Foreigners who learn Italian often want to get up to speed on vitriolic cuss words or smooth sweet nothings. Swearing like a Turk (as they say) came easy to me, but greetings were tough to get right.
In the morning, you say “buon giorno,” but in Florence, where I learned Italian, they start kicking in with good afternoon/evening at around noon. And although saying “sera” to someone at 1 p.m. will get you raised eyebrows in most other parts of Italy, the habit has stuck with me.
Then there’s the age and status component: just who can you toss a very casual “ciao” at and who not? It’s a salutation minefield, and when you can’t get the first words out with any finesse, the conversation goes downhill faster than a Fiat with faulty brakes.
And so when I moved to Milan, it was with great pleasure that “salve” came into my life. It’s the closest thing Italian has to a generic, all-purpose “hello,” you can pretty much say it to any one, any time of day and in any situation.
Pronounced “sal-vay,” the word also means “safe” as in “safe and sound” (sano e salvo) and that’s how it made me feel: secure. It’s not a personal greeting, you wouldn’t want to use it to someone you really know and chat with, so it’s perfect for nodding acquaintances. Like all-black outfits, it’s much more frequently found in Northern Italy, but works well in the rest of the peninsula.
Just how small my “salve” circle was became apparent one recent rainy morning when a corner of my kitchen started to look like a Rorschach test from a persistent leak. The landlord said I needed to the key to a lock for the roof before we could make an appointment to get it fixed.
I didn’t have it and the two downstairs neighbors I’m friendly with didn’t either. So who to ask? Not the recycling fascist, for sure. I couldn’t stand another lecture on removing the plastic windows from paper envelopes. There’s a woman known as “wife-of-the-restaurant-owner” (why don’t I know her name?), sometimes encountered around the bike rack, but wasn’t sure what kind of reaction I’d get if I knocked on her door.
The rest of the palazzo residents I wasn’t sure I’d recognize if I saw them at the supermarket around the corner. Stuck in etiquette limbo, I sat on the project (and interpreted the changing pattern of the stain) for about a week. Then I checked out the lock and found someone had forgot to close it, so the immediate problem was solved.
But it got me thinking: just how many people do I see frequently (at the robo-cop gym, the supermarket, the park) that I might say hello to? Without being creepy or practicing some sort of massive group come-on? And how many more might I chat to, if I had a go?
Thought I’m not exactly a shrinking violet — and grew up with a dad who has never met anyone at a flea market, Mexican restaurant or church social that he didn’t like — speaking a foreign language learned as an adult has made me shy and tentative.
Because if you open up your mouth to a stranger and the weather comment is grammatically faulty or imperfectly accented, people look at you funny. And tend to follow up with an unfriendly, “Where are YOU from?” that often sounds more like, “Hark! Who goes there?”
So you either shut up (previous strategy) or not care if it doesn’t come out right (new strategy).
Predictably, the experiment got me into a few cringe-worthy scrapes. Confident I remembered the name of a woman in yoga class, I kept repeating her wrong name in conversation, only to realize later, when the instructor corrected her by name, that all women of a certain age with slightly bouffy wheat-colored short hair look alike to me. Or the supermarket checkout girl, thrown the offhand (but sincere) compliment on her poker-straight, black hair only to respond with an eye roll, “When have you ever seen my hair differently? I mean, do I know you?” Ouch.
The security guard outside the bank that I walk past every day on my way to the newsstand still watches silently with suspicion and crossed arms, refusing to exchange my greetings, but the elderly doorman at the palazzo next to the bank now gives me a real smile and a “salve” every single morning, which feels like an accomplishment. Another neighbor invited me for dinner and Italian X-factor (addictive!), and it turned out his wife had invited an old friend of mine over, too. (Note to self: Milan is a lot smaller than it looks. Behave accordingly).
As a bonus, there’s been lots of good information (Benetton is the go-to place for cute, inexpensive bikinis, AC Milan has had better seasons, RyanAir is having a one-euro sale if you book now) and while the results are unpredictable, you can triple-fold your circle of acquaintances in about six weeks, even in a big city, if you start your local equivalent of “salvay-ing” today.
If you try it, let me know what happens.