain why Greeks and Italians are famously known for their mythology and have a common legend in the “evil eye” – Malocchio in Italian, Mati in Greek.


When I wrote earlier that I am not particularly superstitious, I wasn’t being completely honest with you.  The fact is that in the last few years I have come to believe a certain necklace I own has developed supernatural powers that, if worn daily, will someday bring me good luck.

It started out as a simple chain with a silver bar hanging from it.  One afternoon while in St. Peter’s Square I looked down to see something glittering in the sun.  I removed it from between the cobblestones to discover it was a tiny medallion of the Madonna.  Convinced this was an omen, I instinctively hung it onto my necklace.  A birthday present of a charm with the word “Friend” engraved on it followed — then a Chinese coin and a 4-leaf clover.  On one arrival in Rome I wrote the message to my friend Angelo, “Io sono in Italia…mi sento come una farfalla” (I am in Italy…I feel like a butterfly).  When he presented me with the gift of a tiny crystal butterfly dangling from a pink heart of course I had to add it to my collection.  This “chain of fortune” is getting rather heavy!

Out of the 365 days in a year, I probably wear the necklace 360 of them.  The other 5 days I just don’t feel quite right without it.  Could I have inherited from Grandma this propensity to make weak associations of cause and effect where there are none?  What can I say? I don’t like tempting fate.  Writer Judith Viorst said it very well: “Superstition is foolish, childish, primitive and irrational — but how much does it cost you to knock on wood?”
by Toni DeBella

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A picture is a poem without words.” -Horace

A revolution has been brewing for almost a decade on the Piazza Navona, one of the most famous and historic squares in Europe. Millions arrive to see Bernini’s magnificent Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (The Fountain of 4 Rivers) and to stroll along the road, hoping to acquire an original picture of a Roman scene painted and signed by the artist in front of them. Now the tensions are high: real artist are pitted against counterfeit ones.

Art is not a thing, it is a way.”- Elbert Hubbard

I can’t intelligently speak to the political or economic ramifications of the most recent decree approved by the City of Rome to regulate painters and street artists on the piazza.  What I can say with certainty is that I believe society is obligated to defend those among us who have the ability to suspend reality and, with a brush in hand, transfer it onto a canvas to make a thing more beautiful – to make l’arte. George Bernard Shaw said it best when he wrote,“Without art, the crudeness of reality would make the world unbearable.”

Performance Artist

In 2005, the Mayor and Council approved a ban prohibiting any type of commercial activity in the center of Piazza Navona. It was declared that permits would no longer be issued to paint in the city. Then came a resolution to govern the artistic profession, but nothing came of it. Nearly 6 years later the absence of rules means anyone (real artists and fakers) can enter and do what they want. The result has been a dilution of creativity and a strengthening of chaos and clutter. The legitimate are at a disadvantage to the counterfeiters who defraud tourists by peddling reproductions passed-off as originals. But why should the artists, some of whom have been on the Piazza since the 1960s, pay the price for the City’s failure to control those who bring urban decay to this beautiful place? Why should the people who have promoted all that is good about the Eternal City and have contributed to its charm and mystique now be threatened with displacement? Leonardo is turning in his grave!

No heirloom of humankind captures the past as do art and language.” – Theodore Bikel

What is at stake on the Piazza Navona is the keepsake of a city. Art has defined Italy since the renaissance and just like the oxygen in our atmosphere, civilization and Rome need it to survive.

Photographs by Toni DeBella and Massimilliano Balletti

Paintings by Massimilliano Balletti

by Toni DeBella

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The opinions expressed herein are those of the author (me) and may not reflect the opinions of the reader (you). There is absolutely no assurance that any statement contained in this article is true, correct or reliable. The opinions are based solely on observation and personal experience.  The foregoing is presented from the point of view of the author (me).  …”usate il sale in zucca” (an idiom loosely translated means “take it with a grain of salt”).***

The Grass is Always Greener

2012-04-25 13.54.32I want to begin by saying that I’ve done it, you’ve done it, we’ve all done it at one time or another. We really must stop doing it: expatriates sitting around moaning and groaning about how things function (or don’t function) in Italy.  First of all, can you imagine how we must sound to Italians within ear-shot of our tasteless and unflattering belly-aching? Openly criticizing the country and people who have welcomed us into their “home” is not only impolite, it’s incredibly tacky. We made a choice to leave our native land and relocate to another, did our research and knew what to expect when we took the leap.

An analogy to illustrate my point: George Clooney has infamously left a long line of beautiful starlets in his wake. Elisabetta Canalis is out and now you are George’s new girlfriend. He is so charming, handsome, rich and powerful. You attend red carpet events on his arm in Versace, appear on the cover of People magazine and spend long weekends on Lake Como with “Brangelina”. Of course he eventually dumps you and deep-down inside you’re not surprised – this is who he is and what he does. Expats in Italy…we knew what we were getting into – Italia is who she is and what she does – let’s lighten up and stop complaining already!

We Aren’t in Kansas Anymore

It’s an exercise in futility to compare our homeland to Italy.  Italy is different – isn’t that one of the reasons we decided to pack up and move in the first place? Heinz ketchup, Mexican food, peanut butter – the list of things from home that you can’t get in Italy is as long as my arm (and vice versa, I might add).  I’m guilty, I admit it.  I’ve been a “mule” for friends – bringing  back suitcases full of taco seasoning, ranch dressing, vanilla extract and ibuprofen. Comforts from home are really lovely to have, nevertheless we should try to be more adaptable and use the products available …conform, fit in, go native!

Talking Points

This one is so obvious, I shouldn’t have to say it: speak Italian. When we live abroad of course we gravitate towards a crowd with a common culture and background. I try not to use my English-speaking friends as a crutch to avoid Italian proficiency because I know that I can never, ever form lasting and deep relationships with Italians if I don’t speak their language.  Unfortunately there is only one way to accomplish this…open our mouths and talk.  My Italian is substandard to say the least and I make errors constantly.  I once told a man that my grandfather was born in “coglione” (which means “testicles”).  We both laughed until we cried.  May I recommend the “Italian by Osmosis” system?  Watch weird Italian television, read the local newspaper, listen to pop music on the car radio, try telling a joke in Italian and above all, be willing to feel awkward and sound stupid.  Italians are very gracious and will appreciate the effort.

Home is Where the Heart Is

Photo by W. Klein

It seems to me that life is full of wonderful opportunities to evolve and expand our horizons.  Living abroad is something that takes a certain kind of daring individual with lots of resilience and an open heart.  Make fun of yourself and the absurdity of it all.  Relax, enjoy, grin and bear it and REJOICE…you live in Italy for God’s sake!

***No actual expatriates were harmed in the writing of this article.

by Toni DeBella

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