Many years ago in my youth, I was a management consultant and worked in Italy at a multi-national beverage company for a few months.
I lived half an hour’s walk from the city centre in a serviced apartment with a pizzeria, bakery and gelateria across the road. I wasn’t keen on the rock hard bread they seem to like there, but the pizza and the pasta was amazing – I seriously still drool when I think about those meals. And don’t get me started on the gelateria’s spectacular seasonal gelato flavours or the fact that I shipped back 16 pairs of shoes… that’s a story for another time.
Anyway, after the first week of reveling in their glorious restaurants and gelato, I craved simpler meals back in my apartment. Not accustomed to supermarkets even back at home (I was living at home and my mum did all the cooking and shopping), I found the local Italian supermarket super confusing. So in the second week, my meals alternated between pizza from the pizzeria and canned tuna (because tuna in cans is easily recognizable and the canned tuna aisle was close the supermarket entrance) and pasta.
Another week went by and I craved some steak or chicken. I braved the supermarket again, but couldn’t find the meat section and I was too shy to ask because I couldn’t speak Italian. I’m sure the security cameras would have been following me – that small Asian woman is back again, walking up and down the aisles again, looking up and down and around again and then finally just paying for a tin of tuna. Again.
The local staff at work helped me with my Italian language skills during lunch later that week, emphasizing the importance of pronunciation. I marched into the supermarket that same afternoon and walked boldly up to a staff member at the back of the shop, brimming with my newly acquired confidence in the Italian language. Well, for buying meat anyway.
Scusi, car-ne? I said triumphantly.
He looked at me alarmed. No, no he said nervously.
Um… Car-ne? CAR-NE? (because of course, if you speak louder, they’ll be able to fully understand what you’re trying to say).
No, no! he repeated, shaking his head vigorously and looking somewhat distressed.
Determined, I repeated Car-ne! Car-ne! and gestured a little desperately at the shelves (avoiding the canned tuna aisle) and doing eating movements with my hands.
He seemed to grow a little frantic No, no, no! And then he paused. No bow bow. Another pause. Then he put his hands in front of him and impersonated a dog. No bow bow.
Ohhh… cue the lightbulb please.
Um… moo moo? Baa baa? Um… oink oink?
Ah! He looked relieved. Card-ne! si! card-ne!
Wasn’t that what I had just said? Sort of?
Looking excited, he took me over to the refrigerated (why didn’t I think of that?) section and happily pointed to the lamb chops and steaks nicely packaged up, with minuscule pictures of the relevant protein on the front.
The next day, the local staff at work pointed out to me the difference in pronunciation between meat and dog. They also found it exceedingly amusing, while my Australian colleagues benefited from my gallant effort. But at least I got to have my steak and eat it.